Music

UMG’s TikTok Standoff Affects Over 60% of the Most Popular Songs

The breakdown in licensing talks between Universal Music Group (UMG) and TikTok affects far more than Universal recording artists and songwriters.  

Every now and then, a music company pulls its recorded music catalog, publishing catalog or both from a digital service provider after licensing talks break down — Warner Music Group did this with YouTube in 2008, for example. It happened again starting Feb. 1 when UMG started pulling its recordings from TikTok after the two companies couldn’t come to an agreement on a new licensing deal.  

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The licensing breakdown first affected artists signed to UMG record labels. Take the Q4 Hot 100, a list of the top 100 tracks in the fourth quarter. UMG’s various record labels — including Republic Records and Interscope Records — released 41 of the 100 tracks, among them Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer,” Doja Cat’s “Paint the Town Red” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”  

On Tuesday (Feb. 27), TikTok began removing compositions part-owned by Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG). On the publishing side, UMG has an interest in 40 of the Q4 2023 Hot 100 tracks, such as SZA’s “Snooze” (a track released by Sony’s RCA Records), Jack Harlow’s “Lovin on Me” (a track released by Warner Music Group’s Atlantic Records) and Usher’s “Good Good” (a track released by gamma, an indie newcomer).  

Since every recording involves two copyrights — one for the master recording, one for the composition — the damage of UMG’s decision to pull its repertoire from TikTok is larger yet. Counting both recorded music and music publishing, UMG has an ownership interest in 61 of the Q4 2023 Hot 100 tracks. Twenty of those 61 tracks have a UMG publishing interest but were not released by a UMG-owned record label. Another 20 of those tracks have a UMG publishing interest and were released by a UMG record label. UMG does not have a publishing interest in the remaining 21 of those tracks that were released by a UMG record label.  

That’s far larger than UMG’s market share in either recorded music or publishing. UMG had a 39.4% share of U.S. recorded music by distribution in 2023 (a 29.4% share by ownership) and a 15.8% publisher’s market share of the Hot 100 in the fourth quarter of 2023.

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Ownership interest, not market share, gets to the true impact of the UMG-TikTok impasse. Today’s popular songs have multiple co-writers, each of whom might have a different music publisher. When a track includes a sample or interpolation of another composition, those works’ songwriters get credits on the new work, too. The 41 tracks on the Hot 100 in which UMG has a publishing interest have an average of 5.5 songwriters. Eight of those 41 tracks had 8 or more co-writers; four of them had 10 or more co-writers. Of the 41 tracks with UMG ownership interest, only Irving Berlin’s 83-year-old “White Christmas” was written by one person. 

The more songwriters who are on a single track, the higher the odds that any one music publisher can remove a track during a licensing dispute. An example of this complexity is “What It Is (Block Boy)” by Doechii featuring Kodak Black, released by UMG-owned Capitol Records (the track entered the Hot 100 in May thanks to success on TikTok). The recording includes a sample of TLC’s 1999 hit “No Scrubs” and interpolates a hook from “Some Cut” by Lil Scrappy and Trillville, which reached No. 15 on the Hot 100 in 2005. “What It Is (Block Boy)” has 16 co-writers, including the 4 co-writers of “No Scrubs” and 6 co-writers of “Some Cut.”  

A wide swatch of the music publishing business is represented in “What It Is (Block Boy).” The Music Licensing Collective’s public database lists 7 different publishers attached to the composition: UMPG, Sony/ATV, Warner Chappell Music, Disney, BMG, Concord and Reservoir Media. UMPG’s 3% collection share is the smallest of the seven publishers.  

To be sure, the Hot 100 from the fourth quarter of 2023 isn’t a perfect reflection of what is currently most popular — or would be popular if not for the licensing impasse — at TikTok. The TikTok Billboard 50 shows the platform’s most popular music is a mix of Hot 100 staples (“Lovin On Me”) and indie music that otherwise wouldn’t be seen on a Billboard chart (Aphex Twin’s “QKThr”).  

This headline-grabbing development isn’t a story of one music company against one tech company; labels and publishers that renewed their licensing deals with TikTok have unwillingly joined UMG’s battle with the platform. UMG’s inability to reach a deal with TikTok impacts every major label group and likely touches every music publisher of note.

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