Hits by Ariana Grande, Beyonce & More Remain on TikTok Despite UMG Ban — And Songwriters Feel It Most

When Ariana Grande released her latest album eternal sunshine, one of its most beloved tracks, “the boy is mine,” became an instant dance trend on TikTok. At any other moment, a viral trend around a major pop star’s new song would seem obvious, even normal. But amidst the licensing feud between TikTok and Grande’s record label Universal Music Group, it’s a surprise to find the song on TikTok at all.


Grande’s music is not alone in sticking around on the app far past the expiration of UMG’s last license, which lapsed at the end of January. Thanks to clever tactics by fans, artists and their teams, some notable UMG-affiliated songs have been able to effectively skirt the company’s TikTok boycott. While it helps promote these songs individually, trying to get around the ban also has a knock-on effect for songwriters — and supplies UMG hits to TikTok without the app paying a cent.

An Olivia Rodrigo fan under the username LouLiv recently uploaded Rodrigo’s new single “so american” to TikTok as an “original sound,” and Rodrigo herself used the sound in a few recent TikToks, helping boost the song’s visibility. Grande’s fans have also been creating various versions of “the boy is mine” on TikTok, which has helped spread the song on the app, as well as other tracks from eternal sunshine.

These original sounds often manipulate the official recording, changing the speed, pitch and/or title of the song to help them slip past TikTok’s detection technology, which is used to automatically catch songs, like UMG’s, that are not licensed to be on the app. A source close to the matter says that TikTok’s detection technology combs for metadata provided by UMG and UMPG and then removes the content. But the remaining original sounds that don’t get automatically wiped from TikTok are so widespread that it can sometimes feel like UMG never left the app at all.

The songs are not hard to find, either. The most popular sound for Rodrigo’s “so american,” for example, is straightforwardly titled “so american” and already has 33,400 videos created with the song to date. The most-used original audio for “the boy is mine” was recently removed after weeks on TikTok, a sign that UMG is issuing takedowns for some original sounds using their catalog. But multiple other original audios for the song remain, including “the boy is mine” by star and “the boy is mine sped up” by satvrn, amounting to over 100,000 videos made to original sounds of the song on TikTok and counting.


For songwriters, there are negative consequences. In two separate text and email chains reviewed by Billboard, non-UMG recording artists that have worked on recent or upcoming releases with UMPG songwriters have asked the track’s songwriters to withhold information about who wrote the song at the time of a track’s release to try to skirt the UMG TikTok ban — and the songwriters have agreed.

Though the two sources who provided correspondence to Billboard wished to remain anonymous to protect their clients, Lucas Keller, founder/CEO of Milk & Honey and manager to a number of songwriters and producers, confirmed that this is happening to songwriters. “Sometimes there’s a song coming out and there’s four writers, and one of them is UMPG, and someone steps forward and says, ‘Hey, can you not get in the way of this one? Can we register this in like three months?’” Keller says. “Then the song can be used on TikTok. It’s an interesting dark corner of the business that’s emerged.”

It is common for tracks to be released without submitting the proper publishing “splits,” meaning the names of the writers and what the percentage of ownership each holds, given these negotiations can be lengthy and sometimes contentious. But in the cases Keller and the other two sources discussed with Billboard, the songs’ publishing splits were ready to go and could have been submitted on time. The only reason they weren’t was to allow the artist to promote it on TikTok.

Michelle Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Songwriters of North America (SONA), says these asks by artists put songwriters in a bad position. “Songwriters are the least equipped to negotiate, the lowest on the food chain in these discussions,” Lewis says. She worries songwriters don’t feel like they have the ability to push back on these asks if they want to. Meanwhile, leaving out this key information could threaten the songwriters’ ability to get paid royalties from streaming services on time if the parties hold out longer than a few months.


Lewis, Keller and three artist managers who wished to remain anonymous, all tell Billboard that some artists are also “thinking twice” about inviting UMPG writers to sessions. “I have also heard about Universal writers not being invited to camps,” Lewis says; while it’s unclear how often this is occurring, Keller says it “is absolutely happening.” Adds Lewis, “It’s so uncool. If you’re not including Universal writers, you’re basically crossing the picket line. You’re weakening [UMG’s position].”

A UMPG spokesperson declined to comment on its songwriters facing these specific effects from the TikTok feud, but pointed to its letter to songwriters on Feb. 29, which read in part, “We understand the disruption is difficult for some of you and your careers, and we are sensitive to how this may affect you.”

Some official recordings with UMPG writers, like “Texas Hold Em” by Beyonce, who is affiliated with Sony’s Columbia Records, still remain on TikTok for unknown reasons. That song, which is currently ranked at No. 5 on Billboard’s TikTok Viral 50, was co-written by UMPG’s Raphael Saadiq, as were other songs on Beyonce’s new album Cowboy Carter that remain on the platform.

“Texas Hold Em” and some other tracks by Beyonce have a large number of songwriters — which is one major reason why publishing information is often submitted late — so it is possible that TikTok hasn’t removed the track because it doesn’t have verification that it is in any way affiliated with UMPG. Strangely, however, this track was taken down from TikTok briefly and then reappeared days later. When asked why “Texas Hold Em” was available on TikTok despite its clear ties to UMPG, neither TikTok nor UMPG responded to Billboard’s requests for comment.


Regardless of how these songs avoided an automatic removal from TikTok, UMG could have requested that these popular tracks and original sounds be taken down by now. Rights holders are able to manually request takedowns of content on TikTok that they believe infringe on their copyrights, like the original sounds for Grande and Rodrigo and songs like “Texas Hold Em,” and TikTok is required to remove them to remain in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

But tracking down all infringing content and requesting takedowns, especially for a catalog of millions like UMG’s, is known to be a tedious task. As UMG put it in its original letter to artists and songwriters, it is “monumentally cumbersome” and “the digital equivalent of ‘Whack-A-Mole.’” Michael Nash, the company’s executive vp of digital strategy, also added on an earnings call on Feb. 28 that the company had sent requests to “effectuate muting of millions of videos every day.” However, it is possible to get infringing tracks removed if that is the rights holders’ wish.

“This is not a united front,” Lewis says. “It feels indicative of our industry overall. We can never get along, and the individual creator is the one who gets hurt… It’s totally not fair for songwriters, but this is all beneath the top line concern, which is that TikTok completely underpays, undervalues songwriters. That’s number one. They’re the ones who started this.”

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