Music

Taylor Swift Is Back on TikTok. Can Other Artists Do the Same?

When licensing negotiations between TikTok and the Universal Music Group collapsed at the end of January, many official recordings from UMG artists vanished from the platform. Michael Nash, UMG’s chief digital officer and executive vp, told financial analysts in February that the company has been “providing notices to effectuate the muting of millions of videos every day for the last two weeks.” Yet a number of songs connected to UMG — or its publishing wing, Universal Music Publishing Group — remain available on TikTok anyway.

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Some are user uploads, which might theoretically be harder to find and take down or mute. Others are official tracks, including recent releases from prominent stars and fast-moving viral hits. And much of Taylor Swift‘s catalog returned to TikTok on Thursday (April 11), raising the question of how other artists may be able to find workarounds while the licensing dispute continues.

One possible reason that some songs are staying on TikTok: Several artist lawyers tell Billboard they are devising contractual carve outs to allow their clients to keep their music on the platform. Others note that even though they haven’t added these clauses into recording agreements yet, it has become a topic of conversation with their clients.

“Some labels are allowing some of their artists to exclude newly-created music from the grant of rights until the label has a deal in place” with TikTok, says David Fritz, founding partner at Boyarski Fritz. “Because the issue is so new, we are developing on the fly to meet the needs of talent — songwriters and artists — that want their music on TikTok. This is an issue, and workaround, that came about solely as a result of UMG taking down its catalog from TikTok.”

Reps for UMG and TikTok declined to comment.

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Some artists have invested years of their life building a following on TikTok. (Predecessor Musical.ly was acquired by Bytedance in 2017 and then re-launched in the U.S. as TikTok the year after.) For more than two months now, they’ve been unable to share official recordings with those fans on the platform — the same fans that may have earned them their major label deal in the first place.

Some artists are concerned about this,” says Josh Binder, founding partner at Rothenberg, Mohr, Binder LLP. “They don’t want to be uncompetitive, unable to use TikTok to muster up an audience.”

“TikTok is mostly used as a new music discovery tool — discover a clip on TikTok, listen to it on a DSP,” Fritz adds. “So, those who are trying to get their music discovered are the most concerned” about being unable to promote new songs on the app.

In 2022, MIDiA Research found that TikTok was the second-biggest driver of music discovery for Gen Z, after YouTube. In recent months, TikTok popularity has helped little-known acts like Dasha, Good Neighbours and the Red Clay Strays explode at streaming services — leading to major label deals — and contributed to breakout hits for Djo, Flo Milli and Benson Boone, among others.

UMG pushed back against the idea that TikTok has a lock on discovery during its most recent earnings call. Chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge told financial analysts that TikTok was “not a material part of the multidisciplinary jigsaw where we promote and market our music globally.” And Boyd Muir, UMG’s CFO and executive vp, said that UMG would “focus on accelerating [its] partnerships” with other social media platforms, including Meta, Snap and YouTube, to provide alternative promotional avenues for its artists.

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But the job of an artist lawyer — a good one, at least — is to help their client get what they want. Labels typically aim to control as many rights as they can, for as long as they can. In the modern music business, artists have more ability to push back; because they can generate momentum on their own, without a record company’s help, more aspects of a record deal are negotiable. “You can cherry pick what you want to be in your contract to some degree,” Scott Booker, the longtime manager of The Flaming Lips, recently told Billboard.

As with any negotiation, artists’ ability to get their preferred terms comes down to their leverage — for stars especially, there are few rules that can’t be bent — and the skill of the lawyers involved. “If you successfully reserve the right to license to TikTok directly in your contract with UMG, you would be able to do so directly or via a third-party service,” says Leon Morabia, a partner at Mark Music & Media Law. “It would be a difficult point to win in a deal, but it is contractually feasible.”

Josh Love, partner at Reed Smith, says he has been able to get “a carve-out” in the past that allowed an artist “to do a direct license with a DSP” — a digital service provider like TikTok or another social media or streaming service — “if the label or distributor is ever not licensed with that DSP, and [the artist] wants to remain on the platform.” This is meant to act as interim coverage for an artist; if the label or distributor were to form a new licensing agreement, that would likely supersede that deal made between the artist and the DSP in the meantime.

Some clauses that are already in record deals could also be expanded by artist attorneys to ensure their clients’ music remains available on TikTok. “Release commitments,” for example, are put in place to “force the label to guarantee that a record will be released within certain months after delivery, so that the artist’s record doesn’t get ‘shelved’ with the artist stuck in the deal,” says Gandhar Savur, a music attorney.

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These clauses have become increasingly comprehensive, stretching “to cover commitments by the label over more specific aspects of the release — the exact countries in which the album will be distributed, formats that the album will be released in such as vinyl and digital, and even including specific major DSPs by name like Spotify and Apple Music.” After negotiations between UMG and TikTok unraveled, Savur continues, “it would be a natural response that artist attorneys will gradually start to require release commitments to cover all platforms generally, so that if a label is not licensed with a particular platform for any reason, the artist can deal with that platform directly.”

Savur believes that artists who are signed to labels which are distributed by UMG, rather than signed directly, probably have more latitude to try to deal with platforms like TikTok on their own. “Although I believe that what Universal is doing overall is a good thing for the industry, Universal-distributed labels might be more sympathetic to their artists’ desire to stay on TikTok, because the increased streaming and ticket sales which result from any tracks going viral on the platform can be a big win for the artist and label alike,” Savur says.

If the UMG-TikTok deadlock rolls on, Fritz says, “smart lawyers” with leverage will find “a workaround that enables their clients to continue to use the most popular discovery tool while the large-scale license gets worked out.”

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