Music

Taylor, the Disruptor: The Star’s Return to TikTok Shows Her Power

On Jan. 30, the day before Universal Music’s deal with TikTok lapsed, the company announced in an open letter that “we must call time out on TikTok,” for not paying rightsholders and creators enough. Universal immediately began removing its recordings from the platform — then, by the end of February, took down every composition to which it had some rights. Essentially, Universal went to war for the value of music, to benefit not only it and its artists and songwriters, it said, but the entire industry. And although the two other major labels declined to comment at the time, Primary Wave, Downtown and Hipgnosis publicly backed Universal, and in late March Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer told the Financial Times that he did not rule out taking the same action as Universal.

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Not Taylor Swift, though.

By April 11, a little over a week before the release of Swift’s new album —The Tortured Poets Department, which comes out April 19 — songs from Swift’s albums to which she owns the rights were available on TikTok. Which made for an uncomfortable conversation, you’d have to imagine — and that’s about all you can do, because neither Universal nor Swift’s representative would comment and TikTok could not be reached for comment.

It seems that Swift’s contract with Universal allows her to either license the recordings she owns herself or somehow opt out of label licensing policies, which is an unusual amount of independence. Usually acts with that kind of leverage choose to leave their music off of new services — the Beatles waiting to offer their music on the iTunes Store is the classic example — or strike some kind of exclusive deal, like Garth Brooks did with Amazon Music. It’s hard to think of another example where a label announced it was going one way and its biggest artist — although she hasn’t said anything about her decision — went another.

That’s a big deal. Eventually, Universal’s other megastars — think Morgan Wallen, Drake, or The Weeknd — might want that same freedom or start to think about using whatever freedom they already have. Some artists have more power than others, though: Swift’s contract is generally thought to be more like a distribution deal, where she owns her new recordings, including the Taylor’s Versions of her old albums, but licenses them to Universal. Also, with 18.9 million album consumption units in 2023, more than some divisions of major labels, she has more market power than any other artist.

Given TikTok’s relatively low payouts, many executives assume that Swift appreciates the platform’s promotional value, even though she doesn’t exactly need it — Tortured Poets would almost certainly be the biggest album of the year either way. There’s also speculation that she wants to reach out to younger fans with shorter attention spans.

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This reasoning seems to go against Swift’s reputation for sticking up for the value of music more broadly, as she did when she declined to release her 1989 album on Spotify, pushed Apple Music to pay rightsholders for plays during the service’s free trial period and insisted that Universal pay artists their share of the proceeds from its Spotify stock sales whether their deals had recouped or not. “This is not about me,” she wrote about the Apple situation at the time, but rather about emerging artists. What happens to them now? It has even been suggested that Swift essentially crossed a picket line of sorts.

That’s a bit much. The concept of a picket line implies a situation in which people who are paid on a scale are bargaining collectively, and that’s not the case here. And it’s not Swift’s responsibility to fight for the overall health of the music business — she’s an artist and she’s already done far more than most. For that matter, there’s more to creators’ rights than the size of a check. If you think about the way Swift re-recorded her old albums, she may place as much value on control — not only how much she makes on an album, but who owns it, how they present it, and where and under what circumstances it can be heard. I’m not sure whether her decision about making her music available on TikTok is the right one, but I am completely positive that it’s not mine to make.

This is all based on the assumption that Swift’s agreement with TikTok is vaguely similar to the one labels have, but that may not be the case. If you think about Swift’s instinct for navigating the music business, her deal could be much better — perhaps with an advance or guaranteed minimum or other kinds of considerations. (Just to be clear, I have no idea.) If you were, or managed, an artist with that kind of market share, what would you ask for? And if you worked for TikTok, facing political pressure in the U.S., as well as a difficult negotiation with the biggest music company in the world, how much would you be willing to offer?

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In the modern media business, market share doesn’t just create efficiency — it also offers important negotiating leverage, especially with technology companies that operate on a global scale. That’s why music and film companies are buying rivals, getting deeper into the distribution business, and pursuing growth so aggressively in the first place. Swift may be the only artist there is who can offer real scale by herself, built on recordings she owns herself, so labels don’t need to worry about this becoming a trend. But whatever Swift’s decision means for the industry at large, it seems somewhat inevitable that she would pursue, and at some point use, the power her market share gives her — just as the major labels do.

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