Universal’s concerns are real, and reflect some of the most urgent challenges in the music business today: artists’ need to make a decent living, the parameters of modern licensing contracts, the role of artificial intelligence. And in recent years music companies have begun to adjust to the reality that music fans’ attention is not solely focused on jukebox-type streaming outlets like Spotify or Apple Music, but also on an array of social platforms, like TikTok, where music may be just one attraction.
For TikTok, as with any social media company, the issue may involve how much leverage it is willing to relinquish to any single content partner. As important as music is on TikTok — in the past the company has said “music is at the heart of the TikTok experience” — it does not represent the entirety of the experience on the app; as any TikTok user knows, a song could simply be the audio wallpaper for a makeup tutorial or a plumbing how-to guide.
How might this affect musicians?
This is a key consideration for Universal, which says it is pursuing a better deal for its acts. At the same time, the longer the dispute drags on, the more it may hurt artists, at least in the short term. TikTok is a vital promotional outlet, and a generation of young fans now rely on the app to discover music, old and new.
Some of the most vital moments in music in recent years happened on TikTok, from the explosion of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” to the revival of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” For many artists today, being absent from TikTok would be like Madonna having a video disappear from MTV in the 1980s.
At the same time, though, artists are keenly aware of the need to secure better deals for their music, and of the low rates they face across the streaming landscape. Talk to an artist for two minutes about the business, and they will tell you they should make more money from streaming. They just do not want to sacrifice promotion, or their connection to fans, in the process.
What happens now?
We wait to see who blinks.
Universal’s roster of stars gives it leverage, and losing access to a library of thousands of the world’s music popular songs is not good for TikTok. Apps with a music component rely on their licensing arrangements with entertainment companies, and users expect to have a broad selection.