Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) says it is terminating its licensing agreement with TikTok, according to correspondence and an open letter issued by the company and its parent, UMG. As the largest music publisher in the world, the pullout could have very serious repercussions for TikTok — and it’s unclear if a deal can be reached.
In a letter sent to signed songwriters and artists on Thursday evening (January 30th), UMPG says the terms of its relationship are set by a contract which expires on January 31, 2024. That means that barring a last-minute agreement, Universal Music Publishing Group will start removing rights to its catalog on the massive TikTok platform. A considerable number of recordings tied to UMPG-owned copyrights will also be impacted.
“We are reaching out to trusted and valued partners throughout the globe to inform you that, despite our good faith efforts over the last several months, we are at an impasse in reaching a licensing agreement with TikTok and our current agreement ends tomorrow,” UMPG stated in its correspondence to member songwriters, composers, sub-publishers, and other affiliated parties.
“In our contract renewal discussions, we have been pressing them on three critical issues—appropriate compensation for our artists and songwriters, protecting human artists from the harmful effects of AI, and online safety for TikTok’s users,” UMPG continued.
“With respect to the issue of artist and songwriter compensation, TikTok proposed paying our artists and songwriters at a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms play,” the letter continues. “Today, as an indication of how little TikTok compensates artists and songwriters, despite its massive and growing user base, rapidly rising advertising revenues and increasing reliance on music-based content, TikTok accounts for only about 1% of our total revenue.”
UMPG says TikTok is trying to build a music-based business without paying fair value for its music. But it also delved into concerns expressed about the rapid deployment of AI and scraping data for large-language models to process and parse.
“TikTok is allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings, as well as developing tools to enable, promote, and encourage AI music creation on the platform itself—and then demanding a contractual right which would allow this content to massively dilute the royalty pool for human artists,” UMPG says. “[This] move is nothing short of sponsoring artist replacement by AI.”
The music publisher also highlights the issue it has with TikTok’s ability to moderate content on its platform. It says TikTok has offered “no meaningful solutions” to the rising tide of “content adjaency issues” or content appearing next to hate speech, bigotry, bullying, and harassment.
“The only means available to seek the removal of infringing or problematic content (such as pornographic deepfakes of artists) is through the monumentally cumbersome and inefficient process which equates to the digital equivalent of Whack-a-Mole.”
Currently, the parties seem far apart — and hostile towards one another. But this looks like a broader dispute involving mega-label parent Universal Music Group.
“As our negotiations continued, TikTok attempted to bully us into accepting a deal worth less than the previous deal, far less than fair market value and not reflective of their exponential growth,” UMPG letter continues. “How did it try to intimidate us? By selectively removing the music of certain of our developing artists, while keeping on the platform our audience-driving global stars.”
“TikTok’s tactics are obvious: use its platform power to hurt vulnerable artists and try to intimidate us into conceding to a bad deal that undervalues music and shortchanges artists and songwriters as well as their fans.”
“We will never do that.”
You can read the full open letter UMPG provided to its artists and songwriters.