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Universal Music Group to pull songs from TikTok in furious row over artist rates and AI

The world’s biggest music company is embroiled in a furious row with TikTok, meaning songs by pop titans including Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and The Beatles could all be wiped from the social media platform within the next 24 hours.

TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, allows users to upload short-form videos that are usually soundtracked by licensed music, sound effects or samples from films and TV shows.

On Wednesday (31 January) Universal Music Group published an unprecedented open letter – titled “Why We Must Call Time on TikTok” – accusing the site of attempting to “bully and intimidate” the company into accepting a deal that was “worth less” than the previous one and not reflective of TikTok’s “exponential growth”.

TikTok allegedly accounts for “only about one per cent” of UMG’s total revenue, which the music company said was evidence of “how little TikTok compensates artists and songwriters”.

UMG claimed that, during negotiations for a new licensing agreement, TikTok had proposed paying its artists and songwriters “a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay”.

It also criticised TikTok for supposedly allowing the platform to be “flooded” with AI-generated recordings, along with tools to enable users to create and promote AI music on the platform, then demanding a contractual right which it said would allow the content to “massively dilute” the royalty pool for human artists.

When negotiations stalled, TikTok allegedly began “selectively removing” the music of some of its developing artists while keeping its most popular, “audience-driving” stars.

L-R: Songs by Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, Drake and Ariana Grande could all be wiped from TikTok (Getty)
L-R: Songs by Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, Drake and Ariana Grande could all be wiped from TikTok (Getty)

“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,” UMG said in its statement.

The removal of the company’s catalogue would undoubtedly cause a huge stir among users on the platform. It currently holds the rights to global artists including Swift, The Beatles, Drake, The Weeknd, Bob Dylan, Justin Bieber, Coldplay, Ariana Grande, Kendrick Lamar and Elton John.

It also owns the rights to what is currently one of TikTok’s most popular songs: Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 hit, “Murder on the Dancefloor”, which is experiencing a resurgence thanks to its inclusion on the Saltburn soundtrack.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor in the music video for ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ (Sophie Ellis-Bextor / YouTube)
Sophie Ellis-Bextor in the music video for ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ (Sophie Ellis-Bextor / YouTube)

Hitting back at UMG, TikTok accused the company of putting “their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters”.

“It is sad and disappointing that Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters,” it said in a statement shared with The Independent.

“Despite Universal's false narrative and rhetoric, the fact is they have chosen to walk away from the powerful support of a platform with well over a billion users that serves as a free promotional and discovery vehicle for their talent.

“TikTok has been able to reach 'artist-first' agreements with every other label and publisher. Clearly, Universal's self-serving actions are not in the best interests of artists, songwriters and fans.“

The Independent has contacted Universal Music Group for additional comment.