On Jan. 30, music label Universal Music Group announced that it failed to reach a new deal with video app TikTok. For the past three years, the pair worked under an amicable but vague deal. The announcement claimed the deal delivered “equitable compensation for recording artists” but expired at the end of January.
In an open letter to the artist and songwriter community, Universal Music Group wrote that it had tried to get “appropriate compensation” for its artists and songwriters while “protecting human artists from the harmful effects of AI, and online safety for TikTok’s users.” However, it failed to come to agreeable terms with TikTok.
As the largest music record label with 31.9 percent of the market, according to Statista, most users felt the impact. Over the next week, TikTok muted hundreds of thousands of videos that used songs from Universal Music Group’s roster of talent, silencing the work of both creators and musicians.
Superstars under the Universal Music Group umbrella — like Taylor Swift, Eminem, and U2 — are already household names. But smaller artists at Universal Music Group just trying to promote their content are now dealing with a much quieter reality.
“The fact that all these companies have this much power over artists and songwriters is scary,” Danyell Souza and Tony Fagenson of the band Dead Posey told Passionfruit. “The endless hours we work on our music just for something like this to happen is very disheartening, and we believe the entire business model needs to change across the board.”
The band describes their music as a cross between “punk rock and hard work” and is with the Position Music company. Position Music penned a deal with Virgin Music, a global division of Universal Music Group, in September 2023. Because of this, TikTok muted all of the band’s music. This included their first single off their debut album Zombies, which they released three days before the pull.
“We got cut off at the knees,” the pair said. “Not having access to our music on a platform like TikTok when the entire music industry relies on it to break bands is extremely frustrating.”
Other artists are trying to promote their music to differing levels of success. Rapper bbno$ created a remix of his song “Edamame” using copyright-free noises that have already pulled in five million views. Bbno$’s songs have gone viral on TikTok multiple times. His most viral song, “Lalala,” was in over 10 million videos on TikTok as of 2023. “Edamame” was in over 670,000 videos. (Bbno$ did not respond by publication time to our request for comment via email).
Artist Edward Stengel, on the other hand, goes under the musical alias Pawns or Kings. He runs a TikTok account with over 276,000 followers, posting unique “gothic country” music. Stengel says that in 2019, for one of his songs, he entered a “50/50 partnership deal with U-NXT.” U-NXT is a division of Universal that finances one-off songs with viral potential.
To get the song on streaming services like Spotify, Stengel says U-NXT “encouraged” him to use a Universal-owned distributor. Stengel went with Ingrooves, a distributor Universal Music Group bought a majority of the shares in 2019.
Because of that decision, the album is unplayable on TikTok. Hundreds of his videos are now silent.
“At the time, it all seemed like a good idea,” Stengel said. “Didn’t seem like anything could go wrong because we still owned the masters of all of our songs. I don’t know if I would have signed that same deal.”
The monetization that Stengel received from those now muted videos was a “necessary part of the income” from his bands. So he’s been trying creative ways to get around the blockade, posting four separate videos with slightly slowed-down audio over the past week. All of them were copyright-struck by TikTok.
According to a message Stengel received inside his app (which was viewed by Passionfruit), if he gets one more strike, he will be removed entirely from the monetization program.
“If I make TikTok mad again, I will lose out on a lot of revenue that I kind of rely on as an artist right now,” Stengel lamented.
Formed out of the purchased remnants of lip-synching app Musical.ly in 2018, TikTok has grown into a massive cultural watering hole with over one billion monthly active users. It’s the app for music discoverability, where superstars like Lil Nas X and Doja Cat started out posting in their bedrooms. All it takes is one viral trend or dance attached to your latest single for your life to change overnight.
“TikTok has managed to nestle itself in as the ground zero for where music discovery happens,” Stengel said. “So much of what used to happen with public relations, magazines, and blogs: all of that has fallen. For major label artists who don’t own any independent music, they are completely hamstrung now. How are they going to get fans to know about their new releases?”
However, the current distribution model needs reworking in some way. Artists should be able to make a living off of their work, there’s no reason that Snoop Dogg should only make $45,000 from a billion streams on Spotify. TikTok has become the de-facto way to get your voice out there, but the pay is not enough to make a real living.
The system needs a real shake, and while the tech titans battle it out for the future of dollar signs, these artists are stuck with muted audio.
“We’ve joked and said TikTok is the music industry’s Roman Empire,” The Dead Posey said. “The entire industry relies on TikTok to a fault, in our opinion. It’s a great tool, but we still believe in the music industry picking up the phone and developing artists in other ways.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the music label that Dead Posey currently works with.