Enjoy your "Murder on the Dancefloor" viral posts while you can. Songs by artists including Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Coldplay, Adele and The Weeknd may be about to vanish from TikTok after Universal Music Group (UMG) threatened to pull its entire catalog from the social media platform.
Shortly before midnight on January 30, the music giant published an open letter titled “Why We Must Call Time Out on TikTok” announcing that talks had broken down with TikTok over the licensing of its music. It means that thousands of songs could disappear from the platform within the day.
Among the big names on UMG’s roster is Sophie Ellis-Bextor, whose song “Murder on the Dancefloor” recently rocketed up the charts 23 years after its original release thanks to a wave of viral posts on the video sharing site.
In its lengthy statement, UMG revealed that its current licensing agreement expires on January 31, and accused TikTok of trying to “bully” them into accepting a new deal that would see it receive “fraction” of the rate other social media sites pay for access to its huge catalog.
In an equally spicy reply, TikTok said the statement was “sad and disappointing” and described UMG’s actions as “self-serving” and presenting a “false narrative and rhetoric”.
Universal’s “open letter to the artist and songwriter community” begins: “Our core mission is simple: to help our artists and songwriters attain their greatest creative and commercial potential,” by striking deals with “partners who take seriously their responsibilities to fairly compensate our artists and songwriters and treat the user experience with respect.”
It adds: “TikTok’s success as one of the world’s largest social platforms has been built in large part on the music created by our artists and songwriters,” and that “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.”
It seems those discussions have now stalled irreparably.
“TikTok proposed paying our artists and songwriters at a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay,” the statement continues. “Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music.”
UMG also said that TikTok tried to “intimidate” the music giant “by selectively removing the music of certain of our developing artists” while keeping “audience-driving global stars” on the platform, claiming: “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 short-changes artists and songwriters as well as their fans.”
As well as compensation, UMG addressed the issue of AI and online safety, claiming: “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’.”
Earlier this week, Taylor Swift’s name became unsearchable on X (formerly Twitter) after a surge in AI-generated deepfake pornographic images of the star went viral on that platform.
The statement ends with a position that would suggest little chance of a compromise being struck.
“We will always fight for our artists and songwriters and stand up for the creative and commercial value of music,” it says.
“We recognize the challenges that TikTok’s actions will cause, and do not underestimate what this will mean to our artists and their fans… But we have an overriding responsibility to our artists to fight for a new agreement under which they are appropriately compensated for their work, on a platform that respects human creativity, in an environment that is safe for all, and effectively moderated.”
It concludes: “Intimidation and threats will never cause us to shirk those responsibilities.”
In reply, TikTok published its own statement:
“It is sad and disappointing that Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters,” it said. “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.”