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On The Hot Seat: The TikTok-Universal Music Group Debacle and the Music Industry’s Love-Hate Relationship With Social Media

If you happen to be TikTok Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Shou Zi Chew, 2024 might have already been one of your toughest years on record for you — despite it being less than two months into the year.

In early February, Chew and his counterparts from Snap, X, Discord, and Meta had to testify in an intense Senate Judiciary Hearing that heavily probed their platforms’ lack of action towards protecting children online–a likely step towards further introduction of widely anticipated bipartisan legislation to tighten social media age restriction. Chew, a Singaporean national, was also controversially subjected to repeated questioning by Republican Arkansas senator Tom Cotton over whether he retains any ties to the People’s Republic of China or its governing Chinese Communist Party, which Chew denied multiple times. The app’s parent company, ByteDance, employs an internal Chinese Communist Party committee that has long garnered Western concerns over user data safety and privacy, as well as its censorship of issues commonly red-taped in Mainland China (including the Capitol Hill hearing).

As it turned out, C-SPAN virality might be the least of TikTok’s worries. Just one day after the hearings adjourned, Universal Music Group (UMG) — the largest music conglomerate in the world — announced it was cutting ties with the social media powerhouse following failed contract renewal negotiations, then swiftly pulled its entire catalog. The sudden divorce left TikTok saying via press release that the music giant’s executives had “put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters” and were doing their fans a disservice by “walking away” from the platform

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UMG, whose roster includes the likes of Taylor Swift, Drake, Bad Bunny, and Olivia Rodrigo, claimed in an open letter to the broader music community that the decision stemmed from its belief that TikTok’s monetary compensation for artists and songwriters remains unfairly below market value despite a growing user base, adding that TikTok revenue only accounts for around 1% of UMG’s total revenue (estimates may vary, but the app has been known to pay $0.03 for every video that uses an artist’s song).

UMG’s announcement came just as the Beyoncé Renaissance World Tour’s “Mute Challenge” was getting Tiktokers to play along by diving deep into her catalog of hits online. Music producer Kato On The Track (below) immediately saw the move impact his own work when the TikTok exodus silenced all videos that utilized the Reyanna Maria and Tyga song “So Pretty,” which he’d produced and released under the UMG system.


THEY DID IT 😭😭😭 wow, over half of the music on tiktok is GONE cuz UMG couldnt strike a deal with tiktok 😂 crazyyy

♬ original sound – Kato On The Track

Despite this — or perhaps, because of it — Kato predicts that the issue will not drag on for long. “I think that, especially with all the media attention, it’s going to bring both parties to the negotiation table and really try to figure out something that works for everyone,” he told Hollywood.com.

Nearly all content creators, musicians, public relations professionals, content creation consultants and specialists interviewed for this story expressed similar sentiments. In fact,  PR strategist and consultant Sasha Pisterman sees UMG letting the dispute reach the point of catalog removal as a negotiation tactic.

“At this point, it’s really about who has more power,” she says. “I personally think that it’s going to end up with them going to come to an agreement [with TikTok] on a set royalty rate. It’s going to be higher than what TikTok initially was offering, but I don’t think it’s going to be whatever Universal was initially asking for.”

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Ladidai, (below) like Pisterman, works in content consultancy. And like Pisterman, she thinks that the ongoing issue is a power play from UMG. But she’s also a self-described musician, social media content creator and curator, which she says lets her see and experience the social media ecosystem and creator economy from a hat-tricked perspective. To her, the issue has put TikTok, as she puts it, “on the hot seat” and can potentially lead to the platform losing cultural relevance.

“I don’t know if they realize {it},” she says, “Because music plays a very crucial role in TikTok’s zeitgeist. If there was no music on the app, we wouldn’t be on there. That’s such a major player in terms of how the content performs. So now, who knows? People might gravitate more towards YouTube Shorts now than they did before. They might gravitate more towards Instagram Reels.”

With that in mind, Ladidai still remains skeptical about a potential flock to a platform like YouTube Shorts, citing YouTube’s notoriety for false copyright “strikes” or removal demands and, in some cases, punitive user restrictions brought on by copyright violations.

Ladidai disputes the validity of some of those breaches. “I actually posted a YouTube Shorts using the official sound from Drake, and I still got a flag. I still got a copyright strike,” she says. “I was like, ‘How do I get a strike for using the exact official sound that’s available to me via YouTube?’”

Her lament is far from unique. False copyright strikes are akin to a rite of passage for YouTubers despite efforts by the platform’s parent company, Google, to circumvent abuse of its content ID system by so-called “copyright trolls”–companies or individuals that aggressively file incorrect claims hoping to litigate a financial reward, putting a near-endless array of channels that upload music-centric content at risk. Among those most affected are music critics, who are legally protected in theory by Section 107 in the Copyright Act–known as the Fair Use exception for copyrighted material in commentary or criticism.

This cynical tactic alone might discourage users from gravitating to YouTube Shorts in lieu of TikTok, UMG catalog on hand or not. At this juncture, in fact, the safest bet in the Wild West of YouTube is copyright-free commercial music — something Digital Marketing Strategist Heather Cox theorizes will soon experience an even bigger breakthrough on TikTok.

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“I believe the content that will get boosted as a result [of the UMG catalog removal] is the content that is already using [uncopyrighted] commercial music, and also the creators making their own music,” she says. Cox also sees classical music in the public domain–think Bach and Beethoven–undergoing a surge in TikTok usage on TikTok in the near future.

To UMG and its competitors, TikTok could arguably be considered a drop in the marketing ocean. After all, two of its most popular artists, Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift, still have their fanbases anticipating international concert spectacles, with Olivia kicking off her GUTS World Tour later this month, Swift resuming her record-breaking Eras Tour in Asia, Australia and Europe through the spring and summer, and a third megastar whose reels were removed, Usher, headlining the Super Bowl halftime show in Las Vegas, Nevada and releasing his ninth album on the same day as his performance.

For this reason, Ladidai less concerned with the impact of a TikTok purge of these artists per se than about what the future might hold for niche artists and up-and-comers.

“That’s gonna cause, potentially, some kind of ripple effect,” she says, “It’s like, okay, now what are Sony and Warner going to do? How is this going to affect all of their artists that have popular and trending songs on TikTok? How does it affect the smaller artists who don’t really have an opportunity for any kind of marketing organically besides TikTok?”

She nevertheless sees a certain silver lining to the issue–one that might not cover those under the UMG umbrella.

“First off, this provides an opportunity for major label artists on the other large labels like Sony,” she explains. “[Also] a unique opportunity for independent artists, emerging talent, you know … for smaller indie labels. Because they now have a chance to fill a void and gain a wider audience. If I was them, I would start making music that’s similar to the stuff that’s gonna be taken down.”

Kato on the Track, the music producer and TikTok creator, plans to be doing just that with his independent music (below), especially since he sees that TikTok’s user base isn’t really concerned with whose music they can use in their videos, assuming they use music at all.


Supporting my indie artist friends during these turbulent times 😂🤝 @Ktlyn #umg #mute #universal #bigmad

♬ BIG MAD – Ktlyn

“Do people really care that much unless you’re a hardcore Swiftie?” he muses. “I think it’s really just kind of a bonus.”


Dalia Abdelwahab is a music, entertainment and culture journalist based in the NYC Metropolitan Area. Her reporting focuses on identifying the intersections between how entertainment is produced and perceived in all its forms, and the state of our society and culture at every given moment. She also has experience with covering national news and foreign affairs.




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