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Universal Music Group and TikTok’s Contractual Standstill

Posted by on Tuesday, February 13, 2024 in Blog Posts.

By Dana Branstetter

TikTok legally adds music from artists as sounds on its platform through licensing agreements,[1] typically through negotiations with rights holders, such as the labels or publishing companies to which artists sign.[2] In exchange for providing the music to TikTok users, the owner of the music’s rights receives the royalties in accordance with the agreement between the rights holder and TikTok.[3]

At the end of January, news broke that Universal Music Group (“UMG”), “the world’s largest music company,”[4] planned to pull all of its artists’ music off the TikTok platform, claiming that TikTok tried to push UMG – and therefore its artists – into a bad deal regarding the royalties to be paid out to UMG and its artists.[5] In its open letter to artists and songwriters, UMG described three critical issues in its contract negotiation, including appropriate compensation, protection from harmful AI, and online safety.[6] Twenty-four hours after that, on January 31, 2024, TikTok and UMG’s previous agreement expired,[7] so TikTok users can no longer add UMG’s artists’ music to their TikTok videos.[8] UMG’s artists include prominent artists like Taylor Swift, Drake, Olivia Rodrigo, Bad Bunny, and many others.[9] Taylor Swift, who has over 100 million monthly listeners on Spotify,[10] has massive influence on our current culture.[11]

What are the implications for TikTok’s users, UMG’s artists, and the big companies themselves? As for TikTok’s users, those who had already used UMG’s artists’ songs in their TikToks suddenly saw their videos muted.[12] Going forward, unless a new agreement is reached, those videos will remain muted, and the songs are no longer available to use.[13]

Some people wonder whether UMG’s artists that would ordinarily benefit from TikTok as a marketing tool will lose out on possible publicity.[14] For instance, Noah Kahan, a UMG musician, has seen increased success in his career after his song 2022 “Stick Season” went viral on TikTok.[15] For smaller artists, TikTok may be a bigger sacrifice to give up, but more established artists, like Taylor Swift and Drake, will likely remain successful without their music on TikTok. TikTok may be the one who will get bad karma from this failed negotiation, especially since the platform’s inappropriate payments to artists is now a topic of public discussion.[16]

TikTok is a cultural phenomenon, but it does need access to the pieces of the culture it wants to epitomize, especially with its emphasis on music being “at the heart of the TikTok experience”.[17] Will the platform crack and finally provide UMG, and by extension its artists, a better contract to license the music? As Swift’s prolific and continuing successes demonstrate,[18] Swift’s impact, and therefore UMG’s impact, should not be underestimated. TikTok would be smart to provide UMG and its artists with a better deal.

Dana Branstetter is a current 2L at Vanderbilt Law School. Before coming to Vanderbilt Law School, Dana majored in psychology at Yale.

[1] Music Terms of Service, TikTok (Aug. 2023),

[2] Marco Alexis, TikTok Music Copyright: Explained, Two Story Melody (May 23, 2022, 3:17 PM),

[3] Id.

[4] Bill Rosenblatt, What Removing Taylor Swift, Drake And More Means for TikTok – And Users, Forbes (Feb. 1, 2024, 7:47 PM EST),

[5] Sian Cain, Universal Music Group threatens to pull song catalog from TikTok in furious open letter, The Guardian (Jan. 30, 2024, 10:29 PM EST),

[6] An Open Letter to the Artist and Songwriter Community – Why We Must Call Time Out on TikTok, Universal Music Group, (last visited Feb. 11, 2024).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Rosenblatt, supra note 4.

[10] ChartMasters, (last visited Feb. 11, 2024).

[11] See Dr. Marcus Collins, What The Taylor Swift Effect Teaches Us About Influence, Forbes (Oct. 2, 2023, 9:28 AM EDT),

[12] Arianna Johnson, Will TikTok Videos Be Muted? Here’s What To Know After Licensing Deal With Universal Music Ends, Forbes (Jan. 31, 2024, 11:43 AM EST),

[13] Id.

[14] Joe Taysom, Will Universal’s dispute with TikTok cause a ripple effect?, Far Out (Feb. 4, 2024, 11:00 PM UK),

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] See An Open Letter, supra note 6.

[18] See Collins, supra note 11.

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