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Why Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga’s music could vanish from TikTok

Universal Music Group is threatening to remove its artists from the platform

Illustration: Ariel Davis for Polygon
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

The girls are fighting, and the “girls” in question are two of the world’s largest media companies.

Monday, Universal Music Group (UMG) — a leading music publishing group for artists like Taylor Swift — released a statement threatening to take its music off social media platform TikTok. According to UMG, its contract with TikTok expires on Wednesday, and leaders at the social media platform failed to negotiate a contract that properly compensated artists and addressed other concerns. Now, the breakdown in contract negotiations has the potential to impact UMG’s hundreds of musicians and songwriters, as well as TikTok’s 1 billion users.

For the time being, the situation appears to still be in flux. We will update this story as more information emerges. However, it currently looks likely that globally popular artists — like Taylor Swift and Bad Bunny — will take their music off the platform officially. Here is everything you need to know about the TikTok and Universal Music Group contract.

Why is Universal Music Group taking its music off TikTok?

A photo of the Universal Music Group corporate offices in Santa Monica, California. There is the Universal globe and the offices are lined with palm trees. Photo: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

This entire issue is coming up because of one key factor: UMG’s contract with TikTok expires on Jan. 31. We don’t know the depth or the exact terms of this contract, or others like it — these contracts are kept as confidential agreements between companies — but we at least understand that the document contains contractual obligations that determine numbers like royalties. The contract expiration date has arrived, and the two companies have failed to come to an agreement. UMG took its concerns with contract negotiations public in a statement criticizing TikTok.

Honestly? UMG higher-ups sound pissed. In an open letter released Tuesday discussing the fallout of the contract negotiations, the company described three key issue areas in the contract negotiations: musician and writer compensation, protections for artists regarding the use of AI, and the online safety of TikTok users at large. While the statement addresses each concern point by point, the larger narrative it paints is one in which TikTok has grown and profited off of the work of musicians, and now has failed to deliver a deal that adequately pays artists and songwriters for their contributions.

According to UMG, TikTok’s success “has been built in large part on the music created by our artists and songwriters.” Despite this success, UMG says TikTok proposed paying its singers and songwriters “at a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay.” Although UMG does not give examples of these rates, it does say that TikTok accounted for only 1% of the company’s total revenue. So the general idea is that UMG is not profiting off a social media company that has grown in recent years in part due to its music.

The statement goes in on the above point, but it also touches on other concerns with regard to how TikTok manages its platform. UMG said TikTok has been “flooded with AI-generated recordings,” and UMG’s statement further describes how TikTok has developed tools that enable, promote, and encourage AI music creation on the platform. According to UMG, this “massively dilute[s] the royalty pool for human artists, in a move that is nothing short of sponsoring artist replacement by AI.”

The letter then gets to a larger point about TikTok’s failure to moderate its platform. The UMG statement says that TikTok has “makes little effort to deal with the vast amounts of content on its platform that infringe our artists’ music,” in addition to inadequately moderating “the tidal wave of hate speech, bigotry, bullying and harassment on the platform.” If all this wasn’t enough, the strongly worded statement takes one last large swipe at TikTok by accusing it of bullying UMG into taking a worse deal by “selectively removing the music of certain of our developing artists, while keeping on the platform our audience-driving global stars.”

What is TikTok’s response to Universal Music Group?

A photo illustration showing a TikTok logo displayed on a cell phone. Photo illustration: Mateusz Slodkowski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

TikTok’s response to the matter was curt in comparison to UMG’s letter. The company’s statement said it was “sad and disappointing that UMG has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.” According to TikTok, UMG has chosen to walk away from a platform that “serves as a free promotional and discovery vehicle for their talent.” The company also mentioned that it has been able “to reach ‘artist-first’ agreements with every other label and publisher.”

Which musicians will be taken off TikTok?

UMG represents hundreds of musical acts worldwide. You can browse a catalog of musicians and songwriters on its website; the list includes major acts like Taylor Swift, Bad Bunny, Rosalía, and Lady Gaga. All of these musicians will be taken off TikTok if the two companies can’t reach an agreement.

What does this mean for TikTok users?

It’s important to emphasize that nothing is final — yet. We don’t know what exact time the contract expires, or whether there is a grace period to account for ongoing negotiations; it’s possible the two companies will reach a last-minute deal after taking the disagreement public. Polygon has checked and TikTok still contains several tracks from UMG artists at the time of publication. However, if the contract does expire on Jan. 31 — at midnight, most likely — UMG will pull its catalog from TikTok.

A photo of Taylor Swift performing live. She’s wearing a deep blue sequined dress as she sings to a crowd of people. Photo: Buda Mendes/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

We don’t know how long it would take to implement a change like this on TikTok’s end, since UMG represents so many artists on the platform. Theoretically, if UMG takes its entire catalog off of TikTok and demands that the social media platform enforce this change, users will no longer be able to use officially licensed recordings on the platform to make videos. If a previously published video on TikTok originally used the official recording for a song that was taken down, the video will likely have no sound and be silent — as is the case with other videos that have had songs or sounds removed in the past.

To give you an example of the impact this could have, the official recording for Taylor Swift’s song “Karma” has been used more than 102,000 times on TikTok. If the contract falls through, all those videos could be silent afterward. This all being said, there are loads of unlicensed recordings of songs that go viral on the platform all the time. So you might still hear your favorite Taylor Swift song, but it will be less common and subject to a DMCA notice if the original uploader gets caught.

Overall, it’s a mess of a situation. It’s hard to imagine TikTok without music from some of the world’s most popular artists. Taylor Swift and other artists have become a global phenomenon in no small part due to the fandoms that grew on platforms like TikTok. Only time will tell as to how this all shakes out and what the eventual impact will end up being.