Universal Music accuses TikTok of 'intimidation' and threats to replace humans with AI
Made-in-China social network allegedly made lowball licensing offer and abused its platform power
Multinational music giant Universal Music Group – home to Taylor Swift, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Bilie Eilish and plenty of other prominent musicians – has accused made-in-China social network TikTok of abusing its market power using tactics including promoting music created by AI.
An open letter published on Tuesday titled "Why We Must Call Time Out on TikTok" revealed that the contract allowing TikTok to use Universal's music catalog expires on January 31, but that negotiations have foundered on three issues: "appropriate compensation for our artists and songwriters, protecting human artists from the harmful effects of AI, and online safety for TikTok's users."
Universal alleged that TikTok has offered to pay "a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay."
The multinational also claimed TikTok allows AI-generated music on its platform, is building tools to let users create it, and is demanding "a contractual right which would allow this content to massively dilute the royalty pool for human artists, in a move that is nothing short of sponsoring artist replacement by AI."
Nor does TikTok properly police sexually explicit deepfakes or posts that Universal believes "infringe our artists' music," or address "content adjacency issues, let alone the tidal wave of hate speech, bigotry, bullying and harassment on the platform."
In other words, haters gonna hate – but Universal would rather Shake It Off isn’t the soundtrack to video nasties.
Universal claimed that it tried to negotiate these matters with other social networks and had productive discussions. But at TikTok, it was received with "indifference, and then with intimidation."
The latter was expressed in a lowball offer to license Universal's content, and by removing music made by what Universal describes as "developing artists" while keeping big stars accessible.
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The Register's Gen Z expert – your correspondent's young adult daughter – said TikTok needs Universal's big artists because users will be disgruntled if they can't access established stars' tunes on the platform. But Universal needs its lesser-known acts to be available on TikTok because the platform has largely replaced radio as the medium through which youth discover new music.
New artists often don't make their labels a profit, but the likes of Universal keep them around in the hope they go big one day – which these days can start on TikTok.
Universal's post stops short of saying it will bin TikTok forever. But it concludes by stating "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."
Music industry bible Billboard has secured a statement from TikTok to the effect that "Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters," adding that the label's "self-serving actions are not in the best interests of artists, songwriters and fans."
Bring on Thursday – the day after the deal between the two expires – to see who blinks first.
Universal's letter states that TikTok accounts for just one percent of its revenue. TikTok's counter is that its platform lets a billion people access music for free.
Maybe AI can decide the winner? ®