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TikTok-Universal Music Group dispute: an opportunity for rookies?

By Hong Yoo

Published : March 10, 2024 - 17:25

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Jungkook's singles Jungkook's singles "Seven" and "Standing Next To You" removed from TikTok (Screenshot from TikTok)

Universal Music Group, one of the largest global music publishing companies, has pulled music created by its artists and songwriters from TikTok beginning February, as their licensing agreement had expired.

This move comes in an effort by UMG to help its artists and songwriters attain fair compensation from TikTok.

“TikTok proposed paying our artists and songwriters at a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay. Today, as an indication of how little TikTok compensates artists and songwriters, despite its massive and growing user base, rapidly rising advertising revenue and increasing reliance on music-based content, TikTok accounts for only about 1 percent of our total revenue,” claimed UMG in an open letter to its artists on Jan. 30.

Such moves have not only removed major foreign artists such as Taylor Swift, Drake and Olivia Rodrigo from the short-form video content-focused social media platform, but also major K-pop players including Jungkook, Blackpink, NewJeans and Le Sserafim.

Jungkook’s solo singles “Seven” and “Standing Next To You;” Blackpink’s “Pink Venom” and “Kill This Love;” NewJeans’ “OMG;” and Le Sserafim’s “Eve, Psyche & the Bluebeard’s Wife” have not been available for use on TikTok since Feb. 1.

This is because these songs were written or co-written by artists signed with Universal Music Publishing Group.

“We are in the process of carrying out Universal Music Group’s requirement to remove all songs that have been written (or co-written) by a songwriter signed to Universal Music Publishing Group,” said TikTok in a press release on Feb. 29.

For instance, Jungkook’s solo singles “Seven” and “Standing Next To You” were removed from TikTok because producer Cirkut, who is an artist under label UMPG, took part in producing the track, and UMG is also in charge of BTS’ overseas music distribution.

Experts say this could be an opportunity for rookies.

“Only artists housed by major K-pop labels can cooperate with global record publishing groups such as UMG, so this could be a chance for K-pop artists from small and mid-sized agencies to make their songs go viral on TikTok,” Lee Gyu-tag, a K-pop expert who teaches pop music and media studies at George Mason University Korea, told The Korea Herald.

“K-pop artists who are already major players in the global music industry do not need viral marketing, but rookies do. Record labels housing rookies would prefer to receive the lower compensation (they currently get) to expose their artists and their songs to the public. That’s why we cannot take one side and say that the TikTok-UMG dispute will have either or negative or positive effect on the K-pop industry,” said pop music critic Kim Heon-sik.

Fighting for fair compensation for artists and songwriters whose songs are used widely to create an astounding amount of content on a social media platform is also beneficial in the long term, according to experts.

“TikTok insists that they are not responsible for compensating artists as they are not a music streaming platform. But they are making profit from visual creations that are made with popular music. They need to take responsibility for it. No such efforts are coming from the platform at the moment,” said critic Kim.

“There won’t be as many TikTok users if the short clips do not have music clips, and labels need to expose their pieces on social media for marketing. The two sides have to come up with a realistic way to achieve a win-win, co-prosperity,” added professor Lee.

Contacted by The Korea Herald, TikTok said it had nothing to add to its press release dated Feb. 29.

The platform stated in a press release on Feb. 29 that "UMG's actions not only affect the songwriters and artists that they represent, but now also impact many artists and songwriters not signed to Universal."

"We remain committed to reaching an equitable agreement with Universal Music Group," it added.