Universal Music pulls its catalog from TikTok: What comes next?

Universal Music pulls its catalog from TikTok: What comes next?

Dr Nguyen Van Thang Long, Senior Lecturer from the School of Communication & Design at RMIT Vietnam, demystifies the implications of Universal Music Group's decision to remove its songs from TikTok.

Universal Music Group (UMG) states that TikTok accounts for only about one per cent of its total revenue. What are your thoughts on the significance of UMG's statement, given the platform's popularity among its artists?

The conflict between UMG and TikTok has persisted and encompassed diverse issues. Initially, UMG's copyright fees with TikTok were significantly lower - two to three times - compared to Meta (the company owning Facebook and Instagram) due to TikTok's smaller user base. However, as TikTok experienced exponential growth, the platform witnessed an increased presence of artists, fans, original music, and derivatives. Nevertheless, the revenue contribution did not see a proportional rise compared to traditional music platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, Zing MP3, or through music events and commercial sponsorships.

Moreover, the dispute stems from contrasting views on the nature of business between the parties. TikTok, whether inadvertently or intentionally, does not identify itself as a Digital Service Provider (DSP) offering digital music services, including content supply and distribution. TikTok perceives itself strictly as a user-generated content-sharing platform, where users bear responsibility for the content they create and share. Through its algorithm, TikTok optimises content sharing based on user interest, requiring users to craft creative content that integrates visuals and sound, including music, to attract the interest of others.

RMIT School of Communication & Design Senior Lecturer Dr Nguyen Van Thang Long RMIT School of Communication & Design Senior Lecturer Dr Nguyen Van Thang Long

In contrast, UMG perceives TikTok as a DSP distributing digital music, conducting its business directly or indirectly through user-generated content and users utilising copyrighted music for their content. Consequently, TikTok is seen as a music platform that leverages and generates content based on copyrighted songs. The platform, indirectly incorporating music through user-generated content, is also obligated to pay flat-rate copyright fees.

Delving into the underlying cause reveals a shift in music listening behaviour. The traditional song model, lasting from three to five minutes, is no longer prevalent. Recent research from RMIT University Vietnam indicates a growing popularity in short music trends (15-30 seconds per song), coupled with an increase in user-generated music content. This aligns with TikTok's fundamental operating model. On TikTok, music products derived from original songs are often more popular and appear more frequently, ranging from tens to hundreds or thousands of times compared to the original song. This depends on the viral nature of the quick music snippet and the creative content of the user. Therefore, UMG feels they are losing out in terms of music copyright fees with TikTok.

UMG has expressed concerns about the growth of AI tools affecting intellectual property on TikTok. Please share your insights on these concerns.

The use of AI in music production raises significant concerns about intellectual property rights, particularly among artists, music publishers, and other entities in the music industry.

Regarding music copyright, obtaining consent from the copyright holder is essential for using recorded audio for commercial purposes. In the current scenario, TikTok is seeking an agreement from UMG to allow users to remix and reinterpret UMG-owned songs using AI tools. This offers a benefit to TikTok users, enabling them to create songs based on originals without extensive musical talent.

However, the reproduction of music content through AI categorises users as owners of that content, even though they are not the original authors or performers. This introduces concerns about copyright issues, resembling a form of “musical plagiarism”. Over time, there is a risk that users might shift towards listening to AI-generated music, resulting in potential revenue loss for copyright holders like UMG and artists.

On the flip side, TikTok, whether intentionally or unintentionally, appears to ignore this issue, showing less serious concern about content created by AI. This comes from the potential for users to leverage AI-generated content, fostering diversity and innovation, and consequently, boosting traffic on TikTok, along with advertising and sales activities.

UMG has been pressing TikTok on various issues (image: Freepik). UMG has been pressing TikTok on various issues (image: Freepik).

How could the threat of UMG revoking TikTok's license affect the opportunities and visibility of Vietnamese creators and musicians on the platform?

With UMG pulling songs from TikTok on the grounds of copyrights, the impact will be substantial for all stakeholders.

Firstly, artists and singers who have signed contracts with UMG for their renowned songs will lose the opportunity to earn additional income from music streaming rights.

For influencers, the user community, and fans, there is a missed chance to enjoy or create content related to UMG's copyrighted songs, and the quantity of such songs is considerable.

For TikTok, there is a huge loss of valuable content to operate a social media platform centred around music. Although this could be compensated through diverse content products (news, entertainment, and many more), the impact is significant as muted songs might lead users to shift to other platforms.

However, this situation also brings opportunities for many. While UMG is a major player, it is not the sole recording and music distribution company in the market, considering others like Warner Music, Sony Music, or in Vietnam, MMusic, Vivi Music, MixUs, POPS all hold various music copyrights. Additionally, the absence of UMG's songs provides opportunities for young, emerging artists to easily compose, promote their music, and potentially become new superstars or influencers on TikTok.

Story: June Pham

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