The Culture Joint

UMG-TikTok meltdown: Silencing the Beat – A clash of giants with African repercussions

Stonebwoy shot by The Culture Joint.

“Music touches us emotionally, where words can’t,” they say, but the melodies of UMG weren’t enough to strike a positive nerve during negotiations with the short-form video platform, TikTok.

As of February 1, the ByteDance-owned company pulled down all music licensed to Universal Music Group, including that of Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift, Drake, among others.

Others are The Weeknd, SZA, Drake, Billie Eilish, Kendrick Lamar, Rosalía, Harry Styles, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Adele, U2, Elton John, J Balvin, Brandi Carlile, Coldplay, Post Malone etc.

Locally, artistes such as Stonebwoy have had portions of their videos on the social media platform muted as well due to their licensing under the company.

In an open letter, UMG argued, among other things, that TikTok wasn’t compensating its artists fairly and allowed the platform “to be flooded with AI-generated recordings—as well as developing tools to enable, promote and encourage AI music creation on the platform itself.”

Also “As our negotiations continued, TikTok attempted to bully us into accepting a deal worth less than the previous deal, far less than fair market value and not reflective of their exponential growth,” the letter indicated adding that; “How did it try to intimidate us? By selectively removing the music of certain of our developing artists, while keeping on the platform our audience-driving global stars.”

In response, TikTok accused UMG of “greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters” on their app which they argued “serves as a free promotional and discovery vehicle for their talent.”

The contract between the two entities expired on Wednesday, January 31, and the breakdown in negotiations means the two are no longer in business with each other.

Music licensing is when music is used for commercial purposes, like in a TV ad, show, a film, or a video game. A licensing agreement makes sure the copyright holder of the song gets paid for the use of the song.

Here are some reasons having music on these platforms for which pulling them off will be a big deal: viral potential, discovery and exposure, creativity and innovation, trend utilization, and audience engagement,

These engagements transform into leads onto distribution platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, among others, where the artistes can now make money off of the user who is likely to have paid subscriptions to any of these streaming platforms.

A November 2024 report indicates that engagement with an artist‘s music on TikTok is strongly correlated with streaming volumes. In the US, 62% of TikTok users pay for a music streaming service, compared to 43% of consumers overall.

Additionally, TikTok users spend significantly more money across music-related categories compared to the average music listener across all markets. In the UK, TikTok users spend 49% more on music purchases compared to average listeners.

TikTok officially has over 1 billion monthly active users, ahead of Snapchat, Pinterest and Twitter.

On the back of this, the amount of the pie missed out on may be even more astounding if finality isn’t brought.

Ghana is a huge driver of the continent’s music exports. However, the issue of low investment by government, private individuals, and big labels have been touted as a bottleneck.

Stonebwoy’s signing with Def Jam, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, was seen to be one that would lift the veil on big labels putting their money behind talents from the West African country.

Stonebwoy shot by The Culture Joint.

The ongoing 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has had its euphoria online reduced because of this – and yes, that is how deep it runs. ‘Akwaba,’ the official song being composed by Magic System featuring Yemi Alade and Mohammed Ramadan, was released under the Universal Music Group.

Due to this saga, a song with such cultural representation and relevance has seen its untimely removal from TikTok.

While some already used versions remain on the platform, new videos in millions of content created during the rest of this continental football mondial will not be possible, reducing the hype that would have been felt through the short-form video platform.

Users who attempt to use the ‘Akwaba’ song receive a prompt ‘The copyright owner hasn’t made this sound available in your country’

While talk may be ongoing behind closed doors for the signing of new talent, this development reinforces the narrative that pro-indie artistes have drummed all along – that it is better to go into partnerships than seeming 360 deals.

Inasmuch as there may be some truth to this, the level of doors there are to be opened if the best utilized.

The country has a huge infrastructural deficit for the local music industry – inefficient royalty regime, low prioritization of investment – and to downplay the contribution of music licensing companies and top-tier record labels is not the way to go.

This is a clear case of two elephants fighting and the grass having to suffer.

However, there is a way forward. Improving the detail that goes into partnerships between artistes, songwriters, and distributors should be relooked at.

There may be a silver lining if both teams see wisdom in what artistes such as Grammy nominee Noah Kahan – a signee to Republic Records, a subsidiary of UMG – have said.

@noahkahanmusic thanks love you guys #newmusic #stickseason #noahkahan #noahkahanmusic #forever ♬ Angel – Sarah McLachlan

The two entities may find a middle ground with time, but while A-list global artistes find ways to navigate the marketing deficit, their compatriots in Africa may have to do twice as much to attain half the results – and that is not sustainable.

Music, according to Damon Albarn, might “sound different to the one who plays it. It is the musician’s curse.”

Hopefully, this curse transforms into harmonious waves through which artistic potential can thrive and expand.

Written by: Kenneth Awotwe Darko

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