17 Feb 2024

The music wars that muted TikTok

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 17 February 2024

When a music industry monster goes up against a social media behemoth, the result is an artistic scorched earth 

An illustration is being shown in Suqian, China, on January 24, 2024, depicting TikTok's layoffs in the United States. (Photo by Costfoto/NurPhoto) (Photo by CFOTO / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

Photo: CFOTO / NurPhoto via AFP

One of the biggest social media platforms is in an all-out war with the world's biggest record conglomerate.

Universal Music Group has stopped licensing its music to TikTok and it's causing a big uproar.

Today's episode of The Detail looks at why this really matters and how crucial social media is for musicians these days.

Evie Orpe, co-host of RNZ podcast The TAHI is an avid user of TikTok.

"It's all vertical [videos], it's short little bits and it does heavily rely on music. It's really sound and audio based, even though it's a video app," she says. 

"You add a sound that's already available on the app to your video."

TAHI FM presenter Evie Orpe

TAHI FM presenter Evie Orpe Photo: The TAHI / RNZ

So how did this conflict all start? UMG and TikTok's licensing agreement was coming to an end in January. After months of negotiations they couldn't see eye to eye.

So Universal removed all their music off the app.

"A lot of insiders and industry people are calling it the nuclear option or going scorched earth on the situation," Orpe says.

"UMG released a statement that said TikTok was trying to bully them into signing a bad deal, trying to take money away from artists. TikTok's saying [Universal] should be happy for the free promotion."

Orpe says artists are massively concerned about it - UMG might only have a 37 per cent share in the market but this might affect up to 80 per cent of the music - due to things like publishing and licensing deals.

"All of the small artists are so upset because they are like 'how am I supposed to get attention now?

"I do think it will get solved, TikTok will find a way around it in the short term but long-term on an app that revolves around music and you can't have over four million songs on it, I mean, what are we doing?"

The Detail also gets some insight into how important TikTok and social media is to musicians.

Rapper and producer MazbouQ has over 200,000 followers on TikTok. He makes videos on rap and music theory, and they've helped him find an audience for his music.

New Zealand hip-hop artist and academic Mazbou Q, aka The Rap Scientist

New Zealand hip-hop artist and academic Mazbou Q, aka The Rap Scientist Photo: Andi Crown Photography

"TikTok is an amazing platform for the sheer reason that its algorithm pushes out content automatically to people that you don't know and people who you're not connected to.

"Between TikTok and Instagram, predominately the social media exposure accounts for most of the music discovery."

He says this has completely changed how musicians connect with their audiences.

"I think the most significant difference is that before, the music was the product, but now, the music is the marketing tool. What that means is before is that you would create your music and you'd gig to create hype around the music or you'd sell merch but now things have fundamentally shifted where the music is now the vehicle for something else. We're in a time where artists are still trying to figure out what that is."

Although he's completely independent, he's worried about the impact the whole Universal-TikTok battle will have on "lower-tier UMG artists".

"By and large, they still depend heavily on TikTok marketing, social media marketing - now that channel's completely cut off for them. These big labels like UMG have been focusing on marketing on these platforms. So it is kind of like cutting off your own limb." 

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