Record Label Execs Tells TikTok That Exploiting Artists Is Their Job

Record Label Execs Tells TikTok That Exploiting Artists Is Their Job

Universal Music Group is expected to remove its entire library of songs from TikTok on Wednesday night, according to Reuters, as the record label has failed to renew its contract with the social media platform. The label condemns TikTok for unfairly paying artists and doing little to protect them from AI, in an open letter dated Jan. 30. It’s a shocking condemnation from the world’s largest record label since the music industry is notorious for exploiting artists itself.

“Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music,” said UMG in its letter. “TikTok’s tactics are obvious: use its platform power to hurt vulnerable artists and try to intimidate us into conceding to a bad deal that undervalues music and shortchanges artists and songwriters as well as their fans.”

The entire letter feels like it could have been written to Universal Music Group itself. Record labels are infamous for roping vulnerable, young artists into low-paying, exploitative deals. That’s the reason Taylor Swift (a UMG artist) is re-releasing all of her albums, as “Taylor’s Version.” However, the record label is taking a definitively condescending tone towards TikTok for doing the same thing. Record labels typically pay artists 10 to 25 cents for every dollar their music generates, according to the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. That’s pretty low, however, Motown Records (now owned by UMG) used to pay artists like the Jackson Five less than 3%.

UMG and TikTok did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

UMG is threatening to pull the music catalogs of Bad Bunny, Ariana Grande, and more artists off TikTok tonight, claiming this is in the best interest of its artists. One could argue that TikTok has done more for artist discovery than music labels ever have. Many of Universal Music’s biggest artists, such as Olivia Rodrigo and Steve Lacy, gained significant popularity through TikTok’s platform.

Another practice that Universal calls out TikTok for “allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings,” calling the move “nothing short of sponsoring artist replacement by AI.” The letter fails to acknowledge how UMG partners with YouTube on its own product to create AI-generated versions of your favorite artist’s songs. UMG is quite literally licensing out the voice of its artists to AI, to its credit, in a way that gives more power and royalties to its artists.

The decision to pull UMG’s music from TikTok may not be a morally righteous stance in defense of artists. Universal Music Group would simply like to get paid. It’s true that TikTok should pay the rightful owner of this music, however, the letter from UMG is full of claims that are at odds with the music industry’s own practices.

The exploitation of artists is not new to tech. The R&B group TLC made less than $50,000 a year on albums that became international sensations, and the group’s members ultimately filed for bankruptcy. Technology companies are not great at paying artists fairly either, as Spotify pays artists an average of $0.004 per stream. Ultimately, the legacy music label’s “call to action” to fairly treat recording artists just falls flat.

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