This Is Why TikTok And Universal Music Are At Loggerheads

Patrick Hicks has amassed nearly half a million followers on TikTok telling stories about musicians, the industry, and record labels. The conceit of his videos, which are often several minutes long, is that he’ll share little-known tidbits, and play clips from songs, without telling you the names of the artists involved until the very end, allowing listeners to guess along the way.

A tale about a “uniquely Midwestern” rap group is revealed to be about the St. Lunatics, and how they launched the career of the singsongy melodic stylist Nelly. When a hip-hop producer linked up with a folk singer it led to … Beck’s breakout 1993 hit “Loser.” A story about the nature of practice, hard work, and obsessive perfectionism was, of course, about jazz legend John Coltrane.

Now, those videos by Hicks, who is an amateur music obsessive with a day job, are completely devoid of sound. It’s not just the snippets of music that are gone—the platform has completely muted them. (You can still find them on YouTube and Instagram.)

That’s because last week, licensing negotiations fell apart between TikTok and Universal Music Group (a previous agreement had expired). Universal told TikTok to remove all infringing content. Dance videos have gone silent. Even artists signed to Universal are unable to promote their own music. Hicks says he’s just going to have to avoid covering Universal artists in his stories until the matter is resolved—and that’s not easy to do since Universal is the world’s largest record company. He’s also had Universal subsidiaries sponsor some of his content in the past. That’s off the table, too.

Slate spoke with Hicks about what this copyright battle means for artists, TikTok creators, and everyone in the middle. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Slate: Were you surprised that you were hit this hard by the takedowns?

Patrick Hicks: Yeah, I really thought they were taking Universal music off the platform in terms of—if you’re making a video in TikTok, you have the option to add a “sound”; you can search, and there’s a lot of copyrighted songs that are available to use as a sound. And a lot of people do that, especially if there’s a trending song. I thought they were taking off all the sounds—the songs that you can choose. I didn’t realize that they were just going to go through and mute any video that contained copyrighted music. I didn’t realize it was going to be so far-sweeping.

And the TikTok process is not great to begin with: There’s no appeal process. I can’t argue that this is fair use, that these are educational videos. There’s no means for me to do that.

What is TikTok’s role in the music industry right now? 

I think TikTok is different from any other social media platform that’s existed in terms of music. So many bands and artists are getting popular because of TikTok, because of their music being used on TikTok. You’ve seen artists getting signed because of their music, unsigned artists getting onto the Billboard charts.  There’s literally a chart on Billboard to track the most popular TikTok songs. And old songs would pop up: There’s the story of “Running Up That Hill” reentering the charts because of Stranger Things. But a big part of that is because people liked the song from Stranger Things and started using it on TikTok, and then the song blew up on TikTok.

There are repercussions in the real world where people might not even realize—they just know, Oh, an old song is popular again. But if they don’t use TikTok, they don’t realize that’s because thousands and thousands of people are using the song in their videos or doing some kind of trend or something.

Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” was a big one. It reentered the pop charts in 2020 after a user made a video skateboarding, drinking a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice, and listening to the 1977 song.

That was the first big example. And from the other artists that I’m seeing talking about this on TikTok, their record labels have told them—there’s even Universal artists saying, “My record label told me to focus on TikTok. TikTok is important.” You’re not only a musician now, you have to be a content creator, make videos, make your song go viral on TikTok. And then now they’re like, “Well, you took all my music off of TikTok, but I can’t do the thing that you told me was now my job as an artist.”

A lot of news reports said, “Well, Taylor Swift’s music won’t be on TikTok”—and nobody really feels sorry for Taylor Swift. But there’s newer Universal artists that are not that famous, and there were people whose songs were literally in the middle of going viral, and now their videos are muted. And it’s possible that they get dropped from their label. They did what they were supposed to do, but the label messed up their promotion.

Are there any parallels to this moment from previous battles that have come up in your studies of music history and copyright law? 

Every time there’s a new technology, the copyright owners are scared this is going to ruin everything. When cassette tapes came out in the 1980s, there was the whole campaign to tell people: “Home taping is killing music and you shouldn’t make tapes of songs off the radio.” It always seemed shortsighted, like, home taping obviously did not kill music.

MySpace was kind of the only social media platform before this where music was a big focus. You could have your profile playing songs, you could have artist-specific pages, MySpace started their own record label for a while, and there was a lawsuit against MySpace, by Universal Music Group. TikTok is also a social media platform, and it’s not like people are going on there to download music or something like they were with Napster.

In a lot of ways, it’s the same old thing: copyright holders being worried about new technology and them not getting paid appropriately for it. But it’s just that TikTok is such a different thing because of how integral music is to it. So TikTok couldn’t just say, “OK, we’ll take the music off the app.” They need to find a way to have the music and then also make sure they’re paying whatever the appropriate licenses are.

But then that solution stalled out, and now that music is off the app. Who do you think is hurting most from that? I feel like it’s probably not Universal or TikTok.

No, definitely not. I mean, Universal is still going to make money.  TikTok has other music that they can use. It kind of comes down to big corporations wanting more money. I think it’s really those smaller artists on Universal, or that are being distributed through Universal, who aren’t able to get their music heard now.

And then creators, too. I think there are others that are affected worse than me, but any music creator on the platform is going to be playing songs. Especially if you’re doing history stuff in your storytelling, you really want to let the user hear the music that you’re talking about in order to get the full effect. You don’t want them to listen to the story and be like, “Wow, I really want to listen to that song now,” and then leaving the platform and listening to the song—that’s just bad for everybody, but especially creators that are analyzing music.

What’s the best-case scenario here? 

I’m hoping that they just iron out a deal where TikTok offers an amount of money that Universal is going to be happy with, and they just sign the deal and the music is restored. I’m hoping that there’s an undo, and they can just restore all the sounds. I’m hoping it’s just restored and it’ll just be like a fun little, “Remember that time on TikTok when they took down all the Universal music?”

A fun little footnote for a future video.

And I would love in the future if TikTok does something better with their copyright policy—Instagram has an appeal process [if your video is thought to contain copyrighted material]. On YouTube, they won’t take your video down, but you can’t monetize it. I just wish there was something other than just muting the whole video with nothing you can do about it.

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