TikTok Lost Universal’s Huge Music Catalog. What Happened?

Universal Music Group, the biggest of the three major conglomerates, pulled songs by Taylor Swift, Drake and other stars after failing to agree on a new contract. Here’s what’s at stake.

TikTok users woke up Thursday and discovered that many videos using songs by stars like Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Drake and Ariana Grande had gone silent, after a public brawl between TikTok and Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company.

It was a startling turn of events for the app’s creators and users, as well as for the music business, where heated negotiations over copyright permissions and royalty terms sometimes boil over into public view but rarely reach what one industry publication called the “nuclear option” — the full-scale removal of content from one of music’s biggest and most influential online outlets.

Here is a look at what happened and why, and some thoughts about what may come next.

On Tuesday, Universal Music, the global giant that releases music by hundreds of major artists, published a forceful open letter to TikTok as the end of its contract with the social media platform neared. Universal said that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, had not adequately addressed Universal’s concerns over A.I.-generated music on the platform, and that it would not agree to what Universal considered a satisfactory royalty rate.

“Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business,” the label said, “without paying fair value for the music.”

Universal noted that its existing deal with TikTok was set to expire on Wednesday, and the label said it would revoke its licenses — the legal permissions to use its music — if an agreement was not reached. The deadline came and went, and TikTok confirmed early Thursday that it had begun removing access to Universal’s vast catalog of songs.

Universal is the biggest of the three major music conglomerates — the others are Sony and Warner — that have deals with thousands of music stars to release their music. Besides Swift and Drake, its labels’ biggest names include Olivia Rodrigo, Morgan Wallen, Nicki Minaj, Billie Eilish, Noah Kahan, Post Malone and Lorde, and it has deals with K-pop giants like Stray Kids and NewJeans.

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