Universal vs. TikTok

Universal Music Group threatened on Tuesday to pull their music from TikTok, TikTok responded with their own statement, and then it happened today.

Here is Universal's statement and TikTok's response.

My takes:

  • This news doesn't affect any of us directly, unless we're on Universal. It's not like we now have an opportunity to seize what Universal is walking away from -- all of that infinite shelf space that they occupied.
  • On one hand, it looks like the labels still have all the leverage; they can flex on any platform. You could say I'm tech-news-pilled: a confirmed lurker on X, a listener of tech podcasts, the whole nine yards. Are my friends in the arts scene aware of the prevailing view of music streaming, and its metonym Spotify, in tech media? There, Spotify is a miracle -- but also hard-done-by, because they have to give so much of their margin to the major labels. Daniel Ek is an accomplished leader fighting the good fight, but the majors are on top of the world, because they did what news outlets couldn't do: hold their leverage as content rights-holders against the ascendant tech platforms. This view is on the whole closer to the normie listener's view than the artist doomer/activist view is.
  • But what if the majors don't have that leverage after all; what if it's just Universal's loss to not be in people's TikTok earbuds for a while, and everything else keeps trucking along, i.e. Universal doesn't get any of the extra money it's after until they come back to the table? To that I say, don't underestimate the majors' penchant for lashing out about where things are headed in the recorded music business. There's more to come. It's not just Universal, and it's not a new mood this year. Sony Music chairman Rob Stringer gave my most memorable quote of 2022 when he called the bulk of the self-serve distributors' offering "flotsam and jetsam".
  • Imagine a world of AI-assisted or AI-generated music being released at volumes previously unimaginable. That world is near. The stakes feel more appropriate when I think about that.

Universal's 2023 Q4 earnings call is on February 28th; I bet they want a new deal in place and to be back on TikTok before then.

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