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Some of the world's most popular musical artists may leave TikTok

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

TikTok users are waking up to a new reality this morning. The world's largest music company is pulling its catalog from the social media platform TikTok.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The move by Universal Music Group coincides with contract negotiations that have gone public and become acrimonious. The impact across the music industry could be huge.

FADEL: Here with us to discuss the conflict is Stephen Thompson from NPR Music. Welcome back, Stephen.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.

FADEL: OK. So how big a deal is this? I mean, what type of artists, how much music is affected here?

THOMPSON: Well, we're talking about some of the biggest artists in the world. The tendrils of Universal Music Group extend to countless big-name stars - Billie Eilish, BTS, Drake, Lady Gaga. I could fill this entire segment just listing names. But I do have to note that Taylor Swift's music is also included here. In 2024, every news story about music has to include at least one mention of Taylor Swift. That is practically the law.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: I feel like that's true.

Posts on TikTok often have a lot of music in them, so how would this process work?

THOMPSON: Well, TikTok has license agreements with labels and artists, so users can access a searchable library of authorized songs. So the first Universal move here is to simply demand that its library be removed from what TikTok can offer. It's not necessarily a matter of throwing a switch, but that's the first step. From there, you're looking at things like takedown notices, old posts getting blocked because they have unauthorized music in them - that sort of thing. It'll be kind of piecemeal. That's going to unfold over time, depending on how contract negotiations play out.

FADEL: OK. So wait; are we eventually going to be seeing all these TikTok dance challenge videos with just people dancing in silence?

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Well, it'll depend on how long this drags out. It'll depend on the song and the artist that we're talking about. I do like the idea of people sort of shuffling in silence...

FADEL: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...But those videos are more likely to just be blocked, so users will see broken links instead of the dance moves they crave.

FADEL: So what are Universal's demands? What do they want?

THOMPSON: Well, the open letter that they put out names what it calls three critical issues. And those issues are compensation - how much money TikTok pays Universal and its artists - plus artificial intelligence and online safety. And those are all huge issues. TikTok's CEO was just grilled in Senate hearings about online safety as recently as yesterday. But I suspect that what Universal really wants here is a lot more money to grant access to its catalog, plus reassurance that TikTok is combating AI simulations of its artists, music and likenesses. The entire entertainment industry is very concerned about AI rendering human artists obsolete as technology improves.

Now, it's also worth noting that in the short term, this does have a serious impact on Universal's artists. Universal's open letter says that TikTok accounts for about 1% of its revenue, but it's not just a matter of the royalties TikTok pays out. TikTok is a major source of exposure for artists, especially people who aren't household names, and TikTok streams are factored into things like the Billboard Hot 100, so the stakes are high.

FADEL: Has TikTok responded to the demands?

THOMPSON: Well, TikTok released a statement that accused Universal of putting greed ahead of the interests of its artists, basically saying they're denying them this huge promotional platform, which doesn't really speak to most of the issues in Universal's open letter. It may seem like a simple contract negotiation with two sides arguing over money, but the gray areas are huge and the larger issues aren't going away.

FADEL: NPR's Stephen Thompson, of course mentioning Taylor Swift in this music story. Thanks for your time, Stephen.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNGKOOK AND LATTO SONG, "SEVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)