Why are Universal Music Songs by Ariana Grande, Others on TikTok?

The standoff between Universal Music Group and TikTok over royalty payments and AI policies has resulted in a near-complete blackout of all music owned, distributed and published by the company on the platform — the videos are still there, but the music is muted.

Yet new songs by UMG artists, including Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello and Niall Horan could be found on TikTok at the time of this article’s publication. How and why is that happening?

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While reps for UMG and TikTok declined comment, and an explanation of the platform’s logistics and process quickly devolves into a mind-melting blizzard of jargon and abbreviations, here’s a vast oversimplification of a couple of possibilities.

First, unlike streaming services, rights-holders — usually record labels — are not the only entities who can upload music to the platform; far from it. Virtually anyone can — and those uploads display as an “original sound” on a user’s post. That sound can be used by anyone on the platform, including, potentially, the artists. Once that music is on TikTok, the rights-holders cannot control it with anything except takedown notices and other legal notifications. Thus, it is TikTok’s responsibility to detect, police and mute unauthorized music on its platform.

However, as proven by nearly 20 years of YouTube — a similar if not exact situation — that is no easy task, especially on TikTok, whose detection software can be eluded by some sped-up, slowed-down or otherwise altered songs. In the case of the three aforementioned artists, each used an “original sound” adjusted in pitch or tempo.

Complicating the matter further, sources tell Variety that UMG has largely ceased sharing information about its new releases with TikTok, which could mean that the platform’s detection software did not have all of the data it requires to catch and then mute those songs — such as Grande’s and Cabello’s, which were released and previewed (respectively) last week, after the full ban took effect at the end of February.

Another twist presents itself in the form of “Saturday Night Live” and other TV, live or video performances by UMG artists. It’s unclear whether those songs eluded the detection software or whether they are not bound by the same legal terms as the officially released UMG songs — for example, if a song sung by Grande on “SNL” was not written by any Universal Music Publishing songwriters or administered by the company, and the recording is owned by the broadcaster (which in this hypothetical case would be NBC) and not UMG, it’s possible that the sound recording is not bound by UMG’s still-expired licensing deal with TikTok.

Or maybe the recordings simply eluded TikTok’s software. When a TikTok rep was notified by Variety about the presence of certain songs on the platform, at least one of them was removed within an hour (or may already have been flagged with a takedown notice from UMG).

While reps declined comment, UMG addressed the situation broadly — basically faulting TikTok’s detection software — in the letter to artists it issued on Jan. 30 informing them of the impending ban. “TikTok makes little effort to deal with the vast amounts of content on its platform that infringe our artists’ music and it has offered no meaningful solutions to the rising tide of content adjacency issues, let alone the tidal wave of hate speech, bigotry, bullying and harassment on the platform,” it reads in part. “The only means available to seek the removal of infringing or problematic content (such as pornographic deepfakes of artists) is through the monumentally cumbersome and inefficient process which equates to the digital equivalent of ‘Whack-a-Mole.’ … We will always fight for our artists and songwriters and stand up for the creative and commercial value of music.”

That game of whack-a-mole will continue until the two sides come to terms… or until Congress decides to ban TikTok, which it is currently considering (again).

Variety will have more on the situation as it develops.

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