Universal Music’s Stand Against TikTok Defends Artists’ Rights (Guest Column)

Jonathan Taplin is the Director Emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California and the author of “The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars and Crypto.” He was tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band in 1969. He volunteered this op-ed in defense of Universal Music Group’s TikTok policy.

On Monday, these pages featured a defense of TikTok that could easily have been ripped from the headlines of the 2000’s. I remember debating publicly John Perry Barlow, a songwriter for the Grateful Dead and one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, about how Napster was decimating the record royalty earnings of most of my musician friends, including my former employer, Levon Helm of the Band. John Perry was adamant that the promotional power of Napster was healthy for the music industry. For Levon, who had throat cancer and needed expensive medical care, it was a disaster. With the exception of a few musicians like Dr. Dre and Metallica, the music community watched as U.S. music revenue lost more than half of its value between 1999 and 2013.

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But today the industry is not willing to be so passive in the face of new threats to music and the people who make it – threats posed by companies like TikTok that are unwilling to pay artists fairly and are actively supporting AI-created music that could replace human music creation completely.

Just like Napster had musicians to support them, Ari Herstand has stepped forward, asking and answering, Who’s Getting Hurt in the Universal Music-TikTok Standoff? Artists and Songwriters.” The title’s implicit concession that TikTok is harming artists and songwriters is about the only accurate statement he makes in the story.

The op-ed is yet another reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Just as it was in the early days of Napster, music (and the artists and songwriters who create it) are the very source of the platforms’ success. Yet, rather than share the commercial success with the creators who made it possible, Napster harmed — and TikTok harms — artists and songwriters.

Today, TikTok is even larger and arguably more dominant than any other platform in history. With a corporate market cap larger than the economies of many countries and the entire music industry and a user base of 1.8 billion monthly active users, it has the size and strength that the early generations of tech elites only dreamed about.

So how has it come to this? Why would the world’s top music company break with a platform that claims to offer such great benefit to artists and songwriters?

As Herstand references, Universal wrote an open letter to the artist and songwriter community, which outlines TikTok’s offenses against music, its creators and its fans, summarized here:

  1. Lower Compensation. Having now grown to become arguably the most dominant platform in history – largely on the backs of music creators – TikTok would pay artists less than before and only a fraction of what other platforms pay.

  • Unethical AI and Displacement of Human Artists. TikTok proposes the displacement of human artists and their music with AI-created… [noise, we’ll call it.] Worse, the AI tools they are creating will have almost certainly been trained on the unlicensed works of the very artists and songwriters that they proclaim to champion, without their consent. Is this the point in history where art is eaten by an ungovernable, genetically modified version of itself? In a future TikTok landscape irrevocably diluted by AI music, how will any human artist or songwriter stand a chance of being heard?

  • Online Harms. TikTok refuses to address either the massive amount of content on its platform that is unauthorized or arguably endangers fans – especially young fans.

In response, TikTok reaches into its wayback time machine to the early days of digital music distribution, arguing that they are entitled to this behavior because they provide that tired old myth, “free promotion.” It writes that “… the fact is [Universal] have chosen to walk away from the powerful support of a platform with well over a billion users that serves as a free promotional and discovery vehicle for their talent.”

But TikTok has never actually countered the accuracy of Universal Music’s charges. Its silence speaks volumes.

Consider, for example, the subject of AI. Universal Music writes that:

“On AI, TikTok is allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings — as well as developing tools to enable, promote and encourage AI music creation on the platform itself — and then demanding a contractual right which would allow this content to massively dilute the royalty pool for human artists, in a move that is nothing short of sponsoring artist replacement by AI.”

Artists in many fields have been fighting the use of AI to replace them. Last summer both the movie and TV Writers and Actors Guilds staged long contentious strikes largely to make sure the studios couldn’t use AI to replace writers or actors. The Authors Guild, Getty Images and the New York Times are all suing big AI firms over these same issues. Big Tech has always used the tactic of “Move Fast and Break Things” (the title of my 2017 book) to further their permission-less innovation agenda. If important companies like Universal Music don’t say “Stop,” there will be no one to defend the rights of artists in this critical battle. As Universal artist Kim Petras told the BBC, “It feels like it’s a really good fight.”

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