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No, TikTok isn't broke. Ariana Grande, Post Malone and Taylor Swift are gone

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By Sedge Beswick | Founder

January 31, 2024 | 6 min read

Buckle up. There is some beef going down between TikTok and Universal Music. And it is spicy. Sedge Beswick is once again at the center of it.

Taylor Swift in Out of the Woods video

/ Taylor Swift, Out of the Woods

As you all know, TikTok – then a lip-syncing app – found its fame and its hours (and hours and hours) of scrolling through music. In the years that followed, the platform evolved. Is it an entertainment platform? Yes. Is it a search platform? Also yes. Whatever you want to call it, it continues to dominate.

It’s easy to forget that TikTok is a Chinese-owned platform and has a privacy issue or two. The most recent data shows how addictive the platform is, with over 2bn downloads and the average user spending 54 minutes daily on TikTok. I bet it’s even higher.

Today, however, we saw a significant blow to TikTok. And one that music industry people have undoubtedly seen coming. Universal Music Group announced via an open letter that it removed all its artists from the platform. There are no more Taylor Swift tracks. Or Ariana Grande. Or Lady Gaga. Or if you’re old like me, no more The Beatles. That one might not be such a blow for the teenagers there, though. But it should be!

TikTok has called Universal ‘greedy,’ and Universal has called TikTok ‘bullies’. Like most divorces, when there’s serious wedge involved, it’s messy. There will be a heated debate in many boardrooms today. Both sides might have a point.

Like YouTube before, TikTok has made the careers of many signed music artists today, such as Aitch, Doja Cat, and Lil Nas X. The virality of their platform meant overnight fame.

For agencies, it opened up the opportunity for pitching brands to work with emerging artists. For artists, it gave a way to diversify revenue streams. That hallowed passive income dream was realized at last. It allowed managers to understand what makes certain genres and personalities popular. And what it is that makes Gen Z tick.

Alas, before we get ahead of ourselves, TikTok isn’t suddenly about to feel much quieter. There is still a hefty music catalog on the platform – no other record labels or music management companies have pulled the plug yet. But will they?

Perhaps this is a moment of reckoning for the music industry too. And they’re now faced with the complicated but crucial riddle – which is more important for artists. Career longevity – a long game. Or the accelerated path to success that is TikTok virality – a shortcut with none of the upfront investment needed to make their clients superstars. But with the inevitable aftermath of hellish negotiations with a social media platform that famously doesn’t play by the (conventional) rules.

Today should also serve as a wake-up call for specialists, brands, and agencies that have carved out a niche in the TikTok space. It's important, absolutely. But limiting? Increasingly yes.

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What happens when the content you’ve created is no longer licensed to exist on the only platform it makes sense on? TikTok understands the importance of diversification. It’s why you can still post your gender reveal video to the soundtrack of Jack Harlow. Or just about any video to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s newly resurrected Murder On The Dancefloor. Diversifying will keep the lights on, even when you lose your Universal-equivalent client. Trust me on that one.

And if you want to be clued into the Sophie Ellis-Bextor revival, VCCP’s Alex Horner explains here. Make ads more like Saltburn – the public will lap them up.

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