TikTok has attracted more than 1 billion users with videos set to music. Now the world’s largest record labels want the social media app to pay more for those songs.
Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group are asking TikTok to share the advertising revenue and increase the royalties it pays them for rights, according to people familiar with the talks. The companies have been negotiating all year and are trying to reach a deal before their contracts expire in the coming months, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private.
As TikTok has grown in popularity, it has become one of the music industry’s most powerful kingmakers. Record labels rely on TikTok to identify promising artists and to market new releases. It’s the single most important marketing tool the companies have, according to Mark Mulligan, an analyst with Midia Research Ltd.
The social media app has started to profit from its popularity. It earned $4 billion in revenue last year and is on track for $12 billion in 2022, according to the research firm eMarketer. The music companies want TikTok to share more of that money, compensating them with a cut of advertising sales based on the number of plays their artists get. An executive at one of the major labels said that TikTok should be paying between two and ten times more than its existing agreement, based on similar relationships with other platforms with large audiences, such as Facebook and YouTube.
The music groups are weighing how to best increase their payouts from TikTok without getting into a public dispute with one of their most important partners. TikTok has positioned itself as a promotional tool that doesn’t need to pay in the same way as Spotify or YouTube. It’s a complement to music listening, not a replacement for it, the company argues.
“We are committed to creating value for rights holders, songwriters and artists when their music is used, and are proud of the deals we’ve struck and the growing revenue stream we’ve delivered to the industry in a few short years,” Ole Obermann, TikTok’s global head of music, said in a statement to Bloomberg. Obermann previously worked as the chief digital officer at Warner Music.
Music companies first licensed rights to TikTok when it was a small, lip-syncing app that didn’t make money. TikTok paid the large music groups a flat fee to use music from their catalogs in videos shared across the social media platform.
Now, most songs that top the charts owe at least some of their audience to their popularity on TikTok. TikTok drives its users to platforms like Spotify, which pays the industry based on the number of plays. However, if a song becomes a massive viral hit on TikTok, that doesn’t translate into any more revenue from TikTok.
Sony, Warner and Universal announced their current deals with the company in November 2020, January 2021 and February 2021, respectively. The companies continued to collect flat fees, instead of a cut of revenue, in part because TikTok was just starting to figure out its advertising business. These contracts last for two years, although the parties tend to reach short-term extensions during negotiations rather than let the contracts lapse.
TikTok’s deal with Merlin, which represents independent labels, expired at the start of the year and the two sides have used short-term extensions to avoid needing to remove music from the service.
“Record labels and publishers gave TikTok a license to monetize their catalogs while they figured out how it works,” said Mulligan. “They have now figured it out.”
TikTok is eating into advertising sales at competitors such as YouTube and Snap Inc., so the timing sounds right from the record companies’ perspective. Many executives believe TikTok should share revenue from advertising, and its owner ByteDance Ltd., should create a paid music service that operates globally. ByteDance could then use TikTok to feed users into its subscription product.
ByteDance already created a paid music service called Resso in 2019 and introduced it in three markets: Indonesia, Brazil and India. Resso has tens of millions of monthly active users, according to people familiar with the business, but the service has thus far struggled to convert many of them into paying subscribers.
ByteDance has been seeking the rights to expand Resso into about a dozen new territories for more than a year. It has asked partners to reduce its fees, offering to pay less than peers such as Spotify and Apple Music. Rights holders have balked, and Sony took down its music from Resso earlier this year.
“We’re unable to comment on commercial negotiations,” a TikTok spokesperson said. “We are working with Sony to bring their catalog back to Resso.”
Beijing-based ByteDance has registered a trademark for TikTok Music and has discussed rebranding Resso with that name. But the company has yet to ask record labels for rights to use their music on a TikTok-branded service.
Artists are reluctant to speak out about TikTok, fearing they will jeopardize their reach on a critical social media platform, said songwriter and producer Crispin Hunt. Hunt is also a director and former chair of the Ivors Academy, a professional association for music writers.
“Every artist is understandably nervous to bite the hand that feeds you, even if it doesn’t feed you much,” Hunt said.
The music companies remain optimistic that they can convince ByteDance to pay up and are looking for ways to deepen their relationship with the company. Universal partnered with TikTok on a program to connect emerging talent with famous songwriters such as Max Martin.
The labels’ uneasy relationship with TikTok — Mulligan described it as schizophrenic — reminds executives of their decade-long disputes with YouTube and Facebook. Music companies criticized their business partners in Silicon Valley for years, claiming they didn’t do enough to halt piracy and that they got rich off their work. YouTube and Facebook positioned themselves as marketing tools.
Record labels pushed YouTube to offer a subscription-based music service, arguing it would make a fortune if it converted even a small percentage of its two billion users into paying customers. YouTube’s initial forays into paid streaming bore little fruit and many music executives believed YouTube wasn’t really trying.
But YouTube overhauled its paid services in 2018 and has since added more than 50 million paying customers. YouTube paid the music industry more than $6 billion between July 2021 and June 2022, and is now the second-biggest source of revenue after Spotify. YouTube gives rights holders a share of advertising revenue, based on the number of times a song is played, while driving users to subscribe to a premium, ad-free music offering. A portion of the subscription revenue also goes to rights holders.
While Facebook hasn’t created a paid music service, it does now share revenue with music partners.
TikTok differs from those two in at least one respect. As a Chinese-owned app, TikTok is the subject of relentless geopolitical scrutiny. India has banned TikTok, and many politicians in the US are pushing for the government to do the same. Executives at Western companies often struggle to tell if any of their counterparts outside of China have any-decision-making authority. A TikTok spokesman said such deals are often so big they require the involvement of senior leaders across the business, including in Beijing.
TikTok appears to be looking for ways to cut the labels out of the process. In March the company launched SoundOn, a service that allows artists to upload their music directly to TikTok and earn royalties when that music is played. Bytedance has also been looking to hire executives who can discover new performers and sign them to contracts much like a record label would, Music Business Worldwide reported earlier this month. Spotify allowed artists to upload music directly a few years ago. It shuttered the program after less than a year, however.
“We will fight and determine how our artists get paid,” Lucian Grainge, Universal’s chief executive officer, told investors when asked about TikTok last month. “I’ve seen this movie before, and I know the ending.”
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