TikTok’s fallout with Universal Music Group is muting viral trends

Remember TikTok’s thirsty Pedro Pascal fan edits? For several months beginning in January 2023, many of us couldn’t open the video platform without being blasted by the familiar sound of Shaggy’s “Hey Sexy Lady” hit, to which many of the biggest videos were set. If you dive back into any of those videos now, you’ll find that swathes of these filtered, edited clips of the Chilean actor have been completely muted — because “Hey Sexy Lady,” along with many other popular songs used in viral trends, have been taken off TikTok.

Last week, TikTok failed to reach a deal to renew licensing rights with Universal Music Group (UMG), leading to thousands, potentially millions, of songs from UMG’s library being suddenly removed from the platform. That’s no easy decision to make considering how inseparable, and influential, TikTok has become in global music culture. By walking away from one of the largest global platforms for music discovery, UMG is gambling that TikTok will crawl back to the table with a better deal — and it’s left a void of soundless viral clips in its wake.

Viral TikTok trends like dances, fancams, and memes have had an unquestionable effect on how we now find and listen to music. One MRC Data study in 2021 found that 75 percent of TikTok users discover new artists via the platform, which is likely promoted by viral activity. 

Individual trends, meanwhile, can grant a big boost to their subject. The original “Hey Sexy Lady” Pascal video, from TikTok user dvcree, has attracted over 45 million views and 4.7 million likes since it was posted on January 20th, 2023. Featuring snippets of the actor’s Agent Whiskey character from Kingsman: The Golden Circle, it even left the TikTok fandom sphere entirely when it became the focus of a Saturday Night Live sketch. I’m willing to bet that Pascal’s internet presence has benefited from it, considering how upset his fan base was when he wasn’t named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive last year. That’s an incredible achievement for what started as a niche, naughty meme.

People are trying to find humor in the loss of UMG-owned music killing their favorite TikTok videos.
Image: Cartoon by @seebangnow, edited by @princecosplayss

Whether or not you care about preserving saucy, cowboy-themed thirst compilations, UMG’s colossal presence in the music industry makes its sudden absence from TikTok glaring. The company said its catalog contained almost 4 million songs when it released its annual report for 2022. That figure includes subsidiaries like Universal Music Publishing Group, which represents huge performers like Post Malone, Drake, and Harry Styles. Even if you (like me) don’t consciously listen to popular UMG artists like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, you (again, like me) might have found viral trends using “Anti-Hero” and “Yes, And?” have infiltrated your TikTok algorithms. I’ve been parroting “It’s me, hi. I’m the problem. It’s me” for months without ever hearing the full song.

There are so many companies and sub-labels under UMG that many TikTok users didn’t know the extent of the removals until viral audio clips disappeared

Unless you’re intimately familiar with the labels that UMG owns, you may not immediately catch why the tunes driving your favorite TikTok trends have been removed from the platform, including songs that TikTok users have rediscovered decades after their original release.

Take Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 hit “Murder on the Dancefloor,” which became a viral trend after it was featured in Saltburn — resulting in TikTok users, including Ellis-Bextor herself, mimicking the movie by dancing dramatically through their homes. Propelled by the film and the trend, the song peaked at number two on the UK singles charts between January 12–18th, 2024, and became Ellis-Bextor’s first song to ever chart in the US Billboard Hot 100. But because it’s owned by Polydor Records, a label that operates under UMG, the track is no longer available for making new edits. While you can still check out many of the existing videos, you can’t (officially, at least) join in on the trend.

The list only goes on. “Never Forget You” by Noisettes, which went viral in 2021 as the background audio for users revealing cute (or horrendously juicy) moments from their pasts? It’s owned by UMG subsidiaries Mercury and Vertigo. Lady Gaga’s “Bloody Mary,” the subject of a dance trend based on Netflix’s gothic comedy series Wednesday? Rae Sremmurd’s “Come Get Her,” used for sexier viral dancing videos? Both owned by UMG’s Interscope label. Sleep Token’s “The Summoning,” used across edits of fan-favorite characters like Baldur’s Gate 3’s Astarion or Call of Duty’s Simon “Ghost” Riley? Sorry, that’s from a UMG sub-label, too.

TikTok users have, unsurprisingly, reacted to the situation with fresh memes or jokes about their dependence on UMG. Accounts like pokemonmasterzo and elliecollinssss, who found their niche basing humorous, dramatic performances around Taylor Swift’s music, have made lighthearted videos referencing the removal. Fandom editors have also started mockingly using Nintendo Wii music in place of sexier UMG-owned tunes. More seriously, artists like Australian singer Peach PRC are mourning their channels being muted by the very company that discovered — and later signed — them thanks to their TikTok audiences.

Yet despite a huge chunk of licensing rights for viral TikTok songs now having expired, it really isn’t hard to still find them on the platform. Unofficial clips of these tunes are still noticeably featured on older videos, often without any credit to the original performer. In many cases, the songs have been deliberately sped up or slowed down, either as a stylistic choice or perhaps to evade automatic detection and takedowns. As videos that properly sourced their audio from artists have gone silent, TikTok’s pirate economy has only become more obvious.

UMG says it pulled its music from TikTok because the tech giant offered artists a bad deal, even by the poor standards streaming companies like Spotify have already set for royalty payments. There’s little to indicate that negotiations are still ongoing, but it would be in both TikTok’s and UMG’s best interests to reach an agreement. On UMG’s side, the label’s departure could be disastrous for smaller artists who have now lost the vast visibility that TikTok provides. On TikTok’s, the platform will have to step up its moderation efforts to prevent its users from pirating UMG songs now that one of the world’s largest music companies will be breathing down its neck. But for now, UMG has proven just how important it is to TikTok by leaving — and created its own cultural moment on the platform in the process.

By 111 Tech

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