What Happened to Music on TikTok? A Look at the Intersection of Business and Fandom

Photo Courtesy of Flickr.

By: Anna Locher

I woke up on Feb. 1 to a notification that Taylor Swift’s discography had been removed from TikTok. I paused. I knew there was discourse between Swift’s record label, Universal Music Group (UMG) and the social media platform, but enough to warrant this response? Evidently, yes.

Two days before the music removal, UMG published an open letter addressing their contract negotiation with TikTok. The letter explained UMG’s desire to secure proper compensation for music usage on the platform, in addition to protections for artists impacted by AI-generated content. 

The negotiations were unsuccessful, and UMG allowed their licensing contract to expire without an expectation for renewal. 

“We have an overriding responsibility to our artists to fight for a new agreement under which they are appropriately compensated for their work, on a platform that respects human creativity, in an environment that is safe for all, and effectively moderated,” UMG wrote in their statement. 

As a result, millions of TikTok videos were muted. Anything published by UMG, including the works of Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo and yes, Taylor Swift, became subject to removal from the platform. 

“I didn’t actually read about the news until I went on TikTok, and I kept seeing users, like, lip-synching to the videos, and there was no sound,” said Seri Thompson, third-year organizational communication major. 

In a 2023 community post, TikTok published data establishing the importance of music on the platform. Their research, conducted by MRC Data, suggested that 67% of users prefer content that features popular music. 

“Music and sound are TikTok’s universal language; they play an integral role in the community’s creativity, liveliness, and cultural impact,” TikTok wrote.

Now, with many popular music options being removed by UMG, users are looking for ways to connect with their communities and fandoms without those resources. 

“I’ve noticed, in some ways, people are finding more creative ways to create their own audios or sing their own versions of songs,” said Abbey Wicks, third-year multimedia journalism major.  “But also, I feel like I have seen significantly less fandom-based TikToks. And I’ve seen a lot less music promotion from small artists, which is interesting.”

TikTok appeals to a wide variety of audiences by crafting a specific “For You” feed for each user. When a user gravitates toward fandom-related content, its algorithm recognizes their preference, curating an experience specifically for them to enjoy. 

However, UMG’s choice to pull their catalogs from TikTok has highlighted the algorithm’s limitations. Without the music they claimed was “integral” to the platform, TikTok lacks a major tool for targeting audiences. 

“It used to be a place I went to for music content, to see fandom stuff, and now it’s kind of shifted directions,” said Wicks. 

Lynn Walsh, adjunct professor and former ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, emphasized TikTok’s ability to make these changes, even if it alters the user experience. 

“What I think people should understand is that when they’re sharing content on a platform, they are agreeing to the terms of that platform, they are agreeing to the limitations of that platform, they are agreeing with everything that is associated with that platform,” said Walsh. “If you don’t like it, your options are to complain to the platform, or to leave the platform.” 

Fandoms, like those popularizing Swift or Rodrigo, are built on intellectual property. No matter how important a fan community might be to its participants, its assets are at the disposal of the company, or companies, in control. In this case, both TikTok and UMG hold power. 

“You are, basically, seeing a company [TikTok] that is controlling and/or limiting more so than they used to. What is being shown, what’s allowed to be posted, what’s allowed to be included,” said Walsh. 

The situation has forced fan communities to reconcile with the impermanence of their work on social media platforms. 

“I have had a video that did pretty well, like, for me, get muted. So, that’s a bummer,” said Wicks. “If people click on it, they aren’t really gonna know what’s happening. So, then it’s like, oh, should I take it down?” 

TikTok prides itself on being a platform supported by community engagement and creativity, but both of those elements are dependent on the resources provided to users. 

“Let’s say you’re a diehard Taylor Swift fan, and you’re just wanting to make edits because you love her and you love her music. Like, that’s gonna limit what you can create,” said Thompson. “You don’t want to hear slowed-down or sped-up versions of her songs because it’s not the same. I think that discourages them.” 

Aside from the inability to produce content featuring these artists, users are worried about how fandom culture will change on TikTok. 

“It’s such a critical experience, like, the fandom experience is so important for teenagers, and specifically young women,” said Wicks. 

Ultimately, it’s an issue of spaces for young creatives being subject to the business decisions of corporate giants.

Laughing, Wicks put up her fist. “Yeah, I think there needs to be justice for the fangirls!”