Is TikTok killing K-pop? Song licensing battle rages on

Music from SM Entertainment's SuperM was removed from TikTok as a result of the music licensing battle ongoing since January. [SM ENTERTAINMENT]

Avid K-pop fans and TikTok users might have already realized that some K-pop songs have disappeared from the social media platform.

This is due to the ongoing music licensing battle between Universal Music Group (UMG), the world’s largest music label, and TikTok with over 1 billion users. The two sides failed to reach a conclusion until the prior contract expire date of Jan. 31, with none of them backing down up to this date. The top agenda for both parties is the value of UMG's music licensing fees. UMG is claiming that their songs are worth more than what the TikTok proposed, claiming that the latter is attempting to "intimidate" them into "accepting a deal worth less than the previous deal, far less than fair market value and not reflective of their exponential growth."

The two sides failed to arrive to a conclusion, leading UMG to remove its massive library from TikTok. The platform followed suit by muting the already-existing videos featuring songs from UMG, with the notice “sound removed due to copyright restrictions.”

“About 7 million songs from musicians under UMG such as Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, can no longer be used on TikTok,” analyzed Korea Copyright Commission. “That’s nearly half of the music volume available on the platform.”

Universal's artist roster also includes Drake, Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish and Post Malone along with K-pop heavyweights BTS, Blackpink, NewJeans and SuperM. The ongoing licensing battle resulted in all the artists' music disappearing on TikTok.

DJ Snake’s “SG” (2022), which features Blackpink’s Lisa, was removed as the Universal holds the copyright to the song. “Bad Decisions” (2022), a collaboration single by four BTS members — Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook — U.S. singer-songwriter Benny Blanco and rapper Snoop Dogg, is muted on TikTok for the same reasons, as well as a Coca-Cola promotional song “Be Who You Are” (2023) which features NewJeans.

"Bad Decisions" and "SG," both songs which feature members of BTS and Blackpink, are no longer available on TIkTok, while existing videos became muted. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Songs by SuperM, promoted to be SM Entertainment’s “K-pop super boy band,” have also disappeared from the platform as the group was formed by SM Entertainment and Capitol Music Group, a subsidiary under UMG.

The band consists of iconic K-pop acts such as Taemin of SHINee, Baekhyun and Kai of EXO and Ten, Taeyong and Mark of NCT. Admittedly, the band has only few handful of songs under its belt as it has not released music since September 2020, but the only song available from their TikTok account is one single promotional song dubbed “Let’s Go Everywhere.”

All of SuperM's songs, except for one promotional song "Let's Go Everywhere," was taken down from TikTok as the band was formed by SM Entertainment and Capitol Music Group, a subsidiary under Universal Music Group. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

For fans of above-mentioned groups, the absence of their favorite K-pop idol’s music on TikTok may be a big disappointment, but the artists themselves will barely feel the impact.

The news, however, comes as a critical blow mostly to up-and-coming groups who desperately need channels like TikTok to promote their new music.

Girl group TRI.BE is one of the artists critically affected by the situation. Formed by the late hit Korean composer Lee Ho-yang, professionally known as Shinsadong Tiger, and UMG, the girl group debuted in 2021. The group currently is at the stage of their K-pop life cycle where the members have to aggressively pursue their careers. The current debacle resulted in all the group's songs being scrapped from TikTok, and the members losing access to promote its latest EP "Diamond," released on Feb. 20.

Members appeared on other artists’ TikTok challenges and promoted their music on other social media in the form of reels and short-form content to compensate for the situation.

Girl group TRI.BE, formed by a famous Korean composer Shinsadong Tiger and Universal Music Group, could not promote their latest EP "Diamond" through TikTok due to ongoing dispute between the two companies. [TR ENTERTAINMENT]

It remains in the dark whether the fallout between the UMG and TikTok will wrap up soon or remain in deadlock and spill over to other K-pop acts.

K-pop experts remain conflicted on the issue. As much as it’s important to attain the music licensing rights for the “appropriate compensation of our artists and songwriters,” as stated by Universal, TikTok remains to date one of the most democratic social media platform where users “discover” new songs.

“TikTok’s strength lies in the fact that there are no patterns — any music can suddenly go viral regardless of time and region,” said music critic Kim Do-heon. “UMG's music dropout from TikTok equals to a sized-down promotional effect on the global market, so from an artist’s point of view, it’s understandably disappointing.”

If global hit K-pop songs like Fifty Fifty’s “Cupid,” which landed on Billboard charts after becoming viral on TikTok, are banned from the platform because they are involved with Universal, the odds may be against K-pop’s growing global popularity.

Beyond the effects on K-pop, the dilemma can also affect the music industry as a whole. Billboard speculates that UMG’s decision could shake up the global music landscape to veer away from the industry’s reliance on TikTok.

“This move by the world’s largest music company feels akin to the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes that halted much of the film business last year,” Billboard wrote. “Though the pain will be felt in the short term, the hope is that UMG’s stand will lead to substantive change that benefits everyone in the music industry in the long term. There’s an opportunity for the ‘movement’ to grow too, should the other major music companies, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group, as well as indies, decide to pull their catalogs as well when their licensing deals expire.”