Because Music boss Emmanuel de Buretel sides with Universal in TikTok dispute, laments ‘platform that feeds on artistic creation by destroying it’

Emmanuel de Buretel, founder of France-headquartered indie label Because Music and a former exec at Virgin and EMI, has come out in support of Universal Music Group in its licensing dispute with TikTok.

In a scathing op-ed published in France’s Le Monde on Monday (March 11), De Buretel criticizes the social media platform for what he says are TikTok’s disregard of industry norms, its use of modified music, and addictive algorithms.

“As players in the music market… we cannot accept that the consumption and disfigurement of works should be built around an algorithm that thrives on the backs of thousands of employees, craftsmen and artists around the world, and… by actively participating in the creation of a platform that feeds on artistic creation by destroying it,” de Buretel wrote.

He argued that “independent labels like Because Music don’t have the industrial power and desire to stand up to a digital giant like TikTok. But we do share the desire that the app and social networks in general should accept the rules that have been discussed with their predecessors.”

By “predecessors,” de Buretel specifically meant Google, the operator of another platform – YouTube – that, more than a decade ago, found itself in conflict with the music industry over unauthorized use and uploading of copyrighted music.

“After several years of dialogue, YouTube finally recognized the importance of music to the growth of the platform, and accepted the rules of respect and payment of works to rights holders,” de Buretel wrote.

“The music industry had succeeded in asserting its rights, so it seems unthinkable that in 2024 a platform would once again disregard the work of creators and go to great lengths to circumvent the rules that safeguard the rights of musicians everywhere to have their works respected.”

De Buretel’s Because Music has had a global physical distribution partnership in place with Virgin Music Group since 2017. The company acts as its own digital distributor, with direct deals with platforms or via Merlin. The company’s catalog is therefore not currently blocked on TikTok.

The dispute between UMG and TikTok exploded publicly in late January, when UMG’s recorded music (some 3 million tracks) began to disappear from TikTok as the two companies failed to come to an agreement on licensing fees for music used in TikTok videos.

A month later, UMG’s publishing catalog (around 4 million songs) began to disappear from the platform as well.

Universal said talks with TikTok fell apart over three key issues: “Appropriate compensation for our artists and songwriters, protecting human artists from the harmful effects of AI, and online safety for TikTok’s users”.

For its part, TikTok said it was “sad and disappointing that Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters… TikTok has been able to reach ‘artist-first’ agreements with every other label and publisher. Clearly, Universal’s self-serving actions are not in the best interests of artists, songwriters and fans.”

Recent developments suggest the two sides haven’t made much progress, with UMG Chairman and CEO Sir Lucian Grainge declaring on the company’s earnings call in late February that “there must not be free rides for massive global platforms such as TikTok that refuse to meaningfully address issues around AI, platform safety, or pay their fair share for our artists and songwriters’ work”.

“Algorithm-based recommendation works more on the mechanics of addiction than on the appetite for new emotions.”

Emmanuel de Buretel, Because Music

In his Le Monde column on Monday (March 11), de Buretel shared some of the same concerns about TikTok as Universal – though he also specifically lamented what he said was TikTok’s use of music to feed an algorithm that, rather than helping users discover new music, is designed to be addictive by offering up content that relies on users’ previous viewing habits.

“Algorithm-based recommendation works more on the mechanics of addiction than on the appetite for new emotions,” he wrote.

“More problematic still, the platform will not seek to offer original works, but will instead promote ersatz pre-existing music, bad counterfeits retouched with the help of applications offered by TikTok, making it possible, for example, to speed up or slow down a track without the artist or his producer having been informed, and for which no remuneration will probably ever be paid.”

He added that TikTok “is allowing its platform to be flooded with music recordings generated by artificial intelligence, by developing tools to encourage them,” which results in “massive dilution of the share devoted to real artists.”

The company “makes no proposals to protect music fans from illicit content, unauthorized uses of our music, the tidal wave of deepfakes, hate speech and online harassment,” de Buretel asserted.

A recent study appears to back up de Buretel’s claim that TikTok is a major hub for music that has been modified without authorization.

The study, carried out by Pex, a company that monitors and analyzes copyrighted content on digital platforms, found that slightly more than 38% of all songs on TikTok had been speed- or pitch-modified in 2023, up considerably from around 24.6% a year earlier.

This is a considerably higher percentage than seen on other major social media platforms such as Facebook (14.7%), Twitch (14.0%), YouTube (13.5%), Instagram (13.3%) or Twitter (11.8%), the study’s data showed.

In an interview with MBW earlier this year, Pex founder and CEO Rasty Turek stressed that this means artists are being underpaid, relative to how much they’re played, as many of the tracks they created aren’t being properly attributed.

“We cannot accept that the consumption and disfigurement of works should be built around an algorithm that thrives on the backs of thousands of employees, craftsmen and artists around the world, and… by actively participating in the creation of a platform that feeds on artistic creation by destroying it.”

Emmanuel de Buretel, Because Music

TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, have been developing and launching a number of music-creation tools, some of them AI-powered, most notably Ripple, which can turn a hummed melody into a song. In 2022 ByteDance launched Mawf, an app which analyzes incoming audio signals and then “re-renders” those signals using what it says is machine-learned models of musical instruments.

“The confusion between original works and counterfeits will therefore be total in the eyes of the public, and it will be up to the artists themselves to preserve the integrity of their work, without having the keys, in a universe where billions of items of content are added daily,” de Buretel wrote.

However, he asserted that the music industry can have the upper hand in this dispute, because “TikTok will not be able to do without music creations and creators, or those who make them exist,” and that music companies have “an overriding responsibility to our artists: to fight unwaveringly and fearlessly for the emergence of an agreement that will enable them to be properly protected and remunerated for their work.”

De Buretel has been a well-known name in the music industry for more than four decades. He was named CEO of Richard Branson’s Virgin Music Publishing in 1986, and also served as head of Virgin Records in France and, later, Virgin Continental Europe. He was appointed President of EMI Europe in 2001, after EMI had acquired Virgin.

In 2004, de Buretel left EMI to launch Because Music. Both EMI and Virgin were eventually acquired by Universal Music Group.

This isn’t de Buretel’s first crusade in defense of music rights holders. In 2019, he came out in support of a “user-centric” model for payments for streaming services to rights-holders, as a way to “reduce the share of ‘fake streams’” and “ensure a better flow of income between artists and titles.”

Although the industry seems to be moving towards an “artist-centric” payment model instead, this model also addresses concerns about fake streams and the proliferation of low-quality content on streaming services.Music Business Worldwide

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