Down The Skibidi Toilet: Why Universal Music Group’s ‘Project Timeout’ is hitting TikTok with endless copyright takedown requests

MBW Reacts is a series of analytical commentaries from Music Business Worldwide written in response to major recent entertainment events or news stories. Only MBW+ subscribers have unlimited access to these articles.

A fortnight ago, I broke the heart of my four-year-old.

That morning (February 29), my kids and I, as we regularly do before school, played ‘Daddy Disco’ in the kitchen. The rules: We each choose a song, it gets played loud. The end.

We typically use YouTube Music for this purpose because it offers access to user-uploaded tracks that are not available on the likes of Spotify.

My four-year-old requested one of his favorites: the theme to Skibidi Toilet, on the DaFuq!?Boom! YouTube channel.

Then tragedy struck: the song wasn’t available. YouTube had blocked it.

Copyright takedown; four-year-old meltdown.

You may or may not be aware of Skibidi Toilet.

I’m afraid to tell you that it’s the worst kind of brain-rotting nonsense corrupting the still-developing minds of our children. (My son discovered it, as is traditional for brain-rotting nonsense, from a friend’s enthusiastic description in the playground.)

I’m also afraid to tell you that Skibidi Toilet is a global cultural phenomenon.

It’s a web series of short videos featuring… well, a computer-animated head in a toilet. Laugh all you want. You can’t laugh at its impact.

Skibidi Toilet was created by Georgia-based Alexey Gerasimov aka DaFuq!?Boom!, whose channel on YouTube has 39.5 million subscribers.

Gerasimov uploaded his first Skibidi video to YouTube in February 2023. By November, YouTube/YouTube Shorts videos associated with Skibidi Toilet had reportedly accumulated over 65 billion views.

Sixty. Five. Billion.

To put the enormity of that into perspective, the biggest-ever video on YouTube, Baby Shark, has 14.2 billion views. All of Taylor Swift’s official music videos combined have 985 million.

Skibidi Toilet is now so big, Amazon sells a virtually endless list of Skibidi pajamas, Skibidi figurines, Skibidi plushies, Skibidi rucksacks, Skibidi hoodies, Skibidi bedsheets etc.

Skibidi is, by all sensible measures, its own mini-industry.

Why on earth are you reading this in a trade publication about the music business?

Because Skibidi Toilet owes its entire existence to a ‘modified’ (i.e. sped-up) piece of recorded music, whose owner never granted a copyright license for its use.

Who’s that track’s owner? Universal Music Group.

And, right now, Universal has 120 million reasons to hate ‘modified audio’ – especially on TikTok.

Credit: rafapress/Shutterstock
‘Project Timeout’

In the past few days, I’ve obtained evidence that, since February 1, Universal Music Group has hit TikTok with over 37,000 separate copyright takedown requests to remove different ‘Sounds’ from the platform.

These 37,000+ requests have resulted in – wait for it – approximately 120 million videos on the ByteDance platform being muted.

The majority of these takedowns, sources tell me, have targeted ‘modified’ versions of UMG-controlled music uploaded by TikTok users – i.e. sped up, slowed down, pitched up, or pitched down versions of original recordings.

Because the audio of these tracks is ‘modified’, they often bypass TikTok’s copyright detection filters – the same copyright detection filters that would automatically block users from uploading videos featuring un-modified Universal tracks.

A list of around 3 million un-modified Universal recordings was, of course, removed from TikTok after UMG’s recorded music license with the service expired on February 1.

“These 37,000+ requests have resulted in – wait for it – approximately 120 million videos on TikTok being muted.”

That list, however, didn’t contain modified versions of Universal’s recordings – modified versions like the theme to Skibidi Toilet.

“TikTok is complying with Universal’s individual copyright takedown requests for all this modified content, but with over 100 million videos muted it’s getting out of hand,” said one source close to the UMG/TikTok situation.

This source requested anonymity but informed me that, internally, UMG is calling its current TikTok modified-audio-copyright-takedown blitz “Project Timeout”.

Wanna know how deep this rabbit hole goes?

As MBW readers will recognize, following the removal of its recorded music catalog from TikTok on February 1, Universal’s license for its music publishing catalog on TikTok then also expired on March 1.

As a result, a portfolio of 4 million songs repped (or part-repped) by Universal should no longer be available on the platform.

Yesterday morning (March 13), I received a tip-off from a trusted industry source. They told me that one UK-based artist-songwriter signed to Universal Music Publishing Group has this week been encouraged by his entire team to “speed his track up by just 2bpm [and re-upload it to TikTok] to avoid the TikTok takedown”.

Credit: Shutterstock
Modified audio on TikTok: 2.7 billion uploads a year?

The scale of this problem is flat-out astonishing.

Last month, content monitoring company Pex claimed that over 38% of music audio content on TikTok today is ‘modified’.

The firm analyzed over 100 million videos on the platform to reach that conclusion.

Now. Copyright-infringing ‘modified’ audio uploads is certainly not a problem unique to TikTok.

In keeping with my Skibidi Toilet obsession, ‘modified audio’ is also being hosted all over user-upload services like YouTube and SoundCloud, according to Pex’s data.

Yet TikTok is especially exposed here. Because, when it comes to UMG’s content, TikTok hasn’t even got a license for the original music that inspired the sea of modified audio hosted on its service.

How large is that sea? Pacific-sized.

Pex data suggests that 85% of videos on TikTok contain music audio content. TikTok data suggests that somewhere between 8 billion and 9 billion videos were uploaded to its service in each of 2021 and 2022.

So long as these stats hold water, we can be fairly confident that, each year…  around 2.7 billion videos are hitting TikTok that contain modified music audio.

Universal’s ‘Project Timeout’, then? Those 120 million muted videos?

A mere tinkle into the vast, messy sewer of ‘modified audio’ issues for copyright holders on TikTok (and other user-upload services).

A quick search around TikTok this afternoon revealed just how messy that sewer really is – and not only for Universal Music Group.

Some examples:

  1. Here is a bundle of videos, now live on TikTok, all featuring a modified version of Katy Perry’s Dark Horse (a UMG recording);
  2. Here is a bundle of videos, now live on TikTok, all featuring a modified version of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance (a UMG recording);
  3. Here is a bundle of videos, now live on TikTok, all featuring a modified version of Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black (a UMG recording);
  4. Here is a bundle of videos, now live on TikTok, all featuring a modified version of Sam Smith & Kim Petras’ Unholy (a UMG recording);
  5. Here is a bundle of videos, now live on TikTok, all featuring a modified version of Lana Del Rey’s Doin’ Time (a UMG recording);
  6. Here is a bundle of videos, now live on TikTok, all featuring a modified version of Soulja Boy’s Crank That (a UMG recording), spliced with Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You (a Sony recording);
  7. Here is a bundle of videos, now live on TikTok, all featuring a modified version of Tom Odell’s Another Love (a Sony recording);
  8. Here is a bundle of videos, now live on TikTok, all featuring a modified version of Notorious B.I.G’s Suicidal Thoughts (a Warner recording)

[Update: 48 hours after this article was.originally published, the majority of the ‘Sounds’ listed above had been removed from TikTok.]

And here’s my absolute favorite: this video from TikTok ‘creator’ Ykare, which remains live on TikTok and has over 34 million views to date.

In the video, Ykare, dressed in a Teletubbies outfit and stood in the shower, sings a version of Noah Kahan’s smash Stick Season – a UMG/Republic recording.

The ‘Sound’ in the video on TikTok is credited to Ykare himself.

Only problem? He’s singing it over a very clear – and very loud – playback of the actual original recording of Stick Season by Noah Kahan.

Sploshing a bit of water about does not a new recording make.

I repeat: 34 million views.

Is ‘Project Timeout’ making a dent in TikTok’s engagement?

All of the videos I cite above feature a ‘Sound’ on TikTok that is not attributed to each song’s original artist, but instead to someone else – usually the, ahem, TikTok ‘artist’ who was involved in modifying/remixing it.

Despite this, it’s really not difficult to find – and share – these ‘Sounds’ on TikTok.

Just try searching TikTok’s #Speedsongs hashtag, where you’ll find 1.9 million videos listed, or the #Nightcore hashtag, where you’ll find nearly 900k videos.

You won’t enjoy a perfect hit rate, however: A decent sprinkling of these #Speedsongs and #Nightcore videos have already been muted – due to their modified-audio ‘Sounds’ (based on UMG recordings) being removed from TikTok.

This is Universal’s ‘Project Timeout’ in action.

Obviously enough, if you’re looking to add a deleted #Speedsongs or #Nightcore ‘Sound’ to your TikTok video, it can make for a frustrating user experience… adding to the existing frustration of not being able to add those 3 million-ish original UMG recordings, nor any official recordings associated with the 4 million-strong Universal Music Publishing Group catalog.

Big question, then: Is the combination of Universal’s ‘Project Timeout’, plus the takedown of UMG’s ‘official’ copyrights, having any impact on TikTok users’ enjoyment of the platform?

The latest data suggests it might be.

Data from Sensor Tower shared with industry sources this week suggests that TikTok’s user engagement (measured in time spent on the platform) in the US was down 6% YoY in February 2024.

Elsewhere, data from Apptopia – published this week in a research note from JP Morgan analyst, Daniel Kerven – estimates that TikTok’s global user engagement (again, in terms of time spent on the platform) was down 3% YoY in the period from February 16 to February 29, 2024… and down 5% YoY in the period from March 1 to March 10, 2024.

Give it to. me, give it to me… Skibidi, Skibidi…

Considering its 65 billion+ views, and the emotional turmoil of my inconsolable offspring, it would be rude not to give the final word here to Skibidi Toilet and finally explain how an unlicensed pop recording drove this multi-billion-stream phenomenon.

From the off, the majority of Skibidi Toilet’s videos have been soundtracked by a user-generated mashup of two recordings: Give It To Me by Timberland (feat. Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake, released in 2007), plus Dom Dom Yes Yes by Biser King.

It is fair to say that Skibidi Toilet relies rather more on Give It To Me than it does Dom Dom Yes Yes.

The full ‘song’ of Skibidi Toilet contains the following original vocals from Timbaland’s Give It To Me – released in 2007 via Interscope/Universal – plus that track’s original background music, all modified at various speeds:

  • Nelly Furtado: “My style is ri-dic-dic-diculous-ulous-ulous.”
  • Nelly Furtado: “If you see us in the club, we’ll be acting real nice. If you see us on the floor, you’ll be watching all night. We ain’t here to hurt nobody (Justin Timberlake sings: ‘So give it to me, give it to me, give it to me”). Wanna see you work your body (Timberlake: ‘So give it to me, give it to me, give it to me’).”
  • Timberland: “When Timbo’ is in the party everybody put up their hands. I get a half a mill’ for my beats, you get a couple gra-a-and. Never gon’ see the day that I ain’t got the upper hand. I’m respected from Californ-I-A way down to Japan. I’m a real producer, and you just a piano man.”

In fact, Skibidi Toilet even partly derives its name from Give It To Me, whose Timberlake-sung title (“so give it to me, give it to me”) sounds a lot like “skibidi” when sped up.

So there’s that. And there’s a toilet.

Looking flush

Now we come to the point, lucky reader, where I finally satiate your aural desires.

Since being blocked on YouTube two weeks ago, the full Skibidi Toilet ‘modified audio’ track has since wormed its way back onto YouTube via a few rogue uploads, on a few rogue channels

I’ve posted an embed of one of these uploads below, side-by-side with the track that, erm, inspired it: Give It To Me by Timberland (feat. Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado).

I’m not expecting the Skibidi track to stay live on YouTube for long after Google sees this MBW article, so, please, fill your boots while you still can.

All of this is funny, of course. Toilets are, and always will be, f*cking funny.

But I’d wager it’s rather less funny for Universal Music Group – as well as Timbaland, Nelly Furtado, and Justin Timberlake.

A track by these artists, released 17 years ago, has now hit the ears of young people around the globe… and this bears repeating… tens of billions of times over the past year.

None of these artists have received any credit or monetary compensation for this recording, which – in sheer exposure terms – must amount to the biggest global hit of their combined, illustrious careers.

To finish us off, here’s something that pretty much sums up everything I’ve talked about in this article.

Check out this 19-second video on TikTok, which to date has over 8.6 million views.

It depicts a group of adult women having a lovely time at a full-blown Skibidi Toilet IRL experience – complete with life-size Skibidi Toilets wheeling around on a dancefloor behind them.

Throughout, you can hear the ‘modified’ recording of Timbaland’s Give It To Me filling the venue.

Speaking to the camera, one woman literally calls it a “Skibidi Toilet concert”.

It would be my four-year-old’s dream to be there.

For anyone serious about the reasonable control of music-related IP in this age of rampant user-uploads on TikTok?

It’s the stuff of nightmares.

JKBX (pronounced "Jukebox") unlocks shared value from things people love by offering consumers access to music as an asset class — it calls them Royalty Shares. In short: JKBX makes it possible for you to invest in music the same way you invest in stocks and other securities.Music Business Worldwide

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