Taylor Swift has a laudable history of standing up to Big Tech in the name of artist compensation. By embracing TikTok in 2024, she’s broken ranks with that narrative.

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It was entirely appropriate, earlier this year, for Billboard to crown Taylor Swift as the most powerful figure working in the music industry.

Obviously, Swift is the biggest megastar of music’s modern era. But she’s also a gifted entrepreneur with a razor-sharp business brain, who expertly leverages her considerable industry clout.

In the past, on multiple occasions, Swift has wielded this clout for the direct financial betterment of other, less successful artists.

Most commendably, she has used her platform and popularity to punish Big Tech for not paying artists a fair rate of compensation.

This history, however, has been thrown into stark contrast by Swift’s latest move: Bringing her music back to TikTok just as the ByteDance platform is being widely accused by music industry players – not least Universal Music Group – of underpaying music rightsholders.

Spotify logo
A quick history lesson

Just short of a decade ago, in October 2014, Swift declined to release her uber-successful 1989 album on Spotify.

Explaining that decision at the time, Swift said: “I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music. [I] just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.”

“I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music.”

Taylor Swift on Spotify, 2014

A month later, Swift doubled down – pulling her entire catalog from Spotify. She indicated that this was primarily in protest against SPOT’s insistence that all music on its platform be made available on its ‘free’ (i.e. ad-funded) tier.

Swift wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.

“It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

‘Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation’

Half a year after her bust-up with Spotify, Swift instigated a second fight for better artist compensation with another tech giant: Apple.

In June 2015, Swift publicly admonished Apple Music for refusing to pay music rightsholders royalties when their tracks were played on the platform during a subscriber’s three-month free trial.

“I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company,” Swift wrote in an online letter addressed to Apple.

“This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows.

“This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create.”

“We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

Taylor Swift in letter to Apple, 2015

She added: “We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

Apple buckled: In the wake of Swift’s censuring, Apple Music promptly agreed to pay artists and labels compensation for the use of their music during users’ free trials.

That, though, was nine years ago. A lot has changed since.

The rise and rise of Swift inc.

Since 2015, Taylor Swift has ascended to the status of unicorn pop megastar – rivaling even the levels of global popularity that Michael Jackson demanded at his height.

Along the way, Swift has survived battles with the ugly side of the music rights business, having watched the master rights to her first six albums traded amongst parties without her approval. (Swift’s team had the chance to buy back those masters from Scooter Braun, MBW revealed last year, but a deal wasn’t agreed; they ended up being sold to investment firm Shamrock Capital, which owns them to this day.)

In the wake of that masters-selling drama, Swift has blazed a trail for artists to maintain ownership of their rights.

Swift owns the masters to all of her albums since 2019’s Lover. Each of these records is distributed and marketed by Universal Music Group, which also administers Swift’s publishing.

It’s a body-blow for Universal, then, to see the biggest artist on its books strike a direct deal with TikTok… just as UMG’s mission to secure more handsome compensation from TikTok wins support from multiple, sometimes unlikely, allies.

“For Swift, the concerns of these parties aren’t influential enough to stand in the way of her ambitions for her forthcoming album, The Tortured Poets Department.”

Those allies include indie labels in both the US (via A2IM) and Europe (via IMPALA), as well as music publishers (via the NMPA) plus artist rights groups.

UMG’s stance on TikTok has even won public backing from rivals like Hipgnosis, Downtown, and Primary Wave. And just the other week Rob Stringer – Chairman of Sony Music Group – gave an interview to the FT in which it was reported that he “‘does not rule out similar action to Universal” RE: the possibility of pulling catalog from TikTok until rightsholder payouts improve.

For Swift, the concerns of these parties aren’t influential enough to stand in the way of her ambitions for her forthcoming album, The Tortured Poets Department, due for release on Friday (April 19).

When Swift grappled with Apple in 2015, she noted that the fight was “not about me” – it was about other artists.

Her reunion with TikTok is the exact opposite.

There is no other way to view it: Swift is debilitating Universal’s standing in its impasse with TikTok – and therefore wounding a mission to improve artist compensation on the platform – for her own gain.

Swift’s “commitment to her fellow artists”

Now. There is no rule that says Taylor Swift should somehow be expected to work endlessly for the financial advancement of other artists.

She has already done much more than most major league acts for this cause – and not always in the face of Big Tech.

Remember 2018, when Swift demanded, as a condition of her new record deal, that UMG ignore its artists’ unrecouped balances when sharing proceeds from a sale of Universal’s Spotify stock? (UMG, which owns 3.27% of Spotify, hasn’t actually yet sold any of its stock in Daniel Ek‘s company.)

Still, Swift’s decision to embrace TikTok amid the platform’s high-stakes fallout with UMG and other rightsholders appears to break ranks with her previous statements on similar matters. Back in 2014, remember, she was imploring record labels not to “underestimate themselves or undervalue their art”.

Had Swift not made her TikTok move this week, UMG would have been able to deny ByteDance’s platform official involvement in three tentpole album releases from its artists:

  • (i) Ariana Grande’s Eternal Sunshine, released in March (which didn’t appear on TikTok and still comfortably landed at No.1 on the Billboard 200);
  • (ii) Swift’s Tortured Poets Department, released in April; and
  • (iii) Billie Eilish’s Hit Me Hard And Soft, released in May.

UMG’s plan was surely to deprive TikTok of any participation in these releases, while rubbing salt into the wound for ByteDance by pumping promotional oxygen/exclusives towards rival platforms like YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels.

Now Swift has ‘crossed the picket line’ over TikTok, this plan has been dismantled.

Universal’s immediate concern may be how to manage the inevitable “so… it’s one rule for Taylor, another rule for the rest of us?” headache.

Is it fair for Billie Eilish, for example, to forgo the promotional boost of TikTok in the name of music “having value” – when Taylor Swift has refused to do the same?

Meanwhile, Swift’s move has lent steel to TikTok’s argument, issued in January, that UMG has “chosen to walk away from the powerful support of a platform… that serves as a free promotional and discovery vehicle for their talent”.

The age-old “free promotion” argument from a digital platform isn’t one that wins many fans amongst most artists and music rightsholders.

As A2IM’s Richard James Burgess put it recently: “The folly here for the music industry lies in sacrificing essential revenue from recorded music for the sake of promotion, exposure, or discoverability.”

Back in 2018, announcing a new global deal with the artist, UMG boss, Sir Lucian Grainge, spoke of his “enormous respect” for Taylor Swift, “in particular for her use of her hard-earned influence to promote positive change”.

Added Grainge: “Because of her commitment to her fellow artists, not only did she want to partner with a company that understood her creative vision and had the resources and expertise to execute globally on her behalf, she also sought a partner whose approach to artists was aligned with hers.”

This week, that alignment fell out of whack.

When The Tortured Poets Department arrives on April 19, you can expect it to be played loud across the global head offices of Universal Music Group in Santa Monica and Republic Records in New York.

But you might find it played just as loud – and just as jubilantly – at ByteDance HQ in Beijing.Music Business Worldwide

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