Independence in the Social Age: Music’s Saving Grace?

Rohna Band

Rohna getting ready to perform at Indie Night in Tampa (Photo Creds: Amanda Laferriere, @ajpgphoto)

 The future of music promotion is entering a new era of instability as Universal Music Group and TikTok took their latest financial quarrels public at the end of January 2024. UMG has recently pulled all music affiliated with their labels and production houses from TikTok, the latest social media behemoth. From the perspective of Universal Music Group, TikTok’s current standard with music licensing leaves artists undervalued and undercompensated for the use of their works. TikTok, on the other side, claims that Universal is walking away from the free advertising TikTok provides to the millions that use the platform daily. We’ve seen these kinds of seemingly nuclear meltdowns before. Thinking back to the YouTube licensing drama of the 2010s, this isn’t exactly new ground being tread. Remembering this, it is hard to feel empathy for either of these massive companies, who will likely brush off any negative impact from this split as a minor business expense. This decision, meanwhile, could make or break the financial wellbeing of indie artists using TikTok to connect with potential listeners. The future is as uncertain as it is uncontrollable, with the powers that be making enormous changes that are rippling throughout the industry. While eyes remain locked on the main battle stage, we sat down with Andres Hernandez, bassist for the Tampa based indie rock group Rohna, to discuss how this massive shift could impact indie artists on TikTok. 

There is an argument to be made that, with the removal of artists like Taylor Swift and Adele’s music from the app, much of TikTok’s music-based draw will go away. After all, TikTok’s expansion into the U.S. market began with the acquisition of Musical.ly in 2017; a $1 billion commitment which defined Tiktok as the premiere platform for music promotion. From Andres’s perspective, music was how Tiktok set itself apart from platforms like Twitter and Instagram, who place text and photography at their forefronts. That’s what drew Rohna to the platform in the first place. The identification of this gap in the social media landscape drew in musicians like Rohna, eventually leading to the multinational giant we now recognize as TikTok. With one-third of the music market exiting the platform, TikTok may struggle to hold onto its position as the place to be for musical acts looking to make a name for themselves. Without the appeal of UMG’s enormous reach, how are small artists supposed to glean the attention of potential new fans? In Rohna’s case, Tame Impala is an oft-cited inspiration for the band. Tame Impala’s music is partially owned by Universal Music Group and, as a result, some songs have been removed from TikTok. If fans of Tame Impala, for instance, aren’t logging on to engage with the music they love, TikTok’s storied algorithm might not get a chance to introduce these fans to similar alternative acts, like Rohna, that they might otherwise enjoy. This lack of promotion seems to be the most concerning aspect. As put by Andres,Any of these platforms could be paying artists more… indie artists really just want to get their name out there and with reach comes stuff that actually makes artists money like merch and shows.”

Another possibility is that, with this incredible vacuum left behind by the giants, indie artists can hopefully grasp TikTok’s enormous reach in their favor. The hardest part of building a new platform, as any Silicon Valley nutcase will tell you, is getting people to start using it. Now that TikTok has effectively used UMG artists to build itself up as a staple in the U.S., TikTok may have entrenched itself deeply enough into the lives of its audiences that UMG’s music is no longer necessary. This could create an opening for new music, which would, ideally, be filled by indie artists. However, this is far from guaranteed. If Tiktok ultimately allows AI to run amok on the platform, as it has been doing, the platform could become polluted with soulless dredge trained off the voices of the same indie artists that they are shutting out.

Really, what Andres misses most about TikTok is the earnestness with which everyone seemed to approach it at the start. However, he has some optimistic predictions for the future of the music industry as a whole, saying this could shift the perception that record deals are salvation for small artists and encourage more artists to stay independent. After all, in his words, “Who’s to say they won’t eventually take music off of certain streaming platforms?” Considering we’re seeing historic moves for artists rights from major labels like Warner Music Group, At this point, only time will tell whether the fire lit under TikTok’s ass will prove them to be made of steel or wax.

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