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Sing Holy Forever … or Until TikTok Pulls the Audio

What Universal Music Group’s catalog removal means for our favorites from Hillsong, Kari Jobe, Chris Tomlin, and more.
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Sing Holy Forever … or Until TikTok Pulls the Audio

Your favorite worship artist may be raising fewer hallelujahs on TikTok now that the world’s largest music company is pulling its entire catalog from the app due to a licensing dispute.

Last week, Universal Music Group (UMC) said it would “cease licensing content” to TikTok and began removing songs and recordings, including Christian worship hits released through Capitol Christian Music Group (CCMG).

The UMG-owned Christian record label has signed and acquired the catalogs of some of today’s most influential Christian musicians: Hillsong, Kari Jobe, Passion, Amy Grant, Anne Wilson, Brooke Ligertwood, Chris Tomlin, Crowder, Mac Powell, Tauren Wells, TobyMac, and We the Kingdom. As CT reported last year, CCMG has claimed to have a 60 percent market share of the top 10 worship songs used in churches.

So along with removing audio from Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour performances, most of Hillsong UNITED’s TikTok profile now has no audio. Several of Chris Tomlin’s videos were muted over the weekend. The removal process takes time and may affect new uploads more than existing video content. The story is still developing, so it remains to be seen how comprehensive UMG’s enforcement will be.

Because TikTok’s algorithm pushes videos with trending audio tracks, many of today’s artists want to see their music go viral on the app; it’s a major platform for exposure to a young, global audience. The move has brought uncertainty to Christian and mainstream musicians alike.

How will this change on TikTok affect the Christian music industry?

As Christian music becomes increasingly enmeshed with the mainstream music industry, artists in the niche will find that their songs, while created to serve the church, are also part of a massive collection of assets and bargaining chips that come into play during these corporate negotiations.

Music by artists signed to UMG labels and imprints will be removed from TikTok in the coming weeks unless the parties end up eventually reaching an agreement. This includes music by CCMG artists as well as other labels under its umbrella, including Motown Gospel, Re:Think, Sparrow Records, and Hillsong Music.

UMG-affiliated artists who are trying to market new music will have to put together a social strategy that doesn’t include TikTok. For artists with a substantial following on the platform—Hillsong Worship has over 440,000 followers, for example, and Kari Jobe, 161,400—that limitation will be frustrating, because their own label will prevent them from posting their music.

Wait. Why would UMG want to limit an artist’s ability to promote their own music?

“UMG’s answer to artists is, We’re trying to get you paid more money,” said music marketer Drew Small, who has worked for Bethel, Tooth & Nail Records, and CCMG, and now runs an independent music marketing agency in Nashville.

In its statement on January 30, UMG expressed commitment to its artists and their work: “We will always fight for our artists and songwriters and stand up for the creative and commercial value of music.”

According to UMG, TikTok wants to get away with paying artists a fraction of the value of their work. TikTok’s response accused UMG of putting “their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.” But in the near term, this move hurts artists who are trying to get their music out there and reach new fans.

How important is TikTok to CCM and contemporary worship artists?

In Small’s view, TikTok has not become a consistently powerful promotional tool for Christian artists.

“I don’t see a lot of Christian artists doing successful marketing on Tiktok,” said Small. “Part of the allure of Tiktok is to very affordably drive numbers, giving the perception of success. You can get a lot of traffic for very little money.”

But a strategy built on virality doesn’t work for many artists; it’s not always an effective way to find fans who want to listen to new music and support a musician’s career. Certain Christian artists like Maverick City Music, JWLKRS, Forrest Frank, Hulvey, and Elevation Worship have been able to create wide-reaching content on the platform, but those artists are notable exceptions.

While TikTok isn’t a key marketing tool for most Christian artists, UMG’s ability to remove their music from the platform can feel like a violation, even though the company has the legal right to do so. For artists with minimal administrative and distribution agreements with UMG and its subsidiaries, UMG has control over the use of their songs and recordings, even though the entity may have had almost no involvement in the artist’s career.

For some of these artists, the move feels unfair and extreme because it includes UMG’s entire publishing catalog—over 4 million songs. UMG isn’t just removing master recordings, it’s removing the songs themselves, the compositions. This means that any version of a song in UMG’s catalog, including live versions and covers, can be removed. That includes songs of which UMG controls only a small percentage of rights.

What if I/my church posted a cover of a worship song owned by UMG on TikTok?

It can be muted or removed.

“This is going to affect anyone doing a cover of a UMG-affiliated worship song,” said Small. “No one is getting sued over it, but a lot of people who are just posting for fun are going to see their videos muted or taken down.”

Even small accounts for personal use aren’t exempt, and content that might otherwise fly under the radar may be detected and removed.

Small said that UMG’s recognition software is impressive and will likely catch videos with UMG-owned songs. Even if a creator doesn’t mention the name of the song in the caption or post the lyrics, the automated program can still recognize the tune and structure.

In some cases, said Small, cover videos will simply be muted—the visual will remain posted with no audio. In others, accounts could get multiple “strikes” for content violation and eventually be flagged or suspended.

TikTok is one place where Christians can post their own covers of worship songs and watch videos posted by other amateurs and church musicians. It’s also a platform where worship leaders and industry professionals post ministry-related comedy, share tutorials, offer commentary, and even commiserate over the challenges of the role.

Several videos posted by the popular account “WorshipLeaderProbs” have had the sound removed. A meme with Steve Carell as Michael Scott dancing to a now-unknown Cody Carnes song doesn’t quite land. On Carnes’s TikTok page, the sound has been removed from several videos of the artist performing hit songs like “Firm Foundation” and “Bless God.”

Are there any ways this dispute is uniquely relevant for Christian musicians?

Increased investment in Christian music from the mainstream industry has increased the profile of many Christian musicians globally. The removal of popular CCM and worship music from TikTok is an example of how the industry’s investment and involvement in the niche comes with certain conditions. And this is true for any musician who pursues a contract with a label group like UMG.

The relationship between ministry and business in the Christian music industry is complicated. Worship artists who create music intended to serve the church may suddenly find that their offerings are also being used as bargaining chips and investment opportunities. In some cases, these are artists who signed with small labels that were acquired by UMG long after they started writing music.

“CCMG is becoming a monopoly,” said Small. “Having them withdraw from TikTok is an advantage to every artist on any other label.”

Small is also hopeful that this episode might inspire artists to reconsider the value of creating music that is tailored to platforms like TikTok, which incentivizes artists to create music with short, attention-grabbing hooks and meme-able sound bites. “This is an incentive to create good content, good art, that doesn’t feel like an ad.”

Kelsey Kramer McGinnis is CT’s worship music correspondent. For more about Universal Music Group’s TikTok licensing move, check out reporting by Vulture, Rolling Stone, and Music Business Worldwide.

January/February
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