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TikTok signs Merlin deal but its licensing work is far from done


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TikTok and indie licensing-agency Merlin have announced a licensing deal covering use of music from the latter’s member labels “wherever the platform is available around the world”. The deal is effective immediately, and financial terms have not been disclosed.

Cue warm words from both sides. “Independent artists and labels are such a crucial part of music creation and consumption on TikTok. We’re excited to partner with Merlin to bring their family of labels to the TikTok community,” said TikTok’s recently-appointed global head of music Ole Obermann. “Merlin members are increasingly using TikTok for their marketing campaigns, and today’s partnership ensures that they and their artists can also build new and incremental revenue streams,” added Merlin’s new CEO Jeremy Sirota.

(The sight of a TikTok / Merlin deal being announced by executives who recently joined from Warner Music Group and Facebook respectively is a sign of the industry’s job-hopping times, incidentally.)

On the label side, Merlin is one of the four key deals that a company like TikTok needs to sign. How is it doing with the three major labels? The Financial Times reported yesterday that its parent company Bytedance “is still in licensing talks with the big labels”. When Music Ally contacted TikTok’s representative yesterday, they said that the company “does already have other deals in place” but that there is no official list due to confidentially requirements.

This isn’t necessarily a contradiction. TikTok has already signed ad hoc deals for some projects. For example, in September 2019, our Sandbox report covered an agreement between independent label Domino and TikTok to make Hot Chip’s music available on the social platform. “The independent sector’s music is currently in the process of being licensed to TikTok. We worked with Merlin to make the singles and the key catalogue tracks available on the platform,” said Domino’s head of marketing Brooke Salisbury at the time.

Global deals with the three major labels are an important task for Bytedance in 2020, not just for TikTok but for its standalone streaming service Resso too. The company will be well aware that music publishers are also eager for it to tie down licensing deals for their rights. In October, the US National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) rattled its sabre in TikTok’s direction, saying that “while some publishers have been able to negotiate with TikTok to license their catalogs, a large part of our industry does not have agreements in place meaning numerous works continue to be used unlawfully as the platform’s popularity grows exponentially”.

(Plus there are collecting societies to factor in to TikTok’s licensing equations. It has already locked horns with ICE, the pan-European licensing hub set up by Euro PROs PRS for Music, GEMA and STIM, through the UK’s copyright tribunal.)

This is hardly an unfamiliar dynamic for the music industry: marketers getting excited about a new digital platform’s potential for building their artists’ audience, while rights organisations and licensing teams pile on the pressure for proper licensing deals. The Merlin deal is certainly a step forward for TikTok – and a genuinely exciting opportunity for the independent labels who it represents – but Obermann and his colleagues will be under no illusions about the work still to do in 2020.

Stuart Dredge

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