Triller Solen Feyissa Unsplash

Short-video app Triller’s relationships with the music industry have been distinctly rocky in recent times, epitomised by a lawsuit filed against it by Sony Music last year.

The label accused Triller not only of failing to make promised payments running into millions of dollars, but also of continuing to make Sony’s music available in its app after the label terminated its licensing deal.

Now a resolution, of sorts. According to a court filing this week, Triller has accepted liability on the breach-of-contract issue, and has agreed to pay Sony Music $4.5m to cover the owed money plus interest.

Note, this is only one half of the lawsuit. The other half is the copyright infringement allegations over use of Sony’s catalogue after it terminated the licence. That has not yet been settled, so Sony Music is seeking a “partial final judgement” in the meantime.

The label wants prompt payment, too, because “As the Court is aware, Triller has claimed an ‘inability to pay’. Prompt entry of judgment is needed to protect against any further dissipation of Triller’s assets or, worse still, a bankruptcy filing”.

Where does all this leave Triller? Last September, the company claimed to have secured “a binding $310m investment” from Luxembourg-based investment company GEM. Pleading an inability to pay $4.5m of money owed to Sony Music would be strange, to say the least.

But beyond that puzzle, Triller has also been sued by Universal Music Group, in January this year, with that label also claiming that the company failed to make its promised licensing payments. The previous month, it removed independent music from labels licensed by Merlin.

Commercial music is intrinsic to short video as a medium, and Triller seems to be doing a good job of burning its bridges with the rightsholders who license that music. Even if the existing lawsuits are resolved, the path back to trusted relationships looks rocky.

We’ll tell you who’ll be pulling out the deckchair and popcorn for all this though: TikTok. For all the public hardball negotiations around its next music licensing deals, the company’s standing with rightsholders is at least nowhere near Triller territory.

The latter has sought to present itself as the patriotic American alternative to TikTok, even labelling it “the largest security threat to America today” in July 2022 when calling for it to be banned.

TikTok hasn’t hit back publicly, possibly because rising to the bait of a smaller rival has little upside. But you can imagine it may hope to get some mileage privately out of presenting itself as the rightsholder-respecting alternative to Triller.

Neither Sony Music nor Triller have published official statements (beyond the court filing) but we will update this story if and when they do.

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Stuart Dredge

Music Ally's Head of Insight

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