It took less than 15 months for TikTok to commandeer the attention of the music industry. The platform combines a giant and still-growing user base with a vaunted algorithm that repeatedly discovers and elevates new music; it has already earned comparisons to YouTube, the world’s biggest streaming service. Major labels now comb TikTok for singles with upward momentum and reward the artists behind those tracks with multimillion dollar record deals.
But labels were surprised when TikTok suddenly started restricting songs with explicit lyrical content at the end of August. According to internal label correspondence obtained by Rolling Stone and multiple label and management sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity, tracks with explicit content hit multiple roadblocks: Select songs failed to upload properly to TikTok, certain old tracks were pulled down, and in some cases, TikTok users were unable to make new videos using explicit songs.
“It seems like they are trying to cut down the cursing and the swear words on TikTok,” says Antonio Chavez, who manages the rapper bbno$ and has helped run several successful campaigns on the platform.
Alarmed labels immediately signaled their concerns to TikTok and scrambled to minimize the disruption to their businesses by delivering clean versions of the rejected music. By the end of last week, all the explicit music that had been impacted was back on the platform.
In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson acknowledged that the platform had temporarily struggled to handle explicit tracks. “Due to an internal error, we inadvertently restricted explicit tracks from TikTok globally,” the spokesperson said. “We immediately noticed the error and began working to roll back the implementation, and while much of the fix was able to take effect right away, we were finally able to notify labels of the full restoration of affected tracks last week. We are proud to support the music community and appreciate the patience and support of our label and artist partners as we worked to resolve this error.”
This episode serves as a potent reminder of how labels are beholden to massive technology companies that can now often dictate what becomes a hit. And the company’s mistake proved mystifying from a business perspective — a quick tour of TikTok shows that profane music performs incredibly well on the platform. Kids love yelling along to BigKlit’s “Liar” (“Fuck! You a pussy-ass bitch!”), relish the opportunity to mime blackbear’s “Hot Girl Bummer” (“Fuck you and you and you/I hate your friends, and they hate me too”), and respond gleefully to Ugly God’s “One, Two” (“One, two, who the fuck is you, bitch?/Three, four, come and get yo’ ho, bitch”).
TikTok’s “internal error” comes amid increasing concern in the U.S. and U.K. about the ways that the app’s owner, the huge Chinese company Bytedance, restricts content. Last week, Senator Marco Rubio wrote a letter urging the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to investigate Bytedance’s alleged censorship of videos that do not support the Chinese government. “The Chinese government’s nefarious efforts to censor information inside free societies around the world cannot be accepted and pose serious long-term challenges to the U.S. and our allies,” Rubio wrote.
TikTok’s brief, apparently accidental attempt at cleaning up profanity also calls to mind an effort made by Spotify last year. In May 2018, the streaming company implemented a new “hate content and hateful conduct policy.” As a result, artists like R. Kelly and XXXtentacion, who both faced allegations of sexual and physical assault, were removed from Spotify’s curated playlists.
But Spotify quickly reversed course after music industry uproar. “Are they censoring the music?” Terrence “Punch” Henderson, president of Kendrick Lamar’s label Top Dawg Entertainment, wondered at the time. “That’s dangerous,” Henderson added. Within weeks, Spotify announced plans to move “away from implementing a policy around artist conduct.” CEO Daniel Ek later explained that the company “rolled this out wrong” and “could have done a much better job.”
While Spotify’s initiative was intentional, TikTok attributes its restriction of explicit content to error, which potentially accounts for the lack of public industry outcry. In addition, American labels are already required to deliver clean versions of tracks to radio that must adhere to FCC regulations about profanity. Label insiders say that some explicit songs, like “Hot Girl Bummer,” were able to dodge TikTok’s temporary profanity restrictions. (A rep for blackbear did not respond to a request for comment.) And multiple label employees say their TikTok liaisons worked diligently to help them get key tracks back onto the platform.
But label employees were troubled by their powerlessness and frustrated by what they saw as the arbitrary nature of the prohibition. Even if the 15 seconds of audio used in a TikTok video were free of profanity, a stray curse elsewhere in the track could lead to a takedown, label sources say. In addition, the profanity restrictions had a disproportionate impact on hip-hop tracks, leading to concern that TikTok was distancing itself from the most popular genre in America. “There’s not much we can do about it,” one label employee laments.
Two label insiders were recently notified that TikTok had reinstated all the explicit music that had been impacted by the platform’s mistake. But as late as Thursday, some label employees and managers remained unaware that the restrictions on explicit content had been lifted and continued to deliver clean content to TikTok.
Even with the reinstatement, one manager who works frequently with the app advises caution moving forward. “Most of my work is carved out so I can avoid those situations — I make sure [a song or video] is not something that TikTok wouldn’t support,” he says. “That’s what I would suggest for everyone on that platform.”