When Donald Trump revealed his desire to ban TikTok in August of last year, his words sent the app’s creators and influencers into a frenzy, and many began to eye Triller, a similar app designed for sharing short-form video clips. At the time, Triller claimed it had 250 million global downloads — compared to TikTok’s two billion — and was growing quickly. It also had support from the likes of Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group, and Warner Music Group, all of which were shareholders.
Well, that list of enthusiasts got shorter this week: On Friday, Universal, the largest record label, abruptly pulled all of its music off the app, alleging that Triller has been screwing over artists by withholding payment. (Recent reports also suggest that Triller’s active-user numbers may be inaccurate.)
“We will not work with platforms that do not value artists,” a Universal Music Group representative said in a statement sent to Rolling Stone. “Triller has shamefully withheld payments owed to our artists and refuses to negotiate a license going forward.”
Meanwhile, Triller says it didn’t know about the situation: CEO Mike Lu told Music Business Worldwide he learned about the situation early Friday morning by reading about it in the press. “This has to be a bad ‘Punk’d’ episode. I’m waiting for Ashton to jump out of my closet,” Lu said. “Our relationship with UMG is solid. Its biggest artists are investors and partners in Triller and Universal owns part of Triller. We find it hard to believe UMG wouldn’t give us any warning or notice but just tell us via press.”
Yet this isn’t the first time Lu has appeared unaware in response to claims of rights-related mismanagement: David Israelite, CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association, said last summer that Triller wasn’t fully licensed for its members’ music. When Rolling Stone asked Lu for a response, he said he was “really surprised to see that from David” at the time. Lu continued: “We’ve been in constant communication with their team for quite some time. I understand his point, which is it seems a little bit unfair for anyone to not have the NMPA’s blessing in this industry. Our lawyers spoke to him right after that article came out, and we hope to come to an agreement very soon — because we’ve already started working with some of the publishers [who are members of] NMPA. Our goal is to work with all of them.”
The other two leading music groups, Sony and Warner, have yet to chime in on the developing matter with Triller this week. Both declined to comment for this story.
In correspondence with Rolling Stone, a Triller spokesperson provided the following statement:
“We can confirm our deal with UMG expired approximately one week ago. We have been negotiating since then in an attempt to renew. The renewal however was just a formality and a courtesy to UMG, as a shareholder of Triller. Triller does not need a deal with UMG to continue operating as it has been since the relevant artists are already shareholders or partners on Triller, and thus can authorize their usage directly. Triller has no use for a licensing deal with UMG. We categorically deny we have withheld any artist payments (our deal has only been one week expired) and if anything, it is UMG using their artist names as a front to extract ridiculous and non-sustainable payments for themselves and not their artists. They did this exact same thing to TikTok for two years and virtually every other social network. It is unfortunate UMG decided to use the press as its ‘negotiating leverage’ when they realized we aren’t going to be held hostage. UMG is well aware any agreement was just out of respect and courtesy, not necessity. We have been operating without it and there has been no change in our business.”
A UMG spokesperson then replied with their own statement, saying only that Triller’s latest statement was “removed from reality.”
An attorney at a prominent law firm agrees, telling Rolling Stone that, in the vast majority of cases, the claim that an artist can directly license their own music is “completely bogus.” “It’s laughable” the attorney says. “Ask them how well it worked out for Napster… There are some artists who may have the right to license their recordings without UMG’s consent, but that would be exceedingly rare.” The attorney adds that it’s important to remember that there are two licenses: the master and the publishing. “It’s rare these for an artist to write 100 percent of their own songs. So, I don’t know where they think they’re getting their publishing licenses from. Even if what they were saying was true, which it isn’t, that doesn’t give them the rights to the cowriters’ share of the songs that are on their platform.”
A source familiar with UMG’s side of the situation also tells Rolling Stone that UMG’s deal with Triller actually ended over a year ago. Since then, UMG has been working with Triller under short-term extensions while negotiating a new deal. According to the source, Triller stopped paying a couple months ago, and then informed UMG that the app didn’t feel it needed a license from UMG a few weeks ago. The source says UMG was met with silence when the company tried to have a discussion around the matter. When the last renewal was up, UMG notified Triller that it would be telling Triller’s supply chain, 7digital, to no longer deliver UMG content to the platform. If these claims are indeed true, they completely contradict Lu’s apparent shock.
The war of words will likely continue. In the meantime, pass the popcorn.