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TikTok highlights the importance of publishing — and lack of songwriter services

Cover image for TikTok highlights the importance of publishing — and lack of songwriter services

Photo: cottonbro studio

Photo of Tatiana Cirisano
by Tatiana Cirisano

It is no news flash that the music business has a reputation for undervaluing songwriters. Despite being arguably the most important part of the song, the shift to streaming has been even more disastrous for songwriters’ remuneration than artists. Songwriting credits are divided amongst more contributors than ever and songwriters continue to go deeply under-recognised (consider that the Grammy Awards only introduced a Songwriter of the Year category in 2023). If there is one silver lining in the UMG and TikTok debacle, it may be what it points out about publishing: not only is it the backbone of the industry, but it will be increasingly important in the post-streaming era.

UMG pulling its recordings off of TikTok was one thing, but it is the lapse of Universal Music Publishing Group’s own TikTok deal that is proving much more catastrophic. Suddenly, hundreds of songs from artists like Harry Styles, Adele, and SZA have been swept off the platform — including a handful of Sony and Warner tracks that were just starting to take off.

Whether that timing was intentional, who can say. As social becomes ever more entwined with not just music marketing, but music consumption, the fragmented nature of music rights puts music rights companies in a vulnerable position: publishers can effectively weaponise their ownership to take down burgeoning hits from other record companies. Surely, innovations in AI will lead to even murkier rights situations and platforms taking “do first, ask for forgiveness later” approaches to licensing, leaving labels and publishers the work of filing lawsuits and takedown requests. It is ever more advantageous, then, to own both recordings and publishing. Moreover, publishing takes a slightly larger share of revenue in licensing deals with social video platforms than with DSP streaming. And guess which is growing faster?

There is an even bigger implication here. In today’s remix culture, entertainment releases are building blocks for consumers to play with, whether that means turning a screenshot from a reality show into a meme, writing fan fiction, or covering a song. TikTok users’ recent addiction to singing Cordelia’s Little Life is silly, but it represents something serious about the growing bifurcation of music into “static” and “dynamic” categories. In dynamic spaces, it is the skeleton of the song, not the static recording, that is important. It is the publishing that enables audiences to sing covers, participate in open verse challenges, and create interpolations and remixes. Recordings can only serve as static background music for their videos — they cannot be directly interacted with, moulded, or reshaped. 

This is not to mention the reshaping that is happening among professional songwriters and artists. Covers and interpolations are increasingly popular, as hits from Maneskin’s Beggin’ to Doja Cat’s Kiss Me More reflect, and publishing companies like Primary Wave now routinely hold songwriting camps aimed at repurposing old melodies for new hits. MIDiA explored this in its 2021 report, Rebalancing the Song Economy, noting that if you own the publishing rights for a song, it does not matter whether it is the original song, a cover, or an interpolation that becomes the hit. This is ever truer today.

The problem is that the songwriter services world is not getting nearly as much attention as the artist services world ( despite creators often being both!). While we have seen a huge growth of artist services companies (e.g., Venice Music, GAMMA, etc.) and both distributors and creator tools companies upping their artist service offerings, there seems to have been less innovation for songwriters. The big publishers own massive catalogues and can only focus on leading writers. Self-serve tools exist, but there are few examples that do not revolve around publishing administration. 

Superfandom is all the rage right now, but is anyone thinking about how we might build and monetise fandom around songwriters? What types of creator tools could help songwriters be better at their craft — and what baseline needs are still unmet? There is a huge opportunity for whichever company can figure out how to develop better business and creative services for songwriters at scale.

Look out for an upcoming MIDiA report on the future of songwriting: business and culture. If you are a songwriter, or company in the publishing / songwriter services space, and would like to get involved, please reach out to

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