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The Beat Goes On: Adapting Canadian SMEs’ Digital Strategies in the Face of Music Licensing Conflicts

Unlocking TikTok’s Algorithm and Digital Marketing Challenges for Impactful Brand Engagement

In the challenging digital marketplace, small and medium-sized enterprises (“SMEs”) must find innovative and engaging ways to cut through the noise and connect with their target audience. One of the most powerful tools at their disposal has been TikTok. This platform has revolutionized how brands engage with potential customers through its captivating algorithm and trending audio tracks. However, the recent dispute between TikTok and Universal Music Group (“UMG”) has cast a shadow over this dynamic landscaping, forcing many businesses to rethink how they use the platform.

The Dispute

In short, UMG started removing the music catalogues of artists that the label represents from TikTok after negotiations to renew licensing agreements failed. UMG, as a holding group of multiple record labels, had concerns about AI-generated music and the online safety features of the platform, which UMG claimed failed to protect artists. As a result, any TikTok videos that feature UMG-owned music should have their sound removed. As an immediate result, the UMG-TikTok dispute underscored critical challenges and considerations for social media marketing, particularly integrating music and AI-generated content. As platforms like TikTok are central to social media marketing, understanding these considerations is crucial for developing effective and compliant marketing campaigns.

The Power of TikTok’s Algorithm for SMEs’ Marketing Strategy 

TikTok’s algorithm uniquely propels content to viral status, particularly when leveraging trending audio to amplify brand visibility and engagement. When done right, this phenomenon has allowed SMEs to achieve unprecedented reach and connect with audiences in an engaging way. The secret to success lies in understanding the nuances of what makes audio content trend on the platform and integrating these insights into a cohesive digital marketing strategy that resonates with the TikTok community. By aligning their content with the current trends on the platform while maintaining their brand’s authenticity, SMEs can significantly enhance their digital footprint.

Copyright and Music: What SMEs Need to Know 

The UMG-TikTok dispute raised the importance of understanding how copyrighted music can and should be used and learnings to take forward when using audio on branded or highly produced content. To ensure that content remains impactful yet compliant, SMEs need to have a somewhat in-depth understanding of the legalities surrounding music licensing in social media marketing.

First, when music is copyrighted, you cannot use it unless you have express permission from the artists themselves. TikTok overcame this barrier by creating a licensing agreement with major labels like UMG and Sony. But this doesn’t mean that you can use any song from start to finish without creating a copyright infringement, as clips either need to fall under a licensing agreement or be copyright-free.

However, it does get more complicated for brands using TikTok, as not everything in TikTok’s traditional music library is available for commercial use. Luckily, TikTok has a royalty-free  Commercial Music Library  that provides over 600,000 pre-cleared tracks for use in branded content and advertisements. Other companies also offer copyright-free music for use in promotional content, so whilst there are boundaries for businesses on TikTok, there are many ways to be creative within them.

Recovering Lost Content

Unfortunately, there is no clear way to recover content that had audio removed due to the TikTok-UMG dispute. If a trending song is removed, all audio on videos that use it, even with your unique voiceover or additional audio, will be removed. That is why we always recommend that brands create their video in their native device apps or third-party apps and save their audio/voiceovers. Then, they can import and add the audio to TikTok, adding trending audio to it. That way, if the video gets removed or the audio is removed due to copyright issues, the user can republish with new audio, and the asset will not be wasted.

Creative Solutions for Content Preservation 

While you can use the music libraries provided by TikTok itself, this still poses the risk of the music disappearing under future copyright infringement claims. So, to safeguard against copyright infringement claims, SMEs should use specific forward-looking content strategies to protect their content and maintain their online presence.

More creative options include creating your own audio tracks to circumvent copyright issues and add a unique signature to your branded content. You could also collaborate with independent local musicians to create original tracks that offer exposure to both parties while ensuring content remains compliant. Finally, exploring innovative content formats, such as podcasts or spoken-word pieces, can diversify your digital presence and engage your audience in new ways.

Looking Ahead 

For Canadian SMEs, staying ahead in the digital marketing landscape means being adaptable, legally savvy, and creatively resilient, and the dispute between TikTok and UMG is a critical reminder of the importance of adaptability and legal awareness in the marketing world. For Canadian SMEs, the path forward involves a careful balance between leveraging the power of trending content and ensuring compliance with copyright laws. By embracing creative solutions and staying informed about legal developments, SMEs can continue to thrive in the dynamic digital marketplace, keeping the beat going in their favor.

About the Author

Kait Shiels – Founder; Managing Director of  Spark Social agency

From founding Spark Social Agency as a solo entrepreneur, Kait transformed the business into an award-winning social media agency catering to some of North America’s biggest brands. As an experienced advisor, she deeply understands what it takes to help her clients break through the noise in the world of social marketing.

Kait has launched campaigns for celebrity authors, overhauled digital strategy for household brands, and traveled to Las Vegas more times than she can count to spearhead social campaigns for cornerstone events in the global technology, automotive, healthcare, and lifestyle industries. With extensive experience managing social media teams that have worked on high-profile events such as the Oscars and Mobile World Congress and launching Target in Canada, Kait’s multi-faceted experience positions her as a true leader in the field. Over the past decade, she has utilized social media to market a diverse range of products and services, from wedding apps during the pandemic to Team Canada collaborations. Her experience has seen social media’s true impact and value on a brand’s bottom line – when it is done right.

Spark Social, an award-winning boutique social media agency, was recognized as an industry leader in 2023 by several prestigious awards, including MarCom, dotComm, NYX, and Shorty Awards.


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