TikTok owner ByteDance, the Beijing-based behemoth that answers to no man (or at least U.S. senator) is reportedly crafting plans to fulfill its destiny, i.e., its foray into the subscription music business.
According to the Financial Times, ByteDance has approached Warner Music, Sony, and Universal for licensing deals, a move which should further strike fear into the cold hearts of tech companies who’ve been taking unsuccessful stabs at copycat products as they fall behind TikTok’s rise to the number three spot in the App Store, with a total of 1.5 billion downloads. A TikTok spokesperson did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for confirmation on its moves into the music subscription business.
TikTok’s move to work around Apple and Spotify is almost a foregone conclusion; labels are mining TikTok for artists making TikTok-tailored unvarnished meme-friendly tracks, which are already climbing out onto the Billboard Hot 100 list. But as Pitchfork has reported, TikTok’s precursor Musical.ly has, in the case of a 2016 deal with Warner Brothers, gotten around paying artists for virality but rather an up-front payment to the royalty-holder which trickled down to a meager payment for the band. The supposed upside is that artists get exposure and make money elsewhere.
The news comes at a politically fraught moment for the rapidly growing startup. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), too, have been beating the warpath, rallying for an investigation (now underway) into whether TikTok is smuggling Americans’ data and sending it to the Chinese government. This morning, Hawley announced that he’s introducing the National Security and Personal Data Protection Act, which would, among other things, prohibit Chinese companies from “collecting more data than necessary to provide a service here,” “using collected data for secondary purposes,” and “transferring user data or encryption keys to those countries or storing that data in those countries.” ByteDance repeatedly maintains that it stores user data in the U.S., a cold comfort knowing that Chinese censors override U.S. content moderators to remove posts that are potentially displeasing the Communist Party.
At a Congressional hearing earlier this month (at which ByteDance left a seat open), Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow for Technology, National Security, and Science Policy Klon Kitchen answered affirmatively that the Chinese government could hypothetically use photos from TikTok to obtain images of American service people to “train their AI, their autonomous weapons.” When asked by Gizmodo, a TikTok spokesperson was unaware of the hypothetical situation that was floated at a congressional hearing. And let’s be honest, it’s not the most compelling doomsday scenario when discussing the platform.
In a recent colorful New York Times profile of TikTok head Alex Zhu, TikTok put a human face to its name. Zhu is painted as a somewhat quirky artiste and self-described “designtrepreneur” interested in such delights as “the color of buttons.” When asked what he would do if Xi Jinping demanded ByteDance to turn over user data, Zhu told the paper, “after barely a moment’s thought ... I would turn him down.” We’ll have to take his word for it.
Today, a Wall Street Journal piece also reports that the company is looking into an attempted rebrand to scrub ByteDance’s association with the Chinese government, but that won’t include moving the headquarters.
Is TikTok a good witch or a bad witch or just a good old-fashioned tech company which will share your data indiscriminately purely for business purposes the way that ghoulish American companies do it, or what?
When asked by Gizmodo, a TikTok spokesperson directed us to its previous press releases reiterating that the company stores its data outside of China, that its moderation team is U.S.-based, and that they are “not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government.”
Whatever they choose to do with us, we are but slaves to the memes.