On TikTok, where audio is integral, brands can be limited by licensing. Here’s how they operate on the platform without risking potential trouble

They can use TikTok’s precleared list of songs, license music, or create custom tracks.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

It’s hard to resist the urge to hop on a trending TikTok song (it’s like Taylor Swift knew “Anti-Hero” would go viral on the platform). But if you’re posting on behalf of a brand, you might just have to.

“Anytime you’re using music on TikTok—and not just as a brand, but a brand’s influencers using music—that still needs to be licensed,” said Joe Belliotti, SVP of brand solutions at music licensing platform Songtradr. “Brands are constantly getting in trouble for music on TikTok.”

A couple of months ago, a handful of brands made posts on the platform highlighting the fact that they’re not allowed to use just any trending song or sound without securing the proper rights (although TikTok does have a precleared audio library that brands can tap into).

To make it easier for brands to use sounds in posts without the risk of trouble, last year TikTok announced Sound Partners, a collection of more than 20 companies that can help advertisers either license songs or create new ones for them—two routes brands can take when looking to use music that’s not already cleared for use on the platform.

Got my music license last week

BEN joined the Sound Partners program as a licensing partner last month, but worked with TikTok when it was rebranding from in 2018. It’s since helped brands including HP and Steve Madden create TikTok campaigns, said Demi Kirolos, BEN’s senior manager of music and brand partnerships.

“We always have to do a little bit of education at the beginning and tell them that it’s not actually free to use music on TikTok in a branded context,” she said.

BEN works within a brand’s budget to license music for TikTok campaigns by sending out creative briefs to labels and music publishers requesting songs within that price range, Kirolos explained. If brands don’t properly clear the rights, “rights holders are constantly scanning” for instances of misuse and will, at times, “reach out to the brand and send that…cease and desist,” according to Belliotti.

Custom music avoids the possibility of legal trouble, plus it’s generally “a budget-friendly option,” Kirolos said. But BEN recommends licensing anyway because recognizable songs are “a really great way to engage audiences,” she said. Using popular songs for TikToks can cost “in the $25,000—$50,000 and above range, just to get started,” Belliotti said.

Up-and-coming artists can sometimes gain traction when brands use their music, so licensing from artists with smaller followings than the likes of Taylor Swift can be “mutually beneficial,” said Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of UnitedMasters, a music distribution company and TikTok licensing partner that has licensed songs for use by brands like Beats by Dre and State Farm.

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“It’s still very early in the game of brands really figuring out what their role is on TikTok,” he said. “They all know that music is an important criteria to drive engagement, and the other thing that’s taking place on the artists’ side is that they’re realizing that songs in these ads are absolutely becoming discoverable, and then driving streams.”

Customize it

Opting for custom music presents an opportunity for brands to set trends of their own, according to Geoffrey Goldberg, co-founder and CCO of Movers + Shakers, the agency that made the original track for e.l.f.’s iconic #eyeslipsface challenge. Goldberg told us it was the first-ever TikTok brand challenge.

“You have people like Lizzo, Reese Witherspoon, everyone kind of taking the song and making it into something for themselves,” said Patrick O’Keefe, e.l.f’s VP of integrated marketing communications.

Some brands have made a splash on TikTok without commissioning professionally produced music. Omaha Steaks, for instance, has one TikTok with 55,000 likes and more than 700 comments.

The video in question? A social media manager for Omaha Steaks sang a line from the Encanto song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” that had gone viral on the platform instead of licensing the original recording, according to Angie Kubicek, the brand’s senior director of growth marketing.

Brian Vaughan, ECD and partner at Shadow, which has worked on TikTok campaigns like Aerie’s #AerieREAL challenge and Sun Bum’s #sunshanty, said brands can dub over songs for TikToks if they don’t want to license the original.

Recording audio in-house, or even outsourcing it to an agency, can have a quicker turnaround time than obtaining licensing rights for songs that haven’t been precleared, according to Xander Pietrovito, co-founder and director of Karm, an original TikTok sound partner and the agency behind campaigns including Asos’s #AySauceChallenge, which racked up over 1.2 billion video views in less than a week.

Omaha Steaks hasn’t licensed music yet and has instead focused on “other types of trends that…[aren’t] as cost-prohibitive,” Kubicek told us. She said that might change, but for the time being, Omaha Steaks is sticking mostly to original audio.

“I think there are moments where we are going to find ourselves wanting to license a song, so we can do it,” she said. “It’s probably going to be something because we feel like we could distinctly own it versus just being another one in the fold. Just because you go with a TikTok trend doesn’t mean it’s going to transform your brand activity overnight.”

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