His Song Was Going Massively Viral. Hours Later, Universal Music and TikTok Went to War

Credit: Samuel Cowden*
Credit: Samuel Cowden*

On Tuesday, Cody Fry’s record label, UMG-owned Decca Records, had promising news for the soulful pop singer: His single “Things You Said” had blown up on Douyin, (TikTok’s separate mainland Chinese counterpart). Fry was excited, readying a plan to capitalize on an unexpected viral moment. The excitement ended within hours, as Fry saw news of an open letter from his record label, claiming they hadn’t renewed their licensing agreement with the social platform and that all of the company’s music would be removed the following day.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Fry, a smaller artist who’d found success on TikTok multiple times before. Like a lot of artists, Fry enjoys a stable career but by no means has the clout of his label’s biggest acts. As he says, that latest shot for a new hit that had surfaced for him just a few days ago now seems to have passed.

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Fry had first competed on American Idol in 2015, but owes much of his success to viral moments on TikTok. In 2021, his then-five-year-old song “I Hear a Symphony” became a hit on the platform, helping him land a record deal with UMG-owned Decca Records. He’d strike gold again with a popular cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” which similarly gained traction on the platform and would later earn him a Grammy nomination for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals in 2022.

As the record company’s music began to come down, Fry took to Instagram Reels this week, concerned over the dispute between two gigantic corporations. He supports the move to get artists paid more for their work on an app that notoriously doesn’t dole out much cash for the music, but also felt frustrated he hadn’t heard a word from his label prior to the decision. He echoed the sentiment of many artists by saying he was “a person standing between two colliding planets, and there’s nothing I can do.”

Fry spoke with Rolling Stone to talk about his lost viral moment, his hopes for a quick resolution, and the needs to support the smaller and developing acts that rely on TikTok to break their songs.

I found out from my team at Decca on Monday that [“Things You Said”] was gaining traction. They said, “We think something’s happening here that’s significant. Let us get more information and let’s meet on Tuesday.” So we met on Tuesday, and they showed me some of the numbers. I’m not on Douyin, the Chinese TikTok, but it was blowing up. The song’s the Number One Shazam track in China right now.

There’s been an uptick in streams in the U.S. as well, but nothing like what’s going on in China. We met about it, and everybody was just stoked. Everybody’s full speed ahead. We’re gonna go all into this, talk with the UMG China team, etc. We had that meeting at around 5 p.m. on Tuesday, and then that night, I was reading through the news and saw UMG threatens to pull all its music on TikTok. Two sleepless nights later, here we are.

I didn’t know what to feel because no one from UMG was giving me any information; I was just reading what I saw online from the news. It just makes a person feel really small. Maybe that’s too vulnerable to say, but it just feels like I am nothing, like I’m just at the mercy of the machinations of these multibillion dollar corporations. In some ways, I signed a deal. This is the sort of thing that can happen when you sign a major label deal.

I would be fully supportive of what UMG is doing — I think TikTok should pay more. TikTok has its promotional value, but then there’s also elements of TikTok and how they use music that feels a little bit exploitive. They have to negotiate and find a balance there. The bummer is that it feels like UMG and TikTok are both going to be fine. Meanwhile, the actual artists on the ground are the ones that are going to take the hits for this.

There’s no way to really know what was going to happen [with “Things You Said”]. The song was more than doubling every day in creations. The streams were exploding, and we were on the upcurve. When it’s happening, you don’t really know how high it’s gonna go. You can’t know until it just plays itself out. But I will not get the opportunity to see this trend play itself out. It could’ve been life changing, it could’ve been nothing, I don’t know. I think it certainly would’ve helped me in China. And in some sense it already has. It’s just a bummer that the marketing plans that we were devising to help this and grow it even more are in complete limbo.

For me in particular, it’s just a bad stroke of luck. I joked with a friend that I don’t know if there’s anybody in the entire Universal Music Group that has more potential damage from this than me. Of course there’s artists that have songs who are crushing it and going viral, but for me to be on the upswing and then get the legs taken out from underneath myself, that’s a harm I don’t know how to calculate.

I think that it’s admirable that UMG would take a stand. I also think that the way this was handled was pretty tough. To not give the artists on your roster heads-up when we’re all aware of how important TikTok is to the music industry as a whole. The reason I am signed is because of my success on TikTok. So to one night on the news find out that this is happening is just pretty tough. I love my team. They do a great job. It seems like these decisions were made at the highest level possible. I don’t think anybody was hiding something from me. I think things just broke down and that’s how it goes sometimes.

The pipeline from TikTok to streaming is pretty strong. I’ve always just considered TikTok as a promotional tool rather than a moneymaking platform. As Universal has themselves said, TikTok already pays out so little, even a percentage increase to 10 percent, 20 percent, I don’t know what the negotiations will result in, but I’d be skeptical that it makes a real difference in terms of the final payouts to some artists. I hope it does.

I support the spirit of what UMG is doing. My issue is more with the lack of communication. Had I not had this viral thing going, it would have been a bummer to have my catalog removed. It would be very disappointing to my fans, which is a sacred thing for me and every artist. My greatest hope is that they can resolve this quickly and figure it out in the next couple of days. I think UMG’s concerns about AI are valid. I think UMG’s concerns about harassment on the platform are valid, although also present on all the other social media platforms. In terms of the mechanics of deal structure, I’m not an expert in these deals.

I’m not that big of an artist. I’m doing great, don’t get me wrong. I have a wonderful life. I’m very happy with my success. But I’m an ant at the picnic of all these other bigger entities, whether it be TikTok or UMG, or the bigger artists like Taylor Swift. I’m just a small player.

I would not put myself in the camp of anti-UMG or anti-TikTok. I’m pro-artist. And I think it’s just so sad that both of these companies are saying that they’re pro-artist, and no one is consulting the artists about what they want here.

I’m still digesting this. Obviously, we’re only a few hours into the actual takedown. I have faith in my fans, faith in the internet. I’m sure people will still figure out a way to find the song. It’s blown up massively. I’m sure that the internet will find a way to listen to the song if they want to. It just feels like a big own-goal.

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