Taylor Swift masters controversy

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In 2005, Taylor Swift (pictured in 2010) signed her record deal with Big Machine Records at age 15, giving the label the ownership of the masters to her first six studio albums.

Mainstream media reported in June 2019 that American talent manager Scooter Braun acquired the American independent record label Big Machine for US$300,000,000, funded by the Carlyle Group, 23 Capital, Soros Fund Management, and various other private equity groups. As part of the deal, Braun became the owner of all the master recordings owned by Big Machine, including that of the first six studio albums by American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, who had ended her contract with Big Machine in 2018. In a social media post, Swift said she had been trying to buy the masters for years, but that Big Machine had offered unfavorable conditions. She condemned Braun's purchase, recalling him being an "incessant, manipulative bully".[1] Big Machine's former president Scott Borchetta said that Swift had declined an opportunity to buy the masters and challenged Swift's claims.[2]

Swift and Big Machine have had a series of disputes, including Swift's allegations of Big Machine blocking her from using her older material for the American Music Awards of 2019 and the documentary Miss Americana (2020), as well as an unauthorized release of Live from Clear Channel Stripped 2008, a previously unreleased work by Swift, in 2020. Swift announced she would re-record her first six studio albums to create new masters, giving her complete ownership of her back catalog. In October 2020, Braun sold the masters alone to the Disney family's investment firm, Shamrock Holdings, for US$300,000,000, on the terms that he would continue to financially profit from the masters. Swift turned down Shamrock's offer for a joint-ownership and reiterated that she will re-record the first six albums. On April 9, 2021, she released Fearless (Taylor's Version), the re-recording of her 2008 album Fearless; and its follow-up, Red (Taylor's Version), the re-recording of her 2012 album Red, on November 12, 2021, to critical and commercial success.

The controversy and subsequent disputes were highly publicized, drawing widespread attention and media coverage. It prompted a discourse on artists' rights, intellectual property, and ethics in the music industry, and has encouraged new artists to negotiate for greater ownership and revenue in their contracts with record labels.

Background[edit]

According to U.S. copyright law, any music recording is subject to two distinct types of ownership: one that protects the specific sound recording, and the other protecting the musical work. The ownership of the sound recording is referred to as owning a master,[3] which is the first recording of the music, from which copies are made for sales and distribution. The owner of the master, therefore, owns all formats of the recording, such as digital versions for download or on streaming platforms, or physical versions available on CDs and vinyl records.[4] Anyone who wishes to reproduce a recording must ask permission from the master owner.[1] Before the emergence of digital music platforms, musicians relied on record labels to promote their music through means such as airplay or physical distributions to retailers. These labels would typically require artists to sign record deals which would give them the rights to their masters "in perpetuity".[5] On the other hand, owning the musical work is referred to as owning the publishing rights, which covers the lyrics of the musical work before it became a sound recording, its melodies, sheet music, composition, and instrumental arrangements. Songwriters generally own the publishing rights, and are referred to as "publishers" of the music.[3]

In 2005, American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift signed a 13-year recording deal with Big Machine Records, a Nashville-based record label newly established by Scott Borchetta, as their first recording artist. The contract gave Big Machine the ownership of the masters to Swift's first six albums in exchange for a cash advance.[4] From 2006 to 2017, Swift released six studio albums with Big Machine: Taylor Swift (2006), Fearless (2008), Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), 1989 (2014), and Reputation (2017).[6] Although Big Machine owned the masters, Swift retained the publishing rights to the six albums due to her role as the main songwriter of all of the songs she released under Big Machine, which would allow her to re-record the songs in the future if she wanted to, as per the artist-label agreement that stipulates the artist cannot re-record a song for a fixed period of time; Swift would not be able to re-record her musical work had she not been a songwriter.[7][3]

After her contract with Big Machine Records expired in November 2018, Swift signed a new contract with Universal Music Group record label Republic Records. Variety reported that to that point Swift's catalog constituted around 80% of Big Machine's revenue.[8] Swift revealed an element as part of her Republic Records contract which affected all artists under Universal: any sale of the company's shares in Spotify (the largest on-demand music streaming platform) resulted in equity for all Universal artists.[6] The contract with Republic Records also allowed Swift to fully own the albums the label will distribute, both the masters and the publishing rights, starting with her seventh studio album, Lover (2019).[1]

Dispute[edit]

Acquisition[edit]

In 2019, Big Machine Records, which released Swift's first six studio albums, was acquired (reportedly for $300 million) by talent manager and businessman Scooter Braun and his company Ithaca Holdings.[9] The acquisition was financed by American private equity firm The Carlyle Group, and several other private equity companies. As part of the acquisition, ownership of the masters to Swift's first six studio albums transferred to Braun.[1]

"For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work. Instead I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and "earn' one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in. [...] I learned about Scooter Braun's purchase of my masters as it was announced to the world. All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I've received at his hands for years."

Taylor Swift, Tumblr, June 30, 2019[10]

On June 30, the day of Big Machine's announcement, Swift denounced the acquisition on Tumblr. She stated that she had tried to buy her masters for years, but was not given a chance unless she signed another contract, which she was not willing to do. While she knew that Big Machine was for sale, she said she was unaware that Braun—whom she described as an "incessant, manipulative bully"—would be the buyer: "Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it."[4] She accused Borchetta of betraying her loyalty for selling the masters of her catalog to Braun, whom Borchetta had known for his "bullying" toward Swift.[6]

In response, Borchetta published a blog post titled "It's Time For Some Truth" on the Big Machine website.[6] On June 25, 2019, Big Machine shareholders and Braun's Ithaca Holdings held a phone call regarding the transaction. While Swift's father, Scott Swift, was one of Big Machine's minority shareholders (holding 4% of stakes),[4] he did not join the phone call due to a "very strict" non-disclosure agreement. A final call was held on June 28, when Scott Swift was represented by a lawyer from Swift's management company, 13 Management.[6]

Borchetta said he had texted Swift on June 29, thus challenging her claim that she had not been aware of Braun's transaction beforehand.[11] He denied that Swift had been hostile toward Braun, whom he described as a "good source of information".[2] He also posted a text message he alleged Swift had sent before signing to Republic Records; in the message, Swift said she would accept another seven-year contract with Big Machine on the condition that she took ownership of her audiovisual works. Borchetta agreed, but asked for a ten-year contract. The authenticity of the text message has not been verified.[6]

Subsequent developments[edit]

Scooter Braun (pictured in 2019) acquired Big Machine Records, and along with it the masters to Swift's first six albums, which he subsequently sold to Shamrock Holdings.

In November 2019, Swift accused Braun and Borchetta of blocking her from performing her older songs at the American Music Awards of 2019 and from using older material for her 2020 documentary Miss Americana.[12] While Big Machine Records initially rejected Swift's claim, they later issued a statement saying they had "agreed to grant all licenses of their artists' performances to stream post show and for re-broadcast on mutually approved platforms" for the American Music Awards; the statement did not mention Swift.[13] The statement also said that Big Machine had negotiated with the producer of the award show, Dick Clark Productions; Dick Clark Productions contested that they never agreed to issue any statement with Big Machine.[14]

Braun said he received death threats from Swift's fans, and wanted to have a conversation with Swift on the matter.[14] In April 2020, Big Machine released Live from Clear Channel Stripped 2008, a live album of Swift's performances at a 2008 radio show for Clear Channel. Swift said she did not authorize the release, and dismissed it as "just another case of shameless greed in the time of Coronavirus."[15]

Aftermath[edit]

Swift's solution to the masters dilemma was to make new recordings of her musical work in the six albums, which she already owns in her right as the publisher, sound like the original recordings as much as possible.[3] Hence, she announced in August 2019 that she would "re-record" the six albums and release them so as to own the complete rights to her music herself.[16][17][18] By re-recording, Swift is technically covering her own songs into new sound recordings, resulting in new masters that she fully owns, which would enable her to control the licensing of her songs for commercial use, bypassing the owners of the older masters and subsequently devaluing them.[7]

Re-sale[edit]

In October 2020, Braun sold the masters, videos and artworks to Shamrock Holdings, an American private equity firm owned by the Disney estate,[note 1] for reportedly $300 million.[19] Swift claimed that Braun offered her a chance at bidding on her masters on the condition of signing a non-disclosure agreement regarding her public statements on Braun, which she refused.[20] She also claimed that Braun mandated Shamrock not to notify the singer regarding the sale until after it was complete,[21] and that she further declined an offer by Shamrock to become an equity partner, on the grounds that Braun and Ithaca Holdings would continue to financially benefit from her work.[22] Swift upheld her original decision and began the re-recording process in November 2020.[23]

According to a November 2021 report by Financial Times, Braun believed that Swift was "just bluffing" about re-recording. The newspaper stated that, after purchasing Big Machine, Braun began searching for buyers for the masters of the Swift's back catalog, and that himself and co-investors told potential buyers that Swift would not actually re-record the albums, calling her announcement an "empty threat"; Braun also told the buyers that Swift's social media posts about the dispute would only generate more publicity, boosting streams and downloads of the albums. Financial Times further alleged that the deal between Braun and Shamrock included "a post-purchase earnout to Braun and Carlyle Group, if sales and streams hit specific targets".[24]

Re-recording[edit]

The re-recorded albums are identified by the note "(Taylor's Version)" added to all album and song titles, to tell them apart from the older recordings.[25]

In February 2021, Swift announced that she had finished re-recording her 2008 studio album Fearless and released "Love Story (Taylor's Version)", a re-recording of the album's lead single "Love Story" on February 12.[26] She then released two other tracks of the album before the release of Fearless (Taylor's Version) on April 9. Fearless (Taylor's Version) received rave reviews from music critics, who also praised Swift's move to re-record her music, viewing it as an act of preservation of artists' rights.[27][28][29] The original Fearless was charting at number 157 on the US Billboard 200 chart before the impact of Fearless (Taylor's Version), after which the original recording dropped 19% in sales and fell off the chart completely, while the re-recording debuted at number one. Ben Sisario of The New York Times opined that Fearless (Taylor's Version) "accomplished what appeared to be one of Swift's goals: burying the original Fearless."[30][31]

On September 15, 2021, following a viral TikTok trend involving "Wildest Dreams" (2015) that was gaining traction, the older recording of the song accumulated 735,000 plays on Spotify, marking the highest single-day streams ever for the song on the streaming platform. The next day, it reached a new peak at 750,000 plays. On September 17, Swift posted a snippet on her TikTok account, teasing the re-recorded song's bridge as part of the said trend, captioning it "if you guys want to use my version of wildest dreams for the slow zoom trend, here she is!". She also said "felt cute might drop the whole song later", hinting at the suspected release of the song's re-recording. "Wildest Dreams (Taylor's Version)" was subsequently released to streaming platforms an hour after the TikTok post. Swift stated via her social media accounts that she saw "Wildest Dreams" trending on TikTok and thought fans should have "[her] version" of the song.[32][33] In its first four hours of availability itself, "Wildest Dreams (Taylor's Version)" amassed 2,003,391 Spotify streams, easily breaking the record the older version of "Wildest Dreams" had set a few days prior.[34]

On November 12, 2021, Swift released Red (Taylor's Version), the re-recorded issue of her 2012 album Red, consisting of all 30 songs that were originally meant for the 2012 version.[35] The album broke several sales, streaming, and chart records,[36][37] and was met with widespread acclaim,[38] becoming her highest rated album by critics on Metacritic.[39] Its closing track, "All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version)", scored Swift the eighth Billboard Hot 100 number-one song of her career and garnered the Guinness World Record for the longest song of all time to top the chart.[40]

Impact[edit]

Peer reaction[edit]

Her social media posts prompted both support and opposition from her peers; those who supported include Cher, Selena Gomez, Halsey, Sky Ferreira and Iggy Azalea, who cited Swift's reason that artists should rightfully own their music.[41] Those who opposed include Braun's clients Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato, who believed he was a man of good character, and that the decision was not personal.[1][42] In May 2021, Olivia Rodrigo stated that she negotiated with her record label to own her music's masters herself, after observing Swift's battle.[43] Joe Jonas said that he wishes to re-record Jonas Brothers' back catalog just like Swift.[44]

Critical commentary[edit]

Publications highlighted Swift's public opposition to the acquisition of her masters as trailblazing: while the issue of master ownership and the conflicts between record labels and artists such as Prince, The Beatles, Janet Jackson, and Def Leppard have been prevalent, Swift was one of the few to make it public.[5][11][41][45]

According to Tonya Butler, professor and chair of the Music Business Management Department at Berklee College of Music, former entertainment attorney and record company executive, "regardless of the reasons why [Swift is] re-recording, whether it's spite or good business, the fact she is bringing to attention the re-recording restriction agreement alone makes the whole controversy valuable."[3] Rolling Stone described the masters dispute as one of the 50 "most important moments" of the music industry in the 2010s decade: "While Braun and Borchetta vehemently contest [Swift's claims], the actual facts of the situation may not matter — as Swift is using every tool she's got, including pleading directly to a zealous fanbase for help, to establish herself as a self-made artist who calls her own shots."[46]

According to The Guardian, Swift's masters dispute hinted at a change in the digital music era, where artists are more informed of their ownership and would not rely on record labels for marketing as heavily as in the past.[45] Variety wrote that Swift's highly publicized move to re-record her back catalog would inspire other artists to "further deputize or weaponize fans in their own business disputes", unlike the comparatively less successful attempts by contemporary artists to own their music.[47] The Atlantic wrote that the re-recordings have been "a dazzling victory lap" that seems to be inspiring other artists, disproving industry observers who had doubted Swift's move to re-record.[48]

Elle and The New Yorker hailed the "(Taylor's Version)" tag attached to the re-recorded music as genius re-branding of Swift's back catalog.[25][49] Money Marketing said the situation helps understand "dangerous investing", such as Braun's.[50] The New Zealand Herald dubbed Swift's move to re-record an "ultimate middle finger to the bureaucracy of the music industry", while revealing how "even someone of Swift's star power cannot hold on to the rights to her recorded work."[51] Recognizing the visibility she brings to "one of the music industry's longest standing issues", Pitchfork said Swift "is also so huge—not just an artist but a brand—that she can enact change by wielding the leverage of the reliability of her success", and that when she makes a statement, it is "financially lucrative for the industry to listen".[41]

As per The Wall Street Journal, in case of usage of her back catalog in mass media, such as for commercials and movies, Swift can shut out Shamrock and Braun by directly lending the concerned song to the third party, authorizing the copyright license herself.[7] Marie Claire said the re-recorded albums free Swift from the sexist tabloid scrutiny of her private life that overshadowed her past works, by re-introducing listeners and critics to the same songs but without "as much gender bias", and that the audiences who "didn't believe she was a feminist before (for whatever, sexist reason) can't deny the feminist undertones of becoming the industry spokesperson for artists' rights."[52]

Legacy[edit]

Songs from each of Swift's 2020 albums, "My Tears Ricochet" and "Mad Woman" from Folklore,[53][54] and "It's Time to Go" from Evermore, were underscored by critics for their references to the dispute, Borchetta, and Braun.[55][56]

On October 4, 2021, Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala hosted a conference on the topic "International Copyright Protection: Analyzing Taylor Swift's Case".[57]

On October 6, 2021, ahead of the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe launched a series of negative advertisements on Facebook, Instagram, and Google Search, tying the Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin to Braun's purchase of Swift's masters. The ad included the slogan "#WeStandWithTaylor", a hashtag used by Swift's fans during the fallout of the dispute, and asked her supporters to vote for McAuliffe. Youngkin was co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, the major sponsor in Braun's acquisition of Big Machine and Swift's masters.[58][59]

Following the release of Fearless (Taylor's Version), Swift's fans blocked the tracks of Fearless on their digital music platforms, such as Spotify, to prevent accidentally streaming it, in order to make the older recordings "disappear".[60][61]

In November 2021, The Wall Street Journal reported that Universal Music Group, the parent company of Swift's current label, has doubled the amount of time that restricts artists from re-recording their works in their recording deals hereafter. The very same day, Red (Taylor's Version) broke a chain of streaming records. The newspaper said this represents "shifting power dynamics in the music business", as artists have started to demand better revenue shares and ownership of the masters to their music, incentivized by Swift's situation.[62]

On November 17, 2021, iHeartRadio announced that its radio stations will only play the "Taylor's Version" songs from now on, and has replaced the older recordings with the re-recorded tracks, with plans to replace the rest of the older recordings with the re-recorded tracks as they are officially released.[63]

Footnote[edit]

  1. ^ Not to be confused with the Walt Disney Company. Shamrock is a private corporation founded by Roy E. Disney as the Disney family's investment firm. The family completely owns Shamrock and remains its sole investor.

References[edit]

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