Taylor Swift masters controversy
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On June 30, 2019, the masters to Swift's six studio albums were acquired by talent manager Scooter Braun, as part of his acquisition of Big Machine Records, the former record label of Swift until she signed with Republic Records in 2019. She has continuously denounced the transaction; she claimed that she had been trying to buy the masters for years, but could not because Big Machine offered her unfavorable conditions. Although she attempted to make peace, she denounced Braun as an "incessant, manipulative bully". In response, Big Machine's former president Scott Borchetta stated that Swift had had an opportunity to buy her masters, but "chose to leave", and challenged Swift's factual claims.
Swift and Big Machine have undergone 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), and an unauthorized release of Live from Clear Channel Stripped 2008 in 2020. Swift has declared she would re-record her first six studio albums as a means to gain ownership to her back catalog. As of February 2021[update], Swift has announced the release of Fearless (Taylor's Version), a re-recording of her 2008 album Fearless, as the first re-recording of her old albums, set for release on April 9, 2021. "Love Story (Taylor's Version)" was released as the lead single on February 12.
In the music industry, a master of a recording is the first recording of it, and the one from which subsequent copies are made for sales and distribution. The owner of the master, therefore, owns all of the copies, such as digital versions available on streaming platforms, or physical versions available on CDs and vinyls. Anyone who wishes to reproduce a record must ask for permissions from the master owners. Prior to the emergence of digital music platforms such as download and streaming until the 2010s decade, musicians relied on record labels to promote their music through traditional means, such as on airplay, or through physical distributions to music retailers. These labels would commonly require their new artists to sign record deals which would give them the rights to their masters "in perpetuity".
American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift signed a 13-year record deal with Big Machine Records, a Nashville-based record label by Scott Borchetta, in 2005. In the deal, Swift agreed to give Big Machine the rights to her first six albums in exchange for a cash advance. From 2006 to 2017, Swift released six studio albums with Big Machine label: Taylor Swift (2006), Fearless (2008), Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), 1989 (2014), and Reputation (2017). In November 2018, her contract with Big Machine Label Group (BMLG) expired, and Swift signed a new contract with Universal Music Group (UMG) record label Republic Records. Variety reported that to that point Swift's catalog constituted around 80% of Big Machine's revenue. Swift revealed an element as part of her Republic Records contract which affected all artists under UMG: any sale of the company's shares in Spotify (the largest on-demand music streaming platform) resulted in equity for UMG artists. This new contract with Republic Records also allowed Swift to fully own the masters to her album, starting with her 2019 studio album Lover.
Scooter Braun is a talent manager and businessman, who is known for managing the careers of singers Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, and worked with rapper Kanye West. Swift had had public disputes with Kanye West, following the incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards (often referred to as "Kanyegate") and the release of West's 2016 single "Famous".
Acquisition of Big Machine Records
On June 30, 2019, Big Machine Records — the former record through which Swift released her first six studio albums — announced that it had been acquired (reportedly for $300 million) by talent manager and businessman Scooter Braun and his company Ithaca Holdings. The acquisition was financed by The Carlyle Group and several other private equity firms. As part of the acquisition, the masters to Swift's first six studio albums became supposedly owned by Braun.
Quickly afterwards, on the same day of Big Machine's announcement, Swift denounced the acquisition on her Tumblr account. 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 that she was unaware Braun would be the buyer, whom she described as an "incessant, manipulative bully": "Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it." She accused Borchetta of betraying her loyalty for selling her catalog to Scooter, whom Borchetta had known for his "bullying" towards Swift.
Following Swift's Tumblr post, Borchetta published a blog titled "It's Time For Some Truth" on Big Machine Label Group's website. 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), he did not join the phone call due to a "very strict NDA". A final call was held on June 28, when Scott Swift was represented by a lawyer from Taylor Swift's management company 13 Management.
Borchetta said that he had sent a text message to Swift on the night of June 29, challenging Swift's claim that she had not been aware of Braun's transaction beforehand. He denied that Swift had been hostile towards Braun, whom he described as a "good source of information". He also posted an alleged text message from Swift prior to switching to Republic Records, through which Swift required another seven-year contract with Big Machine, as long as the ownership of all her past audio-visual works are shifted to her. Borchetta agreed, but asked for a ten-year contract. The authenticity of the text message has not been verified.
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. 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, though the statement did not mention Swift by name. In the statement, Big Machine mentioned that they had negotiated with Dick Clark Productions (producer of the American Music Awards), but Dick Clark Productions contested that they ever agreed to issue any sort of statement with Big Machine.
Braun claimed that he had received "death threats" from Swift's fans, and pleaded to have a conversation with Swift on the matter. 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 called it "shameless greed". In October, Braun sold Swift's masters, videos and artworks, to Shamrock Holdings, reportedly for $300 million, according to Variety. She 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. She also declined an offer by Shamrock to become an equity partner, on the grounds that Braun would continue to profit from her work.
Reaction and commentary
Publications highlighted Swift's public opposition to the acquisition of her masters as a trailblazer: while the issue of master ownership and the conflicts between record labels artists such as Prince, the Beatles, Janet Jackson, and Def Leppard have been prevalent, Swift was one of the few to make it public. Her social media posts prompted both supports on opposes from her contemporaries; those who supported include Halsey, Sky Ferreira and Iggy Azalea, who cited Swift's reason that artists should rightfully own their music. Those who opposed include Braun's clients Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato, who believed Braun was a man of good character, and that the decision was not personal.
The magazine 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." 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.
Swift announced in August 2019 that she would re-record her old songs, as a means to fully own her music and distribute them for commercial purposes. She began re-recording her back catalog in November 2020. In February 2021, Swift announced that she had finished re-recording her 2008 album Fearless and would release it as Fearless (Taylor's Version) on April 9. She released "Love Story (Taylor's Version)", a re-recording of her 2008 single "Love Story".
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