When the masters of her first six studio albums were acquired by Scooter Braun in 2019, it was Taylor Swift’s ‘worst case scenario’. She described the manager for artists like Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato, as an ‘incessant, manipulative bully’ and as a facilitator of Kanye West’s alleged ‘revenge porn’ music video for the song Famous (in which Swift is stripped naked and pictured lying in bed next to West).
Her note on the sale, published on her Tumblr account on June 30th, 2019, includes the damning line: “Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”
For musicians all around the world, the sale was a depressing reminder that even at its very peak, artists can still be rendered powerless by the music industry; pawns in a game that only serves to make the rich ever richer.
Unlike most artists when faced with this kind of injustice, Swift actually had the ability to stand up for herself, and in doing so, invoke meaningful dialogue and inspire change within the notoriously slow-moving music industry.
She did just that when she announced the Taylor’s Version re-recordings of her back catalogue. Almost indistinguishable from the originals, the TV re-recordings offer an ‘ethical’ streaming alternative for audiences who support the concept that recording artists – and not their labels – should own their master recordings.
Swift maintained her ability to legally re-record, and essentially re-create, her back catalogue due to her retaining the publishing rights to the albums: a form of copyright that pertains to the song itself, not any recordings of that song.
The ‘master’ is the original recording made of a song, and the version that is subsequently reproduced for a mass audience. The original recording of Swift’s monumental hit single You Belong With Me, for example, is now currently owned by Shamrock Holdings, after a series of sales that saw the masters passing through Scooter Braun’s label Ithaca Holdings, after Taylor Swift’s original label and master recordings rights holder Big Machine was sold to Braun in 2019.
The rights to the masters of Taylor Swift’s first six albums were a major asset in the original sale of Big Machine. Master recordings, particularly those of hugely popular artists like Swift, are almost completely passive earners as the tracks rack up streams and steady digital sales over the years. Anyone wishing to license any of Taylor Swift’s original masters from her first six albums will also need to pay a sizable licensing/sync fee to Shamrock Holdings.
As the principal songwriter and artist behind these six albums, Swift argues that she should at least have had an opportunity to purchase the master recordings herself, which she alleges she was denied. She signed away the rights to her master recordings at age 15 when she signed a 13-year record deal with Big Machine.
In retaliation, re-recording a back catalogue of six full albums and respective secret bonus tracks, then developing a hugely successful campaign to drive loyal fans towards the new versions of their beloved albums – and away from the original master recordings, prompting a dip in streams that will be mimicked in the rights holders’ income statement – is something only very, very few artists can do. Taylor Swift is, indeed, amongst that handful.
She has branded the re-recordings cleverly. What she is essentially offering are almost exact replications of her old music, but through the addition of never-before-heard bonus tracks, new merch, attracting a deeply enthusiastic and loyal fanbase eager to relive the ‘era’ of each album (at that, many of Swift’s current fans would have been too young to remember the initial release of her earlier albums). Swift has done something no other artist has ever done before.
While some may argue that the move is driven by spite, a petty feud between people with more money than they know what to do with, as an artist myself, I would argue that the Taylor’s Version re-recordings are actually a significant reclamation of power by an artist who understands the might of her audience within an industry that consistently devalues and demeans artists, particularly women and artists across the gender spectrum.
No artist is immune to the evils of the industry. Charli XCX is constantly outspoken on social media about issues artists can have with labels. When enigmatic artist Shamir couldn’t be persuaded by his label to continue making pop music, they unceremoniously dropped him. Earlier this year, pop songwriter RAYE called out her label Polydor, alleging that despite signing her in 2014, they have since refused to release her debut album.
The poor treatment trickles down from the very peak of the mainstream industry, all the way to the smaller, independent pockets. As an artist myself, I have had several traumatic and devastating experiences within the Australian music industry. Contracts have been waved threateningly in front of my face and just as easily ripped out from underneath me when it suits the manager, label, or whichever industry representative I was working with at the time. I’ve been gaslit, manipulated, abandoned and interrogated by people in this industry and never once felt like I have been the more powerful person in any of these situations. In fact, I, like so many others who make music, have been rendered completely powerless on too many occasions to count.
The Taylor’s Version re-recordings are actually a significant reclamation of power by an artist who understands the might of her audience within an industry that consistently devalues and demeans artists, particularly women and artists across the gender spectrum.
Each time it happens, I am haunted by a familiar longing to bring these people to justice, or at the very least, remind the industry that musicians are the reason for the industry’s very existence. Every label executive, every agent, every player has musicians to thank for their livelihoods. Without musicians, there is no music, and there is no music industry. I'd say musicians never actually asked for a music industry, but at some point, someone realised that money could be made from musicians, and the rest is painful, sad history.
That’s why it’s so refreshing, so genuinely healing, to watch Swift painstakingly re-record and re-release her first six studio albums in order to retain ownership over the masters.
With every album campaign sparks another conversation about why it’s important for artists to try and hold on to the rights to their own master recordings during negotiations with labels. Audiences now have a greater understanding of the concept of masters ownership and rights; what was once murky and confusing is now the subject of many easy-to-read online explainers. Now there’s no denying the financial benefit of masters ownership as many artists and audiences alike are much more educated on the matter due to Swift.
The re-recordings are a huge statement, one which may seem like a petty overreaction to some but will undeniably have some very real consequences within the music industry over the next few years.
Even aside from this, I am just happy to watch this woman – arguably the most powerful woman in the music industry – reclaim a sense of power and ownership over her work.
Taylor Swift will release her second re-recorded album ‘Red (Taylor’s Version)’ on Friday, November 12 at 4pm AEDT.