On Sunday, Taylor Swift set the internet ablaze talking about her latest feud with artist manager Scooter Braun and her former label head at Big Machine Records, Scott Borchetta. Her Tumblr message prompted responses from a slew of famous friends and foes, from Justin Bieber to Halsey to Demi Lovato). After reading all the ways Swift feels Braun has slighted, bullied, and treated her poorly, it's time to break down on the other issue at hand: Swift controlling the rights to her masters. What exactly does that mean?
There are multiple ways to earn money from a song or album in the music industry and royalties derived from master recordings are a big one. A master recording refers to the actual original recording, be it a song or album. So, if you're streaming Swift's Fearless from Apple Music or buying it on vinyl at your local record store or hearing it in a movie or TV show, you can do that because Big Machine Music granted a license using their "master" rights.
When labels control the master rights to an album, they agree to give a certain percentage of the royalties from sales to the artist. We don't know what that royalty percentage or Swift's advances were on Big Machine Records, as her deal with Borchetta is private. The record label keeps the fee for that master recording use every time a Taylor Swift song is performed on TV, played in a movie, streamed on Spotify, etc. Swift would only begin being paid her share on the master side after she earned back her advance money.
Swift left Big Machine Records without having the master rights to her work — those rights would allow her to continue to make money from the catalog of her first six albums, but Swift will continue to only earn a percentage of the money they make. Labels are historically known to not have transparent accounting practices, and part of Swift's problem with Braun may be a lack of trust. If any "creative accounting" should happen, she may never see another dime from her master recordings or simply a drastically reduced payout from Big Machine.
Though Big Machine has other artists, including country superstars Florida Georgia Line, Garth Brooks, and Tim McGraw, none are currently as big as Swift. Swift, who has a net worth of approximately $320 million USD, is right up there with '90s country superstar Brooks ($330M), but far surpasses McGraw ($85M) and FGL ($25M). The indie label's value has been tied up in Swift's music for some time — as noted in a 2014 report that Borchetta was looking for a buyer for the label at a $200 million valuation. Had Borchetta sold Swift's masters back to her, he might not have gotten $300 million for Big Machine.
Record labels all typically make owning the master recordings part of the deal — Beyoncé doesn't own her masters, Columbia Records does. Ariana Grande doesn't own her masters either, Republic Records does. For nearly a century, this is just how it has been done in the music industry. But, some savvy artists are building clauses into their contracts to have master recordings revert to their control after a two to five year period, declining to take advances for recording their albums in exchange for either a better master royalty split or return of their masters, and finding alternative distribution models that sidestep label deals entirely.
If Borchetta and Braun are unwilling to sell them to her now, Swift may be able to regain control of her masters after 35 years are up and she requests under section 203 of the Copyright Act to have them returned to her.
On the plus side for Swift, who writes or co-writes all of her songs, she makes a good chunk of change on publishing rights from her music from her longterm deal with Sony ATV.
For her seventh album, Lover, Swift will control her masters — instead of signing them over to her new label, Republic Records, she struck an agreement for the label to produce copies of the album while she retains the master rights on this and all future projects.
The problem Swift might have with Braun, who she appears to consider an enemy, controlling the masters to her early work? It means he can say yes or no to usages on the master rights side, potentially approving them to be used by things Swift doesn't like, be it a new streaming service whose deal terms she disapproves of or a movie she feels isn't on-brand (on the latter, at least, she can decline to grant a publishing license and squash the deal). It also means he'll be profiting from her catalog of music without having to lift a finger — something no one with bad blood would want their nemesis to be able to do.