Last month, radio stations and fans across the country were blasting the 13-year-old Taylor Swift hit, Love Story, with a new spin. Swift’s re-recording of her hit song is just the beginning. The singer is planning to re-record and release her first six albums over the next year beginning with Fearless (Taylor’s Version), which is set to release on April 9. Those who are not die-hard fans may be wondering why Swift is re-recording her old albums when she has just released two chart-topping albums in one year. While many artists re-record music for additional royalties, this is about more than money for Swift. It’s all about revenge.
Swift signed her first record deal with Big Machine Records when she was just 15 years old. This contract gave her publishing rights but not master rights of her work. In 2018, after completing her contract, she moved on to a deal with Universal Music Group which would allow her full ownership of her music. Though Swift wanted to buy the masters of her pre-2018 catalogue, Big Machine Records instead gave her the option to “earn” her albums one at a time in exchange for creating more albums with them. Swift walked away from the deal heartbroken, but not as heartbroken as she would be when she found out who purchased her masters.
The singer’s early masters were sold to big-time media entrepreneur Scooter Braun, a man Swift believes orchestrated “incessant, manipulative bullying” against her. Their feud graduated from pseudo-revenge porn in Kanye West’s music video for his song Famous, where Braun was West’s manager at the time, to holding her music hostage. Swift claimed in a Tumblr post that Braun and her old label would not allow her to perform any of her old music during her 2019 AMA performance after she won Artist of the Decade. Further, she was allegedly not allowed to use any of her music in her Netflix documentary, Miss Americana. In late 2020, Braun sold her masters to an investment fund in a deal thought to be more than $300 million. This mistreatment only furthered Swift’s conviction that she would find a way to gain ownership of her entire discography.
Better Than Revenge
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Swift stands to gain a lot of revenue through licensing her re-recordings to advertising firms, film, and television studios. Usually when a firm licenses a song they need permission from the owner and songwriter. Swift has been declining licensing agreements as they would allow Braun to profit, however with her new masters, she stands to make 100% of the money earned. She would also be allowed to make deals herself and license her songs for any project she wants.
With the licensing process becoming much simpler and cheaper when negotiating with Swift directly rather than the record label, firms and studios will likely take that route instead of using her old masters. Not only is Swift bringing revenue to herself, but she is also devaluing the original versions of her songs.
What seems to be more important than the money in this situation is the overarching principle. Swift has been a long proponent of artistic autonomy and has been pursuing the ownership of her work for years. While it may come as news to some, artists have been protesting for ownership of their work for decades. In 1996, while fighting for the rights of his masters, Prince famously said, “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”
You may be wondering: why is Swift able to do this? If she stands to gain so much, it seems like her previous contract should disallow it. Well, Swift has two things going for her, according to entertainment attorney Dina LaPolt in an interview with Vice. Though Swift does not own the rights to the recordings of her songs, as the songwriter she does own the lyrics, melodies, and compositions. And although her contract with Big Machine Records did have a restriction on re-recordings, that clause expired in November for her first five albums.
If her plan pays off it may inspire other artists to do the same. The trouble is that record labels know this too. Unfortunately, labels have the power to tighten their re-recording restrictions. While typical clauses only restrict re-recordings for around five years, future contracts may change to last for decades or even indefinitely. Artists need to be sure that they own the publishing rights to all of their songs, meaning that they must have written all of their songs to have full control over the licensing of their music in any capacity.
The struggle between labels and artists is a tale as old as time. Labels taking advantage of young artists and trapping them in bad contracts is all too common. With labels becoming less essential to launching an artist’s career, musicians seem to finally be gaining some leverage. Labels typically provide advertising, recording sessions, and distribution for artists. Now with the internet, people can become sensations overnight with a viral video and a fanbase through social media.
Streaming platforms are another important innovation that tipped the scales towards artists. Many artists such as Frank Ocean and Beyoncé have successfully partnered with streaming services to avoid working with labels and have more control over their music. This change in the way people consume music puts a lot more power in the individual artist and grants them leverage over their increasingly irrelevant labels. This is a pivotal time in music and it seems as if a great shift is happening. Hopefully, this shift will continue to benefit artists.
Love Story (Taylor’s Version) debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard’s Hot Country chart. The song (finally her’s) received 5,000 paid downloads, 13.7 million streams, and 1.1 million radio impressions in its first week. Swift’s future re-recordings could also outpace her originals or they could totally flop— either way they represent an important move in the battle for artistic autonomy. Though not every artist will be able to replicate Swift’s shrewd moves, she could inspire a generation of artists to advocate for themselves and their music.