Swift’s Battle for Her Life’s Work

Taylor Swift is a world-renowned American singer and songwriter. At age 20, she became the youngest artist in history to win the Grammy Award for Album of the year in 2010. She was also named Billboard’s Woman of the Year, American Music Awards Artist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year in the Country genre. Her music appears in commercials, TV shows and movies. Swift remains the top-selling digital artist in music history. However, she did not have ownership rights to her first six albums until 2020.

     In 2015, Swift signed a deal giving ownership of her master recordings, the original recordings of her songs and albums, to Big Machine Records. Signing with Big Machine Records meant that the company obtained master rights to Swift’s first six albums even prior to their release. Her albums included in this deal were “Taylor Swift” (2006), “Fearless” (2008), “Speak Now” (2010), “Red” (2012), “1989” (2014) and “Reputation” (2017).

     In the music industry, the biggest way to earn money is through the royalties derived from the master recordings, but Swift’s licensing deal with Big Machine Records only allowed her to receive a percentage of those royalties. After the release of Reputation in 2017, Swift entered negotiations with Big Machine concerning ownerships rights. She ultimately denied establishing a new deal to release future albums through the label group.

     Swift said in a post on Tumblr, “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 walked away because I knew once I signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label, thereby selling me and my future.”

    Swift signed with Universal Music Group, the world’s leading music company, at the end of her deal with Big Machine Records in 2018. She acquired all master rights to the music she would produce going forward, but Big Machine still maintained most of her career advancing work.

     In the following year, 2019, Big Machine Label Group sold to Ithaca Holdings. Ithaca Holdings was owned by Scooter Braun, manager of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. Braun’s acquiring Big Machine meant having control over all its recorded music assets, including Swift’s first six albums, worth over $300 million. Just as the public did, Swift found out about her sold albums via the internet. CEO of Big Machine Scott Borchetta never gave Taylor an opportunity to reacquire her master recordings before he sold them.

     Swift still obtained one main right to her old music. Filmmakers require two licenses to use a song: (1) sync license—synchronizing the song with visual imagery—and (2) a master use license—obtained from the owner of the master recording. The master use license could be approved by Big Machine, but the sync license had to gain approval from the song writer. Swift wrote all her music meaning she still had composition rights to her music even though she did not fully own it. Using this to her advantage, she blocked the use of her beginning albums in films and commercials.

     On the CBS Sunday Morning news in August of 2019, Swift publicly announced that she would be re-recording her songbook of her first six albums to overcome Scooter’s purchase of her masters. By re-recording her albums, Swift would not only gain financial control and earn larger percentages in her music sales, but also gain creative control. With creative control, Swift controlled how her music was used in licensing deals. However, to support Swift’s strides, buyers would have to license, stream, or buy the re-recorded version, not the old one. Even so, her re-recordings would also make her music less valuable to Big Machine and Shamrock Holdings, who bought Scooter’ Ithaca Holdings in November 2020.

     Most contracts do not allow artists to re-record music until five years after the release, so Swift will only re-record her first five albums and then in 2022 fans can expect the re-recording of Reputation.

     Swift is not the first artist to re-record old songs. Artists including Def Leppard, Frank Sinatra and Prince did the same. She is also adding unreleased songs to her re-recorded version, which has increased fan and public interest.

     The battle for Taylor to earn ownership rights to her own music raises awareness for future artists to be knowledgeable about the contracts they sign. Swift advocates for artists to have more power and financial control over their creative property while fighting for her own.

     “Hopefully young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation. You deserve to own the art you make,” she said.

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