Taylor Swift has been one of the biggest names in music for a large portion of the past decade. She began her career at age 15, signing a contract with the Nashville-based country label Big Machine Records. She switched labels for the first time in November 2018, signing a joint deal with UMG and Republic Records. Recently, she announced in an interview that she is planning to re-record all of her previous albums in response to losing the rights of her master recordings to Scooter Braun after he acquired her old label, Big Machine Records.
Scooter Braun is a name many are familiar with due to his position as one of the biggest managers in the music industry. He manages stars including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Demi Lovato. Braun has also worked with the enemy of Swift: Kanye West. Swift says she had been begging and pleading her old label to let her buy her master recordings back, and speaks of being devastated when hearing the news that someone who “publicly bullied her” after her controversy with Kanye West, now owns all of her masters.
What is a “master” exactly? A master recording is essentially the original version of a song from which all other versions are made after. What most of us know as a “record deal,” in the music industry is usually an artist selling away their master rights in exchange for an advance that is to be later paid back by the artists royalties.
The contract also comes with many restrictions that keep the artist from releasing tracks with any other label and all recordings the artist makes will be owned by the label for a period of time, or even forever. In a Good Morning America interview, Taylor was asked if she was really planning to re-record her albums and she said, “Yeah, and it’s something that I’m very excited about doing, because my contract says that starting November 2020 — so, next year — I can record albums one through five all over again — I’m very excited about it … I think artists deserve to own their work. I just feel very passionately about that.” With this, she attempts to take control of her narrative. The consumer or listener would be faced with a choice of whether to listen to her master recordings or the 2020 remakes of her songs. She also gives those who want to license her songs for movies or television the same choice; they could either pay her or Braun for using her song.
While it is understandable why one would want to own the songs they put their time, effort, and talents into, Taylor is focusing largely on the drama aspect of this issue and leaning into a victim mentality. While it’s unfortunate that her catalog was bought by someone she does not like, it’s hard to take the issue seriously when she still makes millions and millions of dollars every year. Taylor is even reportedly the highest paid female singer of 2019. It’s a very personal issue to her of course, but also is a very common issue, which she did not mention. Even famed Beatles member Paul McCartney is not immune to the issue of losing rights to his own music. McCartney has been struggling to obtain the publishing rights to The Beatles catalog for decades. Often artists will even buy the work of other artists; Michael Jackson actually bought 250 songs off the Beatles catalog in 1985.
In essence, this is an issue of entitlement, though it’s a completely fair argument. In a perfect world, artists would be able to own the rights to all of the music they make, but in the current industry that’s so focused on profit, it would require completely restructuring the way that the industry works.