When Scooter Braun bought the rights to Taylor Swift’s back catalogue in June, a conversation started about who should have ownership over an artist’s work. Now, he is reportedly withholding the performance rights to Swift’s previous hits and the singer has hit back on Twitter. This skirmish is about so much more than copyright, though. It’s about power.
Taylor Swift’s statement was simple, her words plain. “Don’t know what else to do,” she tweeted this morning.
The singer was referring to the news that she had received that, at her forthcoming Artist of the Decade honour at the American Music Awards, she would not be permitted to perform the biggest hits from her past albums. No Shake it Off, no Blank Space, no I Knew You Were Trouble, no We Are Never Getting Back Together, no Style, no Bad Blood, no You Belong With Me, no Love Story.
These are the songs that made Swift famous, the tracks that she wrote and sang over the course of the last decade. The songs that won her awards, skyrocketed her to the top of the Billboard charts, songs that have been loved and hated, embraced and debated, parodied and adored but always, always in the conversation.
The problem is that Swift doesn’t own the rights to her archive. In June, music manager Scooter Braun (he discovered Justin Bieber, among others) purchased the record label Big Machine from Scott Borchetta for $300 million. Though Swift is no longer signed with the label, it is the company that produced her previous records and, as per her original contract, it owns the rights to her masters.
The music business is full of dark and mysterious arts, none more dark and mysterious than masters. Think of it like this: the master is the original recording of a track from which all copies are made. You know how an original painting exists, but there can be a number of prints of that painting? It’s kind of the same thing.
Masters are everything when it comes to music, because even though Swift owns the copyright of her lyrics she doesn’t own the copyright of the finished, recorded track. She can either buy back her back catalogue, as she originally intended to do, or she can get around it by re-recording every one of her past songs so that she can make a fresh master that she owns.
Swift plans to do this. In her Twitter statement today, she said it is “something I’m both legally allowed to do and looking forward to”. But, she says, Braun and Borchetta are attempting to block her at every turn.
Big Machine reportedly told her that she’s not allowed to perform her old songs on television because, she says, “that would be re-recording my music before I’m allowed to next year”. It said that a forthcoming Netflix documentary about her life cannot use old music or old performance footage. It told her that unless she agrees not to re-record her music, it will continue to withhold permission.
(Big Machine has denied Swift’s claims. In a statement, it said: “We have continued to honour all of her requests to license her catalog to third parties as she promotes her current record in which we do not financially participate.”)
Braun is within his right to withhold permission: he’s now the legal owner of Swift’s masters. But the very structure of the music industry that allows this to occur smacks of systemic discrimination baked into the very foundations of the business. Should men – because record company owners are mostly men – be allowed to wield so much power over young artists, many of them young women? Should two men be allowed to hold this power over a female artist in regards to her own work?
“The message being sent to me is very clear,” Swift said in her statement. “Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you’ll be punished. This is WRONG. Neither of these men had a hand in the writing of these songs… I just want to be able to perform MY OWN music. That’s it. I’ve tried to work this out privately through my team but have not been able to resolve anything. Right now, my performance at the AMAs, the Netflix documentary and any other recorded events I am planning to play until November of 2020 are a question mark.”
These are Swift’s words and she’s not mincing them. It is also just one side of the story, and some have pointed out on Twitter that there seems to be a bit of a question over what is exactly at play here.
Is Big Machine withholding the rights to the original masters being used in the Netflix documentary? Is it preventing her from performing the old songs on television as a violation of their agreement about re-recording? We don’t know what Swift and Big Machine’s contract was, so we don’t know exactly what is at stake here or what pressure is being applied.
But even looking at the drama in macro terms is a scary reminder of how men can use their position of power against women when it comes to work. If, as Roxane Gay noted, a woman like Swift, who is phenomenally successful and powerful in her own right, can get so “publicly screwed over” then what hope is there for the rest of the women in the world just trying to make good work? “And yes yes, she is a millionaire,” Gay added. “She will be fine. I’m not a fan. But, you know, this is fucked up and it is, in part, misogyny at play. If someone did this to my books I would be furious.”
Swift’s fans have mobilised. The hashtag #IStandWithTaylor is going viral. More than 50,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Swift be allowed to perform her catalogue at the AMAs and include her original masters in the Netflix documentary. Celebrities including Gigi Hadid, Selena Gomez, Halsey, Lily Allen, Azealia Banks, Ruby Rose and Tinashe have all rushed to share messages of support for Swift on social media.
As Halsey wrote: “These people are protected because they inspire complicity with fear. Banking on the illusion that people will not stand up for her. That the world will say she is overreacting. You’re barking up the wrong tree. It is her grace and patience in these moments that make her artist of the decade.”
Yes, the rights to Swift’s masters were sold. No, she does not own them herself and never did. Yes, legally she isn’t within her right to do as she wants with her masters at present. But this is wrong. It should never have been allowed to happen. If this is how the music industry treats its artists, particularly the young female talent it signs when they show the first glimpse of greatness, this needs to change.
Swift has been fighting this battle in the new era of her career, one where she has made no apologies about feeling victimised as a woman in music.
“A man does something, it’s strategic, a woman does the same thing, it’s calculated,” she told CBS This Morning in August. “A man is allowed to react, a woman can only overreact. It goes on and on and on. A man does something? Confident and bold. A woman does it the same way and she’s smug. A man stands up for himself, a woman throws a temper tantrum.”
There are some who think that this is what Swift is doing right now. Candace Owens, the controversial pro-Trump pundit, dubbed Swift’s message “one of the most toxic forms of feminism I’ve ever seen. Using angry fans who don’t know how business works to apply pressure to people who are under no contractual obligation to let you use what was SOLD to them.”
Yes, Swift’s fans are angry. They love the singer, many of them have grown up with her. Maybe they don’t know how the business of music works, but that’s because the record industry is so needlessly opaque.
“Have you seen a recording contract?” Lily Allen tweeted today. “I still don’t understand them! If you are a music lawyer are you gonna favour a system that protects its executives who will be sending contracts your way for 30/40 years or female artists who have a shelf life of probably none years but potentially five/10 years of contracts?”
Maybe Swift herself didn’t understand how inscrutable the music business was when, at 13, Borchetta approached her at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee and suggested that they work together. Did she know what would happen to her life’s work when she was just 14 and Borchetta signed her to Big Machine? Did she know that she was signing away control over her creative genius? How could she? How could she have known what would happen when, at 14, Swift penned the lyrics to her first song Tim McGraw and entered a recording booth to make music for the first time?
Well, Swift knows now. Swift is fighting for her life’s work and she’s doing so with every resource in her arsenal. Her battle is the battle of every woman in the music industry, from Kesha to Rita Ora, who has had ownership over their work withheld from them by men.
If this is a temper tantrum, then it’s an overdue one. Yes, Swift is angry. She’s yelling and screaming and stamping her feet. She doesn’t care if she gets in trouble or told off. She’s making noise. Let’s hope that the music industry listens to her.