Welcome back to my blog! It would be an understatement to say it’s been a long time since I’ve published on this small little website I’ve got going, but I’m here! I’ve been working on this blog post for almost a year now, off and on, as I get frustrated while even thinking about what’s happening in the music industry, even now. But here it is!
On June 30th of 2019, I was surprised to find out (perhaps because I don’t keep nearly as many tabs on the music industry as I should) that Scott Borchetta had sold Big Machine Records. I remember sitting in my cousin’s bedroom, scrolling through Twitter when I saw it. Huh, I thought to myself, squinting to see my phone in the summer sunlight. That was Taylor Swift’s old record label, wasn’t it?
And it definitely was. After all, who thought of Big Machine Label Group (“BMLG”) without thinking of Taylor Swift? She was by far the biggest star that was ever signed under it, and she was there from the start. Scott Borchetta signed Taylor Swift when she was just fifteen years old, when he heard her play in a cafe in Nashville in 2004. Can you imagine? It’s been well over a decade since then. Though, in November of 2018, Swift’s contract finally expired, a year following the release of her 6th album, reputation. Rather than sign with BMLG once again, Swift decided to sign with Republic Records, a different record label under Universal Music Group (“UMG”).
Some may be scratching their heads. Why would Swift leave the record label she helped build from the ground up? Is it because she’s not a country singer anymore? Is it because she got a better deal somewhere else? While it’s hard to say for certain every reason Swift decided to leave BMLG, one key issue becomes painfully clear following the events of the past few months: Swift’s previous six albums masters.
Masters? You might think to yourself, What does that mean? According to Law Insider, a master recording is “a complete, authorized, audio-only master sound recording that is or was distributed by any record label and that is licensed to Licensee for exploitation by Licensee via the Service.”
Basically what that means is when a recording artist records a song, there is an original audio file (which has all of the original instrumental and vocal audio tracks). That file is then copied for distribution by record labels. Essentially, the song in all its physical being (the “sound”, the tracks, etc.). Whoever owns the master recording is the one who is allowed to copy it and distribute it. Every time you buy a CD or stream a song online, you are listening to a copy of the master recording. While you can own a copy of the master (such as in the case of a CD), you don’t own the rights to distribute it, as that can only legally be done through the master recording.
Okay, Okay, that’s nice, You may think, Now where does this tie in to Taylor Swift?
For decades, artists have signed to record labels in the hopes of becoming famous. Every artist wants their “big break”; for people to hear their music and love it. This dream is not beneath Swift. But like others, she wasn’t born into a life where she could easily distribute her music to the masses very quickly, especially in the early 2000s. This is where record labels come in. When a record label signs an artist, they essential fund distribution and production of the artist’s album. Aka, they pay for a lot of the upfront costs which traditionally has included things like studio time, background musicians, producing and distributing physical copies of records, etc. Sounds awesome, right?
Well, there’s a catch. In many traditional record deals, for an artist to receive the support of a record label, they must sign away the rights to their master recording. Which means, they no longer own the original audio of their song, the record label does. For many artists, that means that their record label will distribute their music for everyone to hear, but in doing so, means they no longer have the right to distribute it on their own. Essentially, they don’t own their recording anymore. This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t own the song (in the case of Swift, she is credited on all of her songs as a songwriter), but they are not allowed to distribute that original audio they created under their record label, nor do they have ultimate control over what the record label decides to do with it.
In the old days of the music industry, this seems like a pretty great deal. In the age of vinyl, getting your music made and shipped out for people to buy was incredibly expensive. Individual artists couldn’t afford to distribute their music on their own without the backing of a corporation. But, in the age of streaming and self-publishing where computers give literally anyone the ability to record and share their creations, this need for mega-corporations to dip their toes into artists work starts to fall flat on new artists. Yet, the majority of artists signed still don’t own the master recordings because of the recording industry’s roots in physical distribution and the capitalist notion that record companies want to profit from their investment in artists, even if the artist is no longer a part of their label.
So this brings us back to Swift. She signed on to Borchetta’s BMLG in 2004 as a 15-year-old girl no one knew of from a cafe in Nashville. And thus, the Swift and Big Machine Records marriage we all grew to learn about in the 2000s was born. BMLG produced Swift’s album. They helped comp the costs of making CDs, recording studio time, distribution, etc. for a soon to be 16-year-old girl from Pennsylvania with dreams to make it big.
And make it big, she did. Her second studio album Fearless (2008) went on become the most awarded country album in history, including Album of the Year at the Grammys. With hits like Love Story and You Belong With Me, Swift’s career was looking to go only up from there.
Swift’s success seemed only to skyrocket, as she went on to release Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), 1989 (2014). The public often depicted her as a serial dater who sought out men to date to write songs about them. Yet, the public opinion could do nothing to stop her commercial and musical success, as 1989 went on to win Album of the Year at the Grammys.
But life is never all glitz and glamour isn’t it? In 2009, Kanye West interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMA awards, claiming Beyonce deserved to win over her. And the two have been on the rocks ever since. In 2016, West went on to release a track entitled “Famous”, where he made reference to the 2009 event, claiming it was him who made Swift famous through the press that followed. He claimed that Swift had approved the lyric, and when she denied it, West’s wife Kim Kardashian leaked recorded video of a phone conversation between West and Swift where she apparently gave her blessing for the lyric.
Many people were quick to judge Swift for being “fake” or a “snake”, to which Swift responded by taking a break from releasing music and stepping away from the public eye. That is, until her sixth studio album reputation (2017). Seemingly taking charge of the narrative people wanted to paint her as, Swift went on the sell out a stadium tour for her new album, turning a potential PR nightmare into somewhat of a swan song to the old Taylor, who Swift herself said was “dead”.
Despite the ups and downs of stardom, Swift’s success never seemed to bend. Each album she released post-Fearless sold 1 million copies in its first week, (with the exception of Lover, which sold ~867 000 copies) something no other solo artist has yet to do. Which leads us back to the end of her time at BMLG. As outlined in her contract from the early 2000s, Swift was only obligated to produce 6 studio albums with BMLG, at which point she would become a free agent the year after her last album’s release. Meaning, she could sign to any label she wanted.
But to Swift, one thing was clear: she wanted to own her masters. It makes sense after all. As a singer-songwriter, she writes and produces her own music. Owning the rights to her masters and thus distribution and use of her masters makes sense. In the contract she signed with BMLG, they owned the masters to her first 6 albums, not her. According to Swift in a tumblr post, the only way BMLG and Borchetta would give her the rights to her master recordings would be if she signed with them again. For every new album she made, she would inherit the master recording rights to one of her albums. But for Swift, the deal wasn’t good enough. She writes, “I walked away because I knew once I signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label, thereby selling me and my future.”
It’s not uncommon for this to happen. When artists leave labels, they have to leave what is rightfully (and legally) the record label’s behind. This is something Swift appeared to have made peace with, writing, “When I left my masters in Scott’s hands, I made peace with the fact that eventually he would sell them.”
In her new deal with Republic Records, a subsidy of Universal Music Group (“UMG”) Swift would own all of the master recordings she would be making from then onward. Which means, UMG would never own the rights to her master recordings, which cannot be said for the recordings of Swift’s first six albums.
It appeared as though everything was going to be okay. That is until June 30th, when I discovered BMLG had been acquired by Ithaca Holdings, owned by none other than Scooter Braun.
Okay, back up again, you say now, Who? And why does it matter?
Scooter Braun, a record executive, manages many of Hollywood’s most popular music stars. Think stars on the caliber of Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Kanye West…. The list goes on. In her tumblr post, Swift claims she was subject to “incessant, manipulative bullying” at Braun’s hands for years, including “when Kim Kardashian orchestrated an illegally recorded snippet of a phone call to be leaked and then Scooter got [Kanye West and Justin Bieber] together to bully [Swift] online about it.”
In acquiring BMLG, Braun officially became the owner of Swift’s master recordings for her first six albums. Meaning, he would be the one deciding the fate of all of Swift’s past discography. For Swift, this was her worst nightmare; her bully now owned all her past music, and there was nothing she could do about it.
And then we find ourselves at November 15th 2019, nearly a year since Swift announced her signing with Republic Records.
On November 15th, Swift published a post onto all her social media accounts:
According to Swift, Borchetta and Braun blocked her use of her old music in both the American Music Awards (“AMAs”) and upcoming Netflix documentary.
How can they do that? You might be thinking to yourself, It’s her music. She wrote it. Why can’t she perform it?
In terms of the AMAs, simply put, they can’t. BMLG may own her master recordings, but that doesn’t mean that Swift can’t perform them. BMLG said so themselves in a statement online following Swift’s post, “At no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the AMAs or block her Netflix special. In fact, we do not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere.”
What really matters is the online archive of the performance. Essentially, the argument is, if Swift puts a recording of her singing her old songs at the AMAs online, BMLG would interpret them as re-recordings of the masters they own, which violates her contract to not re-record her music until November 2020. Therefore, if Swift wants to be able to have her AMA performance online following the televised event, she would not be able to sing her old songs without BMLG’s permission. According to Swift, in order to receive that permission from BMLG they asked her to:
1) Agree not to re-record “copycat” versions of the masters when her contract expires, and
2) Not talk about her abuse from Borchetta or Braun anymore.
Borchetta and Braun simply wanted to block her from performing her old songs on the AMAs and her upcoming Netflix film out of spite.
How do I know this?
Swift does have the right to re-record her old songs (as she holds the songwriter rights to the songs), and she can speak freely about what happened to her in the hands of Borchetta and Braun, as there is no non-disclosure agreement (“NDA”). In fact, her performing her old catalogue on national television is likely to cause a surge in streaming from her old catalogue, in which all profit will be streamlined toward the owner of the masters – BMLG.
For Borchetta and Braun, this isn’t about money. If it were, they’d be thrilled that Swift wanted to perform her old music. They’d make money off of it.
Instead, they chose to say no out of spite, because Swift has spoken openly and candidly about their treatment of her, which puts them in a bad light. They’re doing it because they want to suppress her voice, even when she has already broken free from the label, and has the right to take back what is hers.
And you think to yourself, how can this possibly be happening to Taylor Swift, who is arguably one of the MOST influential woman in pop music right now? Even with all the power Swift holds as a cisgender, heterosexual, white woman, who writes her own songs, she still loses in the face of the misogynistic, male-dominated music industry.
Sure, she’ll be fine. In the end, her powerful influence and voice in the public eye allowed her to perform her old songs at the AMAs. It allowed her to release her Netflix film Miss Americana. And she’s doing just fine releasing music. Her first post-BMLG album Lover (2019) was the number one selling album of the year, and the only album of the year to sell 1 million copies in pure sales. Her second, folklore (2020) released only 15 hours after it was announced, and sold 1.3 million copies in its first day, and 2 million copies in 2 weeks. There’s no doubt that her career continues to thrive, even with all the drama from her unfortunate parting from BMLG.
But the real fact of the matter is: if this kind of mistreatment and pure spite comes after Swift, who is able to sell millions of copies of her albums, what’s happening to all the small female artists in the industry who don’t have the same influence and reach as she does?
If there’s anything to be learned by the whole Swift-Borchetta-Braun feud, it’s how this sort of thing is commonplace in the music industry. The industry values money over the artist. The people in charge aren’t afraid to attack their old starlets out of spite. Because they aren’t scared of repercussions or, in the case of Borchetta and Braun, they are never held accountable to a justifiable degree.
Swift got to perform her music at the AMAs, she got to release her Netflix film, she still makes incredibly well selling albums. But even when she spoke out against the blatant manipulation she faced against Borchetta and Braun, nothing has really changed for them. They got caught in a lot of bad press, but in the end, they still won’t give her her masters back, and they still own BMLG and continue to make insane amounts of profit on Swift’s work and all other artists under them. Borchetta and Braun still have a net worth of $230 million and $50 million respectively.
In the UK alone, only 31% of leadership positions at Sony, Warner, and Universal are held by women. The all-women group Haim, fired their agent when they found out they were only paid 1/10th of what the male artist made when sharing a festival bill.
Women are outnumbered in the industry – and it shows. The average wage gape between the UK-subsidies of Sony, Warner, and Universal is a staggering 33.8%. According to a study done by Dr. Stacy L. Smith from the University of South California, women only make up only 21.7% of artists, 12.3% of songwriters, and 2.1% of producers. It makes sense then, that women disproportionately experience abuse, lack of representation, and degradation in the industry.
It’s time for people to take notice of all the artists left behind. If one of the most powerful white women in the industry can fall victim to the misogyny of the industry, who’s to say what happens to all the BIPOC and female artists behind layers of red tape and closed doors?