Taylor Swift is A Force for Change in the Music Industry & Intellectual Property Rights
By Karis Fields
Photo: NME – Source
Taylor Swift’s “worst case scenario” happened back in 2019 when the master rights of her first six studio albums were acquired by Scooter Braun. Swift’s masters had been sold by her former record label, Big Machine Label Group, to Braun’s Ithaca Holdings LLC.
Swift made a Tumblr post in response to the sale, describing Braun as someone who encouraged his clients to partake in the defamation of her name in the industry. However, Swift’s concerns at the time lied more with Braun’s ownership of her back catalogue than with Braun himself. Swift wrote, “Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”
Not only did the sale of Swift’s masters serve as a harsh reminder of how little power artists can have not just in the music industry, but in the creative industries in general. We’re now even seeing more and more directors, writers, actors and influencers fighting for executive producer or producer credits in film, television and podcasts just so they can retain greater creative control - and essentially reap the rewards of any backends or any other related profits. Basically, with the rapid, ever evolving advancements of technology and the streaming era, it seems like this is a model that other creatives in media and entertainment now seem to be adopting based on what they’ve learned from the Taylors in the music industry. And there’s lots to be learned.
But Taylor’s incident also reminded us that even someone with a career as monumental as Swift's can be just as powerless when up against the corporate establishment. This isn’t the first case of something like this happening regarding who exactly owns the intellectual property rights of an artist’s masters. Artists who have either fought for or bought the rights to their masters back from their labels include Prince, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, and Kanye West.
Although most of these artists were able to purchase back the rights to their masters, Swift was never even given the opportunity to do so. In the same Tumblr post from 2019, Swift shared with fans how she practically begged Big Machine Label Group to give her ownership of her work after her departure from the label. Their response: an offer for Swift to sign again with the label and ‘earn’ one album back for every new one she produced. Swift knew that Scott Borchetta, CEO and founder of Big Machine Label Group, would sell the label once she signed the contract, essentially selling away herself and her future. Swift made what she calls the ‘excruciating choice’ to leave her past behind.
In an unexpected turn of events, Swift made a bold decision, which flipped the script entirely. A few months after the news of her masters being acquired by Scooter Braun was out to the public, Swift announced on Good Morning America that she planned to start re-recording her first five albums in November 2020, according to the terms of her contract. This way, Swift would be able to completely own the rights to her music, essentially creating new masters in the process and thus bypassing the owners of the old masters, completely devaluing them.
Flash forward to today, just a few days after the release of Red (Taylor’s Version). Red (Taylor’s Version) is the second of Swift’s re-recordings, following the April release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and it’s already breaking music records - and Taylor is breaking her own records. Both albums have been doing exceptionally well, with the most recent release taking the number one spot on Apple Music charts. Although each re-recorded song is almost indistinguishable from their original recording, they have a cleaner production value to them and Swift’s voice is more mature and polished.
The re-recordings serve as a sort of ethical way for Swift’s fans to experience her art. Essentially for the fans who believe in artist ownership instead of label ownership. These fans have even suggested ways on social media in which others can make the old versions of these albums “disappear” from streaming services.
What Swift has done here is groundbreaking, something that hasn’t ever been done before in the industry. Along with re-recording the albums themselves, Swift has also added never-before-heard material from “the vault” as well as releasing new merch with each album. This causes an already loyal fanbase to treat the re-recordings as if they are a brand new album entirely. Which, if you truly think about it, they are in some ways.
Swift has even inspired artists such as Olivia Rodrigo and the Jonas Brothers with her re-recordings and belief of ownership. In an interview with The Guardian, Olivia Rodrigo shares how Swift’s battle to regain control of her masters inspired her to negotiate that she have full control of her masters before signing onto her record label. Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers shared with People how he thought Swift’s decision to re-recording her albums was really clever. Jonas also expressed interest in re-recording the band’s first album.
Many critics have argued that Swift’s re-recordings are either a product of spite or a cheap way to earn more money. While Swift herself has the makings of a powerful businesswoman, the move to re-record her albums is not some selfish attempt at gaining an easy buck. It’s about time that artists’ ownership rights be respected and not just exploited by the labels which are infamous for making more money than the artist who wrote and performed their songs.
Through re-recording her previous albums, Swift is not just reclaiming her power as a woman in the music industry. She is also paving the way for others like her, including young, upcoming artists, to take hold of their own narrative. Swift is a big believer in artists owning the rights to their art. It is something Swift herself has been very open about in interviews and to her 185 million Instagram and other social media followers.
Swift’s final and empowering message to fans and artists alike around the world rings true in her aforementioned 2019 Tumblr post: “You deserve to own the art you make.” So to all artists, storytellers and creators alike out there, know your IP rights and never give up on protecting them.