How Taylor Swift’s Plan to Re-Record Her Early Songs Could Work
Taylor Swift is almost certainly never getting back together with Big Machine, the musician’s long-time record label that she claims jilted her by striking a deal with industry bigwig Scooter Braun (with whom Swift has personal bad blood).
The $300 million deal “stripped me of my life’s work,” she charged via Tumblr, leaving her back catalog “in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”
But Swift’s on a mission to regain control of her discography, with plans to re-record her first six albums—from her 2006 self-titled through 2017’s Reputation—creating new versions that she’ll own exclusively.
And in light of comments Swift made on Good Morning America Thursday morning, it appears she’s figured out a clear legal path toward doing so. “My contract says that starting November 2020, so next year, I can record albums one through five all over again,” she told host Robin Roberts.
Added Swift: “It’s next year. It’s right around the corner. I’m going to be busy. I’m really excited… I just think that artists deserve to own their work. I just feel very passionately about that.”
In clips from an upcoming interview with Tracy Smith on CBS Sunday Morning, Swift similarly seemed resolved to tackle these obstacles by simply re-recording early music. “That’s a plan?” Smith asks in the clip, to which Swift says, “Yeah, absolutely.” The full interview airs Sunday.
Notably, Lover —Swift’s new album out Friday—is the first one she’ll officially own. Last November, she split Big Machine for Universal Music Group’s Republic Records, reaching terms that allow her to own masters going forward.
As the news cycle churned around news of Swift’s bad blood with Big Machine, music industry experts noted that the singer might run into legal trouble if she tried to pursue re-recording songs previously delivered to her record label. Many agreements, like the one Swift signed at age 15, prevent artists from redoing songs sent over to their labels—but only for a set amount of time after their deals expire, typically somewhere in the three-to-five-year range. According to Swift, Big Machine’s window of opportunity to block her from re-recording her songs is nearly up.
Big Machine and Ithaca Holdings’ $300 million handshake, to recap, left masters of Swift’s earlier albums in the hands of a man she claims bullied her across a multi-year stretch (an allegation disputed by Braun and Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta). Braun is a close affiliate of Kanye West, with whom Swift has a well-documented feud spanning back now over a decade, and that partnership is said to have played a role in Swift’s discontent surrounding the Big Machine deal.
Personal beef notwithstanding, the business aspects of Swift’s dispute with Big Machine paint a picture of an artist seeking emancipation from a restrictive industry contract she signed at a young age. The musician contends that, ahead of Big Machine’s acquisition by Braun’s Ithaca Holdings, she wasn’t given an opportunity to buy back her first six albums (from her 2006 self-titled through 2017’s Reputation). Though Borchetta has since claimed that Swift and her attorney Don Passman went over the deal with Braun in detail before it was made public, Swift (through her rep) has denied his recounting of events, claiming the singer was blindsided when the news became public. Passman has backed up Swift in saying that the singer was never given an opportunity to purchase her masters via check, as some other artists have.
But Swift could still re-record her earlier albums by leaning on her credit as lead writer across most every song she released via Big Machine (excluding some tracks on a 2007 Christmas EP). A master, by definition, refers to the original copy of an artist’s work from which samples and additional versions are drawn.
While the owner of a master has the right to sell a song or album, compositions are considered a separate property, with separate rights typically split up among songwriters. Swift could, in theory, “cover” her own compositions without needing to access the masters now owned by Big Machine and Braun, re-recording all production aspects of the songs (a pricey proposition, not that that seems to matter all that much when your name is Taylor Swift) from scratch.
Doing so would likely involve tapping an extensive roster of famous past collaborators, among them Max Martin and Jack Antonoff, to come back and help her record new versions; it remains to be seen whether this, as seems likely, leads to a further schism in the music industry, with musicians picking sides between Swift and Braun.
One artist who’s already made her position clear: Kelly Clarkson, who tweeted at Swift that she should consider re-recording her back catalog over a month ago.
A particularly interesting implosion Swift’s maneuver will near certainly set off, however, involves Big Machine itself. The label is distributed by Universal, Swift’s new home, meaning the musician’s re-recorded, personally owned tracks will be competing for streams directly against older, Big Machine-owned masters.
Of course, the feud could spell big business for both sides, with listeners looking to compare and contrast Swift’s new versions against the originals. One would imagine, however, that Swift will also use her massive public platform to implore fans (and anyone seeking to license her songs in the future) to draw from her independent versions, not Big Machine’s, an unusual billion-dollar “support locally owned businesses” gambit that the musician likely has more than enough pop-culture clout to execute.
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