Taylor Swift has made a career out of being a victim. Just look at the number of her hits that evolved from some kind of failed relationship in which she insists she was wronged. Now, though, she’s moved on to feuding with Scott Borchetta, her former manager, and Scooter Braun, a principal in the company that now owns the master recordings of Tay-Tay’s first six albums.
Before we proceed, a refresher is advisable. This is … complicated.
- A “master recording” is the final result of a recording session. Traditionally, these are owned by the record label so they may exclusively reproduce, distribute, and market those recordings to the public. That’s what record labels do.
- Taylor’s career began with Scott Borchetta’s label, Big Machine. She recorded six albums for the label while Borchetta worked magic to make her one of the biggest stars in the world.
- Last summer, Taylor’s contract with Big Machine expired, meaning that she could re-sign after renegotiating more favourable terms or sign with another label. Swift chose to go with Republic Records for big, big money.
- Shortly thereafter, Big Machine was sold to a company called Ithaca Holdings, which was financed by a Wall Street private equity firm known as The Carlyle Group. The main broker of the deal was Scooter Braun, the manager of Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, The Black Eyed Peas, and Carly Rae Jepson, among others. Scooter, Scott and Ithaca now own a lot of Taylor Swift-related assets, including photos, video, and the master recordings of those first six albums.
- Taylor is outraged that Scooter — someone with whom she’s publicly feuded in the media and online — owns her life’s work. However, she was offered the opportunity to acquire those assets if she (a) had stayed with Big Machine or (b) came up with money to buy them outright. She did neither.
- She does have an agreement where she will be able to re-record her old hits in 2020. These re-recordings would be new master recordings which she would own outright.
- Traditional recording contracts prevent an artist from re-recording their hits for five years following the end of the previous contract. The fact that Taylor can start with those re-recordings next year — just 12 months after signing with Republic — is unusual.
The latest controversy blew up earlier this month when Tay-Tay went public with allegations that she was being prevented from performing a medley of her songs on the American Music Awards as part of an appearance which would see her given an Artist of the Decade award. The villains? Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta.
She also played the sexism card in her message to fans: “Basically, be a good little girl and shut up.” That remark has some people taking the position that she’s being repressed by the white male hierarchy of the music business.
On the surface, these accusations are odd. Blanket music licensing in the United States allows any artist to perform any song without having to seek permission from the holder of the publishing rights. And in this case, the holder of the publishing rights is … Taylor Swift.
The real issue is a very technical point on what constitutes a re-recording of Taylor’s big songs.
Taylor’s appearance on The American Music Awards will be recorded for prime time re-broadcast in the Pacific time zone and in other territories around the world. Clips will no doubt appear on YouTube, posted by either the AMAs or by fans. Could these recordings put her in breach of that deal not to create copyright recordings before 2020? She seemed to think so, twisting that into a narrative that she was being prevented from performing her own songs on TV by mean ol’ Braun and Borchetta.
Technically — VERY technically — she may be correct, although this is an extremely broad and picky interpretation of the “no re-recording” clause.
At the same time, though, it doesn’t make sense that Braun and Borchetta would block her from performing those big hits because it’s in their best interests for those songs to stay in the public consciousness. That leads to more streams, downloads and album sales, which is how they make money and why they’re hanging on to those master recording rights in the first place. Blocking Taylor from performing that material would be seriously counter-productive. Remember that Tay-Tay’s songs are the most valuable part of the US$300 million package bought by Ithaca Holdings.
The Swifties — Taylor’s ultra-motivated fanbase — took up arms. The hashtag #IStandWithTaylor started trending. On Nov. 15, the Friday of the week, all this blew up, Big Machine’s offices had to close early because so many death threats were coming in. Braun, his wife and his children were targeted.
Threatening death is a criminal offence, of course. We have yet to hear Tay-Tay distance herself from that repugnant behaviour.
Others raised US$1,000 with a GoFundMe campaign to purchase time on a couple of digital billboards near Big Machine’s offices in Nashville with the purpose of displaying messages designed to shame Scott by name.
Braun and Borchetta eventually issued a statement saying that Taylor was free to perform whatever songs she wanted on the AMAs, including post-show recordings and streams.
Case closed, right? Not exactly.
But buried deep in all this is a request by Netflix to use songs, photos, videos, and other assets for a Taylor Swift documentary — material now in the hands of Ithaca Holdings. Braun and Borchetta have reportedly refused to give Netflix permission to use that material. Taylor is extremely annoyed at this, which means we haven’t heard the end of this controversy.
Contractually, Braun and Borchetta are in the right. But in the court of public opinion, and perhaps morally, they’re fighting a losing battle. This whole issue underscores the lack of transparency artists have to deal with when it comes to creative control.
This battle is far from over. With this much money and control at stake, you can bet that one is prepared to shake it off.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.