Taylor Swift is shaking up the music industry
20th April 2021
Music makes the world go round. For many, music has been a source of comfort during lockdown days. For the music industry, it has been an enormous challenge. With no live shows, less streaming of music, and no opportunity to gain money from new licensing deals, the industry has been particularly affected by Covid-19.
This has created an environment where some artists have started to plan for their future by selling the rights to their life’s work. This means that the money made when the songs are played and licensed for TV, film and other productions will go into the hands of the label, rather than that of the artist. In these deals, artists receive a lump sum of money in exchange for the rights. Bob Dylan sold the rights to all of his songs in December 2020, and Neil Young has sold 50% of his song catalogue rights in January 2021. For these artists, selling the rights to their music is a way to plan for their future.
So, what’s the difference between these artists and Taylor Swift? When I opened my Spotify account, I was surprised to be taken back to my teenage years when I saw “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)”. I visited Taylor Swift’s Spotify page and realised that her whole first album we re-recorded and with bonus tracks. My first reaction was awe. In the year of the pandemic, Taylor Swift has seemed like a music machine, releasing three albums in 2021 alone. However, the big difference between Swift and the artists above is that she does not own the rights to her first six albums.
In order to understand how this is even possible, one has to go back in time to when Swift was signed to her first record company – and the series of events that flowed from this. Swift’s first label, Big Machine Records, signed her in 2005, with a clause that is pervasive in the music industry: it stated that the record company would retain the ownership rights of Swift’s music. This means that Swift does not own the masters or originals of her first six albums.
Why does this matter? One of the biggest ways musicians make money is through royalties, or when people play or stream their songs. However, if the master is not owned directly by the artist, only a small percentage of money goes to the artist, with most money flowing to the record company instead.
“Every time you or I play the 2009 version of “Love Story”, the money flows to the record company – with only a percentage going to Swift herself.”
Swift left Big Machine Records in 2019, but it did not resolve the issue that she did not own the huge body of work that she created in her formative writing years. The situation escalated in 2019 when Big Machine Records was sold to private equity group Ithaca Holdings, owned by Scooter Braun. Braun and Swift have bad blood, with Swift accusing Braun of bullying her. Although Swift has stated publicly that she tried to regain ownership of her masters from Braun, the deal presented to her was a no–go due to the non-disclosure agreement which would come with it. Braun then sold the masters to Shamrock Holdings for a reported $300 million dollars. Not one cent of these earnings went to Swift.
What can we gauge from this? The music industry does not prioritise artist ownership over their own work. So why is she re-recording her old songs again? Swift’s contract ran up with her old record company and although she cannot own the masters of her first six albums, she can re-record new music and own that version. In “Taylor’s Version”, Swift will own and have the master contract over licensing her songs. Swift does have some power over the previous six albums as she’s the writer of the songs. Therefore, for some uses of the songs both Swift’s and the label records permission is needed. Although Swift cannot deny every request, it is likely that she will veto the songs being used in certain circumstances and allow for her new songs to be used as a replacement. Re-recording the same songs with slight variations serves the purpose of devaluing her previous albums. It is presumed that fans and industries using the music will rally behind Swift in this David v Goliath battle.
Swift is a huge artist with a very loyal following of fans who call themselves “Swifties”. Some think that this move could be a huge shake up for the music industry and, if successful, be a catalyst for other artists standing up for themselves and demanding ownership over the work they produce and write. Musicians now have many more platforms that were simply not available to Swift in 2009, but the battle for ownership rights remains a struggle. It will be interesting to see whether this will change the industry or adversely lead to record companies making contracts longer and more prohibitive. Whatever the outcome, it has started a conversation on music ownership in the industry, and it is one which will, like Swift herself, not disappear into the background.