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Taylor Swift's Masters Controversy and What Creatives Can Learn From It.

It’s no longer news that Taylor Swift has been re-recording her old albums, the latest, Speak Now (Taylor’s version) graced Digital Streaming Platforms (DSPs) on Friday the 7th of July 2023 making it Swift’s third re-recorded album. The idea behind re-recording her old album is rooted in the infamous dispute between the artist and her previous record label Big Machine Records (BMR).

On June 30th, 2019, the artist revealed on her Tumblr page that Scooter Braun, former manager to popular celebrities, like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber bought the masters to her multi-platinum studio albums; Taylor Swift, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, and Reputation. She noted that the masters of these albums were sold by Scott Borchetta, the owner of Big Machine Records which she was signed to until 2018. The back and forth which featured numerous accusations from both parties would later see Taylor Swift opt to re-record the six albums in order to decrease the value of the original songs and reclaim ownership of her art.

Taylor Swift on a talk show
Source: Late Night with Seth Meyers

Generally, recorded music attracts copyright protection which protects every aspect of the song; the lyrics, production, performance, distribution, etc. The contract Taylor Swift signed at the beginning of her career handed the copyright in the recordings or to be specific the masters of her songs to her record company BMR. To clarify, a master recording is the original recording of an artist’s work that sets precedence for all other “derivative works” of a song. Thus, if you own the master of a song, you can authorize or prevent third parties from using the song. In simpler terms, you are the master. In this case, since Big Machine Records owns Swift’s masters, and Braun now owns Big Machine Records through his company, Ithaca Holdings they can control how the songs are being used by third parties or if they can be used at all. This was one of the nuggets that propelled Swift to re-record her albums as she claimed that she was prevented from performing a variety of her top-selling tracks at the American Music Awards, and that the record label was blocking her songs from being featured in her Netflix film. She accused Braun and Borchetta of wanting to frustrate her so that she will abandon re-recording her album and talking negatively about them in public. Swift has however undauntedly, gone ahead to live up to her word about re-recording her songs.

It is important to note that although, re-releasing new versions of her older albums does not get rid of the initial master of the original albums which is still owned by BMG and by implication Scooter Braun, it will however decrease the value of the initial master and give Swift control over the usage of her songs. Taylor Swift continues to encourage her fans to stream the new recordings which bear the Tag line “Taylor Versions” over the old ones and it would appear that the initiative of carrying her fans along in the process by making them feel like front-row spectators in everything that has happened has made a lot of people invested in making sure the Taylor versions do so well. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) knocked the old version off the Billboard charts, Red (Taylor’s Version) was a global success breaking the record for the most-streamed album in a day by a female and the most-streamed female in a single day in Spotify history. The recently released Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) is also doing well on DSPs and has become Spotify’s most streamed album in a single day in 2023 and the most streamed country album in a single day in Spotify History.

The whole concept of re-recording her album is a masterstroke of creativity by Swift and a genius concept of making lemonades out of (contractual) lemons. It is both a personal triumph for Swift and a huge statement that will set a precedence for other artists in similar situations to follow. It is commendable that Taylor Swift has decided to trail this path, setting a trend that will open the eyes of many creatives to the importance of owning the rights to their own work.

As ironic as the crux of the matter may sound since Taylor authored her works being both a songwriter and performer of her songs, the ownership of the songs belonged to BMR. It is important to clarify that authorship and ownership are two different concepts in copyright and related matters. While an author may also be an owner there are cases where an author and an owner are two separate persons. The controversy around Taylor Swift’s masters is a good example of this. Swift is fortunate enough to be both singer and songwriter of her songs and thus had an edge and was able to find a creative alternative in the event of re-recording her songs but it could easily be a different story entirely. While Taylor’s boldness is impressive, it also sheds light on the importance of defining and clarifying the rights involved in deals and contracts as creatives.


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