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Taylor Swift’s Struggle for Creative Autonomy

Taylor Swift’s Struggle for Creative Autonomy

by J. Simpson


If the biggest Pop Star in the world doesn’t hold the reins to their own creativity, who can? If a musician with a net worth of $740 million, who sold over 114 million records worldwide and is currently fronting one of the top-grossing tours of all time, doesn’t own the rights to their own music, what chance do young, independent, working, or less-commercial artists have?

Sadly, Taylor Swift’s legal woes aren’t a new invention. Some of the biggest and most profitable entertainers in history have also lost or signed away the rights to their own music. There are some aspects that are particularly new and modern, though, such as streaming rights and royalties and even the right to have your work train Artificial Intelligence, as we slip further and further into an episode of Black Mirror.

Taylor Swift’s struggles against the music industry cast a scathing light on some of the shadier aspects of the business but she’s also pointing a way forward; serving as a role model and inspiration for musicians, artists, and creative talent of all kinds with a series of high-profile and very successful solutions.

The Struggle For Taylor Swift’s Masters: An Overview

In June 2019, Swift entered one of the highest-profile legal cases of the last 20 years, against her former record label, Big Machine Records, as well as its founder, Scott Borchetta, and current owner, Scooter Braun.

In November 2018, Swift signed a new contract with Republic Records after her contract with Big Machine lapsed. The following year, Braun bought Big Machine Records for $330 million, giving him the rights to the first six Taylor Swift albums, as well as any music videos and artwork owned by Big Media. Swift asserts that she tried to buy back her rights but Big Media didn’t offer favorable terms. Borchetta, Big Machine’s founder, claims that he gave Swift the opportunity to buy back her masters but she declined. Swift had expected someone to buy the rights to her masters but not Braun, who Swift described as an “incessant, manipulative bully” in a blog post on Tumblr.

Over the course of the dispute, Big Machine tried to prevent Swift from performing or accessing her own music, claiming they prevented her from performing older works at the 2019 American Music Awards or using them for the 2020 documentary Miss Americana. She avoided performing much of her older material throughout much of 2019 and 2020.

Things came to a head in April 2020 when Big Media released Live From Clear Channel Stripped 2008 without Swift’s blessing or input. Luckily, Swift already had a solution in the works by this point. In August 2019, Swift announced the campaign to re-record her first six albums on an episode of CBS News Sunday Morning, returning the rights to license her own material for commercial use, which is known as “synchronization.” The re-recorded versions would be released with the parenthetical (Taylor’s Version).”

“How Can She Do That?” The Legalities of Taylor’s Versions 

The rights and laws around copyright and creative ownership are labyrinthine and complex, even for trained legal professionals. It doesn’t help that they’ve developed over the span of a few hundred years, so they were created to account for everything from sheet music to player pianos to radio, television, and now streaming and even AI. Copyright laws are anything but airtight and foolproof, even for the biggest Pop Star in the world.

Swift has been able to re-record her back catalog thanks to an obscure clause in her original contract with Big Media. Some contracts include a “re-recording clause,” that allows an artist to re-record and re-release material as long as it’s entirely original as specified in Section 114(b) of the Copyright Act. Once Swift’s contract was up with Big Media in 2018, she was free to re-record her own versions beginning with 2012’s Red, now titled Red (Taylor’s Version).

Reactions to Swift’s Re-Recordings

The support for both Swift and her re-recordings was swift and absolute. The list of celebrities who have openly supported her during her ordeal has more stars than the Met Gala. Everyone from legacy entertainers like Dionne Warwick and Cher to 21st-Century pop royalty like Jack Antonoff, Alessia Cara, Haim, Katy Perry, Camilla Cabello, Halsey, and Tinashe have spoken out publicly in support of Swift’s bold stance. Even Azealia Banks, the internet’s fourth-biggest troll, approves.

Swift’s fierce unwillingness to back down or compromise has inspired others to come forward and speak of their own struggles regarding their own music, like Sky Ferreira, who told Paste Magazine “The entertainment industry is filled with underqualified bullies & morons with way too much power for their own good.” 

Pop music’s glitterati weren’t the only ones to speak out in Swift’s defense. Both Senator Elizabeth Warren as well as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke out on the dangers of private equity firms like the ones that enabled Braun to purchase the Big Media Label Group, with Ocasio-Cortez tweeting “Private equity groups’ predatory practices actively hurt millions of Americans. Their leveraged buyouts have destroyed the lives of retail workers across the country, scrapping 1+ million jobs. Now they’re holding [Swift’s] own music hostage. They need to be reined in.”

The 1+ million jobs she’s referring to are the retail positions lost due to private equity buyouts like Toys ‘R Us, Sears, and Sports Authority, among others. It’s another manifestation of the dangers of unregulated capitalism, albeit a particularly glaring and shocking one.

The Aftershocks of Taylor’s Versions

Swift’s battle against Braun and Big Media Label Groups is a microcosm of a number of seismic shake-ups changing society. It’s a textbook example of predatory capitalism, especially when considering how the label tried to use contract negotiations to extort a new deal out of Swift. It’s also another example of a woman standing up to powerful men, which has been one of the most prevalent narratives of the last decade. Swift offers an example of what can be accomplished by a powerful, capable woman working in the music industry on her own terms.

Swift’s battle against Big Media Label Groups also illustrates the changing face of today’s music and entertainment industries. Today’s Pop Stars are bigger, more powerful, and more influential than even some of the most prominent musicians in history. They also have a more direct relationship with their fans, via social media, which can be leveraged to give them even more power and influence. Hell hath no fury like Swifties, Barbz, and The Beyhive.

Many of these struggles and conversations are ongoing and likely will be for some time. The current writer’s strike in Hollywood is another example of creative workers standing up for themselves demanding workplace protection and just compensation for their labor. Swift understands that without artists and creators, there are no networks. They make the media we share as memes. They write the anthems we post to our Instagram Stories and supply the quotes that become captions on Threads. They tell the stories and make the art that makes life worth living, reminding us there’s so much more to living than punching the clock and making money for someone else.

Taylor’s Triumph

Swift’s battles against the recording industry have clearly paid off. Numerous Taylor’s Versions have broken several records, including the most streamed album in a day and most streamed female artist in a day. The re-recorded 10-minute version of “All Too Well” set a record for the longest song ever to chart, as well, beating out Don Maclean’s “American Pie” for the honor. It also sent a clear message, that may be Swift’s most enduring legacy – her fans were willing to follow her. When she started re-releasing Taylor’s Versions of her iconic back catalog, her fans responded by listening to the new versions instead of the originals owned by Braun. Her gambit has paid off, as she currently earns a staggering $8.5 million in streaming royalties each month. Each of the re-recorded albums has been streamed more than the originals by at least 300% since their release, too. Red (Taylor’s Versions) has sold an unbelievable 10x the amount of the original! In addition, Taylor’s summer concert tour has become the event of the year. A Taylor economy has sprung up in towns where she sings. She’s playing sold-out stadium shows and playing for three hours, something no other modern artist does. Taylor’s events are a throwback to Beatlemania. She’s the #1 superstar in the world, and there isn’t a close second. Clearly, artists do still have power – if they’re willing to use it.

J. Simpson

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