Despite not being a scientist, Taylor Swift might have discovered the secret to time-travelling. Just like in 2012, she has decided to paint the town Red in 2021 – only this time, it’s in Taylor’s Version. This April, she officially began her re-recording journey to own the masters of her entire catalogue by releasing the chart-smashing Fearless (Taylor’s Version). Just last month, she took the second step in that venture with the critically-acclaimed Red (Taylor’s Version). However, fans are not the only ones who took notice of these re-recordings – musicians everywhere are being inspired by her efforts to fight for their ownership rights in her example. Whereas, record labels are trying to revamp deals in order to block artists from re-recording like Miss. Swift. In a nutshell – Taylor caused quite the kerfuffle. And if you don’t know what any of this means – don’t worry, I am here to ease your doubts.
First of all – WHY is Taylor Swift re-recording?
The whole ‘masters’ conversation first made it to the public agenda in 2019, when Swift went on social media to let her anger out in a Tumblr post, but we begin our story much earlier – in 2005, to be exact.
Aspiring country singer Taylor Swift had just signed a 13-year record deal with Big Machine Records (BMR) – which had been newly founded by Scott Borchetta – and had agreed as per contract to convey all master use rights (i.e., the rights to the sound recordings) of her yet-to-be-released first six studio albums to BMR. That seems odd, right? Well, not really – artists not fully owning their music is (unfortunately) an industry standard!
Between 2006 and 2017, Swift managed to put out the agreed-upon six albums, and went on to become one of the most influential and successful artists of the 21st century. Plus, thanks to her astounding fame, BMR managed to prosper alongside the singer, going from an unknown company to an affluent label. However, blood swiftly ran cold between the two once the 13-year deal was up.
Initially, Taylor attempted to negotiate an agreement with BMR so that she would own the masters to any future record she would release. When she failed to do so, she decided to sign a deal with Republic Records (a major music label), as they granted her full ownership rights to any work she would be releasing whilst signed to them. Swift appeared to have made her peace with not owning her complete catalogue, but things took a brutal turn for the worst when a new player appeared on the scene – Scooter Braun.
In short – Taylor’s re-recording venture has already proven to be a huge success!
Mr. Braun helms Ithaca Holdings (i.e., an investment holding company), which acquired BMR – and, subsequently, Taylor’s catalogue – for a whopping $300M in 2019. Soon after the transaction was made public, the singer condemned the deal via a social media post, and accused BMR of having denied her the opportunity to purchase her own masters, despite her willingness to pay the high price. Thus, the BMR/Scooter vs Swift war began.
The following year, Taylor uploaded another statement on social media, saying that her music had once again been sold to someone other than herself – to the Private Equity firm Shamrock. However, Braun was still going to remain a part of the equation, meaning he was going to keep on receiving part of the revenues for streams and purchases of the six records. The singer-songwriter was not happy about his continuous involvement, so she decided to strike back and cut him out at the source by re-recording the albums in question. Doing so would render the old recordings next to useless, as every die-hard fan of Taylor would want to support the artist by only listening to the new versions, disregarding the old ones.
Despite encountering much skepticism, Swift stuck to her plan, and began her slow but fruitful vendetta in 2021. On April 9th, she started her re-recording journey by releasing Fearless (Taylor’s Version) – from her 2008 sophomore album Fearless – which went on to be streamed three times as much as the original form. On November 12th, she released Red (Taylor’s Version) – from her 2012 record titled (you guessed it) Red – which rose to immediate success, as it accumulated 90.8M streams in the first 24h on Spotify. In short – Taylor’s re-recording venture has already proven to be a huge success!
But although her effort and determination are absolutely commendable, one may find themselves asking – why doesn’t every artist re-record their own music to fully own it? Well, there’s a lot behind the curtain…
… But HOW is she re-recording?
Let me first begin by better explaining what the hell “masters” are. When a musician signs a contract with a record label, there are two types of copyrightable material – the songs (i.e., the lyrics, the composition and the production), and the sound recordings (i.e., the actual physical recordings of the songs), which are sometimes referred to as “masters”. If an artist generates their own music (as Taylor Swift does), they can own the copyright of the songs, which means that they have ownership over the abstract ideas which led to the works being recorded.
On the other hand, the “masters” are always owned by the record company. This is due to the fact that labels are the ones helping the artists to record by loaning them an “advance”, i.e. a sum of money used to finance the recording. However, the sum must be paid back in full to the company before the artist can receive royalties on the sales or streams.
And even when the payback is all taken care of, the record label still owns the copyrights in the sound recordings, thanks to the agreement stipulated beforehand with the artist. In fact, the contracts signed by musicians usually state that sound recordings belong to the companies either by categorizing them as “work made for hire” – i.e., work created by an employee (artist) as part of their job, thus the copyright is owned by the employer (label) – or by copyright assignment.
Occasionally, artists are able to claim their “masters” – either by purchasing them or by negotiating their contract with the record company – but this doesn’t constitute the norm. Moreover, it usually requires substantial financial means and/or a level of success and amount of negotiating power that only a few artists can achieve throughout their careers.
Moreover, re-recording your catalogue in order to own your masters is no easy task. As I previously mentioned, it can be quite a spendy challenge, and not everyone can afford to undertake it.
But how is Taylor Swift able to re-record her songs, if the copyrights still belong to her former record company? Is she not infringing copyright laws? To put it simply – no, she isn’t! According to the Copyright Act of the United States, she is allowed to re-create a previous sound recording, as long as she makes a new recording in order to do so. It doesn’t matter how closely the new version resembles the former – as long as it’s a new recording, she is not breaking any law.
Furthermore (and most importantly), as Swift took part in writing and composing every single song in her arsenal, she retains “sync rights” of her songs (i.e., the rights to the compositions), which allow her to re-record her music and put it on the market again. However, it goes without saying that few artists have such rights, as writing every single song in one’s catalogue is not the norm in the industry.
Moreover, re-recording your catalogue in order to own your masters is no easy task. As I previously mentioned, it can be quite a spendy challenge, and not everyone can afford to undertake it. Then, re-releasing your old music can be a hassle for an artist, as they have to put their career on hold to re-record and re-produce, and often end up not receiving much support from the general public.
Nevertheless, owning one’s masters is something very appealing for all artists out there, especially nowadays in the Streaming Era…
The inviting dish of re-recording
For starters, having full ownership over your life’s work is only a right. This might be a no-brainer, but when you pour your heart and soul into something, you deserve to call it your own, no ifs or buts. As Taylor Swift says – “You deserve to own the art you make”.
Apart from what is the most obvious reason, it is worth mentioning that owning your masters is particularly interesting as it can be of great bargain in the Streaming Era (2014-present). Over the past few years, the main way audiences consume music has evolved from purchasing physical copies to streaming on platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music. In fact, nowadays most artists struggle to sell physicals, whereas streaming numbers keep on skyrocketing every year.
However, although the numbers of streams may be impressive, we have to take into account how much streaming platforms pay to their artists, which is – to put it very simply – a piss poor sum. For instance, Spotify – one of the most popular services worldwide – pays each artist a mere average of $0.004 per stream.
Nonetheless, if you try to see this situation from the point of view of record labels, you can understand why they might not be exactly thrilled about artists suddenly demanding to fully own their music.
And to make matters worse, the amount of streaming revenue artists can receive for their own music when they do NOT own the masters is about 20%, while the remaining 80% goes to the record label. Meaning that unless they manage to score multiple mega hits with hundreds of millions of streams, the money an artist receives is close to nothing. But when they DO own the masters, artists get to keep around 80% to 95% of the streaming revenue, which is much MUCH better. Ergo, owning one’s masters is becoming increasingly attractive, as it’s otherwise very difficult to earn anything given how the current public consumes music.
Nonetheless, if you try to see this situation from the point of view of record labels, you can understand why they might not be exactly thrilled about artists suddenly demanding to fully own their music. After all, recording companies have spent decades taking advantage of artists and using them as cash-cows. Hence, musicians becoming more aware of their rights thanks to Miss Taylor Swift doesn’t bond well with major labels…
Record labels running for cover – how are companies responding?
When an artist signs a contract with a company, somewhere there will be the so-called “re-recording restriction”, which prevents them from re-recording their music until after a certain number of years after the contract is over. On average, that used to be two years after the contract expiration, and five years after the first release of the song. However, the Wall Street Journal has recently reported that these limitations have been extended from two and five years, to five and seven (respectively).
These may be mere conjectures, but it’s highly plausible that labels are seeing what Taylor Swift is doing, and this is them running for cover. They are realizing that she’s increasing the awareness amongst young artists on how to legally safeguard their own art, so they might be trying to make it harder for any of them to follow in her footsteps by re-recording. Labels want to keep having the upper-hand when dealing with artists, and Swift’s crusade is threatening the status quo.
If all goes well, this is not where the storyline ends. As well as inspiring the newer generation, hopefully Taylor’s move encourages other powerful artists to leverage their fame to renegotiate their own contracts and restructure the industry, in order to create a more levelled playing field between musicians and companies moving forward. We need to create a new and better status quo for the future of music – one where everyone owns the art they make.
Cover: Twitter, edited by Emma Chiaratti
Edited by Carolina Alves