I know what you’re thinking: Is Taylor Swift really involved in drama again?
The most recent drama to surround Ms Swift is more of a serious business matter than it is drama, and it involves one Swift, two Scotts, and hundreds of song masters.
What are ‘masters’ and why doesn’t Taylor own hers?
Back in 2006, Big Machine Records signed her before it was even an official label. In November 2018, Swift announced a move from Big Machine Record to Universal Music Group. Swift cited ownership of her masters as a main reason for the move, something that her contract with BMR did not allow for.
But what exactly are masters? On a basic level, a master is the initial recordings of all or part of a song, which every other recording of that song will be made from. Since every new recording made of a song must come from a master, the person or entity who owns that master profits every time a copy is made.
Essentially, then, Swift left BMR and moved to UMG so she could own the very first recordings of her music and so she could receive all of the profits made from her songs.
So, what’s the drama?
The drama came in July 2019 when it was announced that Scott ‘Scooter’ Braun, well-known music and talent manager, bought Big Machine Records, and with it, Taylor Swift’s entire discography.
Immediately, Swift jumped on Tumblr to candidly tell her fans her feelings on the matter. In a long blog post, she explained that she begged Scott Borchetta, the former owner of BMR, to give her the rights to her masters.
She also explained that he had denied her requests repeatedly.
When it then came time for her to renew her contract with the label, she was given an ultimatum: if she agreed to stay with the label she would have the chance to gradually earn back her old masters with each new album she released, or if she left the label she would not get ownership of any of her masters.
She was never given the option to buy her masters upfront like Scooter Braun was, and she was not informed that Braun was even being considered as the new owner until the deal was already made.
To make it worse, Braun has consistently berated and bullied Swift online for years and went on to brag that he now ‘owned’ Swift once he finalized ownership of BMR.
What does this tell us about the music industry?
It’s actually common for artists to not have ownership of their masters, in modern-day. However, for someone as powerful and passionate as Taylor Swift to be denied the rights to her masters repeatedly for years marks a growing issue within the music industry.
Swift is practically her own genre- none have been quite as successful for so long. She sets her own records then breaks them. She is a smart and savvy businesswoman. But, she was still trapped in a contract that denied her ownership of the music that she had a heavy hand in making.
If Swift had to fight for her masters for so long, what does this say about the challenges much smaller artists are facing?
This is a crucial time where legitimate singer/songwriters who can play instruments and produce on their own need to choose between the money and resources that come with signing onto a label or the integrity that comes with maintaining ownership of everything they create.
If you factor in managers, like Braun, who force their artists to release one new album each year or go on tour immediately afterlife traumas, the future of the music industry is looking pretty bleak.
What does this teach us?
In 2016, Swift starred in a segment of Vogue’s popular “73 Questions With…” series. For one of her questions, she was asked what advice she would give someone aspiring to be a singer, and she matter-of-factly replied, ‘get a good lawyer’.
The nightmare with her masters proves that she was absolutely right- a successful singer/songwriter needs a good lawyer to keep ownership of what that creator creates.
But, Swift’s situation has a take-home message regardless of your industry or stage in life- always fight for ownership of what you create and always make sure contracts that you sign are fair.
Do your research and consult with others, and if you find that you ended up in an unfair contract, don’t be afraid to cut ties and move forward and onto an arrangement or contract or relationship that better suits you.