FeaturesWritten by Augustus Welby on July 8, 2019
No one does content marketing like Taylor Swift. Between patching things up with Katy Perry, penning an open letter to Tennessee’s Republican Senator, and being slammed for trying to make pride month all about her, Swift’s been all over the news in the lead up to her seventh album, Lover, which is on its way in August.
However, the latest transmission from the Swiftosphere is distinct from these earlier stories in that it brings attention to an age-old ownership issue within the music industry.
Swift has previously been accused of only looking out for number one, but the Tennessean singer-songwriter possesses enormous sway. In 2014, she removed her entire catalogue from Spotify in order to make a statement about the value of recorded music. In 2015, she publicly decried Apple Music’s plan to withhold artist royalties during the service’s three-month free trial period. The tech behemoth abandoned the policy the following day, announcing that artists would be suitably compensated.
On Sunday June 30, Swift posted a heartfelt message to her Tumblr page that underlined the fact that musicians customarily don’t own their masters, which amounts to not owning the art they make.
So, what are masters?
Masters, simply, are an artist’s original recordings. A master copy is made at the end of the recording process, from which all future copies of the record are to be produced. The master is also stored for posterity, either physically or digitally.
It’s common for record labels to claim ownership of masters in perpetuity. As The Guardian describes, it’s like an insurance policy – labels sign an artist with little-to-no-profile then work hard to maximise the artist’s fanbase and associated revenue. Most artists never reach the top of the pops, so labels are reliant on earnings from the more successful acts on their roster.
A huge percentage of musicians don’t hold the rights to some or all of their master recordings. This not only puts them at a financial disadvantage, but deprives them of full control of how and where their music is licensed (along with the publisher, the owner of the master has a say about syncs with films, television shows, advertisements, video games etc.)
Swift’s blog post is more complicated than a matter-of-fact PSA about masters ownership, however. She uses the post to express distaste for Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, and Scott Borchetta, the CEO of her former label, Big Machine.
Swift and the Big Machine
Taylor Swift signed to Big Machine when she was 15. She left the label last year after negotiating a more favourable contract with Universal Music Group’s Republic Records imprint. She was an unknown when she signed to Big Machine, but went on to become one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
Upon signing the 15-year-old Swift, Big Machine included a perfectly ordinary contract clause that meant they’d retain ownership of her masters. It’s run of the mill music biz stuff; happens all the time. Whether or not it’s fair is another story, but this is the music industry – a capitalist construct designed to make money.
The joy that Swift’s music has brought to millions of fans around the world isn’t in question, but her career output hardly constitutes a labour of love art project. Making money has always been a central tenet of her career exploits.
So is owning your masters a big deal or not?
Although not owning her masters hasn’t prevented Swift from accruing a mass fortune, it’s a contributing factor in many less successful musicians’ inability to sustain themselves from their recorded work alone.
While sales have dwindled drastically, musicians can still earn a pretty penny from licensing to TV shows, movies, commercials, corporate playlists and so on. If they’re forced to split this revenue with a number of rights holders, the remaining sum mightn’t be especially satisfactory.
Owning the masters isn’t the same as owning the publishing
Music publishers look after the copyright of compositions – i.e. the intellectual property. This is distinct from the hard copies of the sound recordings, which are the masters. If someone wants to use the original recording of Taylor Swift’s ‘Style’ for a TV ad, they’d need to strike a deal with the owner of the master and with the publisher.
But if Ryan Adams wants to cover the entirety of 1989, he’ll only need to pay royalties to the publisher. The publishing contract will specify the percentage that goes to the songwriter and the percentage that stays with the publisher. Publishing deals tend to be negotiated separately to record deals and chances are Swift’s publishing deal is heavily weighted in her favour.
So the sale of Big Machine won’t deprive Swift of royalties from her existing catalogue, nor strip her of any meaningful say over where her music ends up – she never owned the masters, but still possessed the power to withhold her music from Spotify etc.
So we arrive again at the twofold nature of Swift’s grievance. She’s making an illustrative and necessary point about musos not having ownership of their master recordings, while also bemoaning the exchange of her masters between one man (Borchetta; an erstwhile ally) and another (Braun; a perceived foe).
What’s Biebs got to do with it?
Big Machine was acquired by Ithaca Holdings LLC, whose chairman is Scooter Braun. With a name like that you’re immediately inclined to hate him, but Braun’s villain-status remains a moot point. Along with Biebs, Braun manages Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, Hilary Duff and has an intermittent working relationship with Kanye West.
Swift claims Braun is an “incessant, manipulative bully” and that Borchetta should know this given any mention of Braun’s name would reduce her to tears. Swift’s unsavoury relationship with Kanye West needs no further examination, but her relationship with Bieber isn’t hunky dory, either. Her Tumblr message is headed by a screen-shot from Bieber’s Instagram in 2016 that shows him FaceTiming Braun and West with the caption “Taylor swift what up”.
Swift’s friend and YouTube celeb Todrick Hall backed her up on Twitter, calling Braun an “evil person” whose only concern is his “wealth and feeding his disgusting ego.” Hall was previously managed by Braun and stated his belief that Braun is “homophobic” and “not a Swift fan.”
For his part, Bieber took to Instagram to offer a pass-ag plea for Swift to revoke her comments about Braun and trust that Braun has “had [Swift’s] back since the days you graciously let me open up for you.” Demi Lovato also came to Braun’s defence, saying she’s “dealt with bad people in the industry and Scooter is not one of them.”
Swift’s indignation also stems from having no knowledge of Braun’s acquisition of Big Machine until news outlets broke the news early on June 30. Borchetta, in a lengthy rebuttal, says not only did he personally text Swift on the evening of June 29, but that Swift’s father is a Big Machine share holder and knew full well of the deal with Ithaca.
A number of other celebrities have weighed in on either side, serving only to muddy things further. What Swift’s post has achieved, however, is providing impetus for artists like Sky Ferreira, Halsey and Illy to go public about their own label tussles over master recordings and other experiences with the industry.
As The New York Times points out, the vast majority of pop music titans have faced a similar issue in the past, including everyone from Prince and Janet Jackson to Jay-Z and Radiohead. But akin to Jackson’s landmark contract with Virgin Records in 1996 and Radiohead’s method of operation since parting with EMI in 2004, Swift’s new deal gives her full ownership of her masters going forward.
Her post has also sparked widespread, meaningful discussion on the issue, which could lead to granting greater power to artists and reducing the clout of capitalistic middle-men.