Photo by: Charlie Martin
Taylor Swift, an 11-time Grammy award winner, has been re-recording her “masters” since her falling out with Big Machine Records in 2019.
In doing so, re-recorded versions of the albums have managed to massively overperform the original records’ success, helping reclaim the ownership of her music and allowing Swift to receive more revenue.
Now that Swift’s most recent re-recording, Red (Taylor’s Version), has been out to the public for a year, let’s re-visit how her re-recordings have changed the music industry and how her fight for ownership rights is altering the playing field for smaller artists.
The falling out with Big Machine Records
Swift’s involvement with the Nashville native label, Big Machine Records, began when she was scouted at 14 years old by the label’s CEO, Scott Borchetta. Back in 2004, at the time of her signing, the label was relatively small.
Initially, Swift signed a contract with Big Machine Records that lasted for 13 years. Said deal allowed her to own publishing rights, meaning she held the lyrics, melodies, and sheet music for the six albums she produced with the label. The catch here was that Big Machine Records remained the owner of the “masters,” which consists of the final product that ends up being sold and distributed. Likewise, “master” ownership controls the reproduction of the songs and where they can be used such as in movies and commercials.
In 2018, when the contract with Big Machine Records expired, she decided to move over to Republic Records to have full ownership of her masters moving forward, leaving her old masters behind at the hands of Borchetta and the label. Her decision was influenced by the fact that Big Machine Records would only sell her the masters to her work if she renewed their contract. The arrangement proposed by the label entailed that Swift would “gain back” the masters to an old album every time she produced a new one for the label instead of allowing her to purchase her own catalogue.
Later in 2019, Scooter Braun, owner of an investing company named Ithaca Holdings, purchased Big Machine Records and Swift’s entire catalogue up to date. For context, Braun acquired ownership of the masters for Swift’s first six albums: Taylor Swift, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, and Reputation.
The real problem began after Braun acquired Swift’s “masters” because, according to Swift, she only found out about the change in ownership when the news broke to the public. This was saddening for Swift, as she had faced consistent bullying throughout the years from Braun and the clients he managed, such as Kanye West. In Swift’s words,
“Now Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy. Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it,”
To make matters worse, Braun and Borchetta, who now had ownership of Swift’s masters, prohibited her ability to perform her old music at the 2019 American Music Awards and denied her request to use her music on her upcoming Netflix documentary, Miss Americana. The only way Borchetta and Braun would agree to allow Swift to use her music for these projects was if she decided to not re-record the masters and stop mentioning her struggles with ownership and those involved.
In the spirit of self-advocacy, Swift committed to re-recording her first six albums in August 2019. This came about thanks to clauses in her initial contract with Big Machine Records that stated that she had ownership over the publishing rights, meaning over the composition of the music itself. It was also outlined that after the contract expired, she had the freedom to use her publishing rights to re-record her albums after a set period of time.
Interestingly enough, by re-recording her old music, Swift is creating brand new masters that she wholly owns, which devalues Braun’s investment in her original catalogue while ensuring she profits from her work for a second time whenever she re-releases her albums.
Since she decided to re-record, Swift has been able to release Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version). Although the title of the re-recorded albums and songs remain the same, she distinguishes them by adding (Taylor’s Version) at the end of song titles and album names.
Swift’s approach for each re-recording was also eye-catching enough to ensure their success with the general public and loyal fans. For instance, both albums included unreleased songs that never made it on the original albums, otherwise called “From The Vault ” tracks by Swift. This likely heightened interest in the re-recorded albums, partially explaining their success.
The re-imaginations of Swift’s old music also manifested through brand new album covers. She captured a similar visual aura that communicates the themes in her old albums while being visually distinguishable to encourage fans to listen to the re-recordings. Continuing to innovate in the visual realm, Swift also wrote and directed a film for one of the tracks, “From The Vault,” found in Red (Taylor’s Version), it being “All Too Well (10 minute version) (Taylor’s Version).”
Regarding the sound of the re-recordings, Swift made sure to keep all the elements found in the previous albums intact, with slight changes to improve vocal or instrumental performances. This is trickier than it appears; devoted fans can distinguish the most minor discrepancies in the re-recordings, which entailed that Swift had to go out of her way to ensure high-quality music that maintains the lovable qualities of the original works.
Reception of The Re-recordings
It’s no secret to anyone keeping up with popular culture that fans of Taylor Swift are deeply devoted to the music she produces and invested in the legal struggles she has faced to reclaim ownership of her music. According to Tim Fowler, a contract instructor professor at Brock University teaching in the Labour Studies and Pop Culture departments, the success found in Swift’s re-recordings can be attributed to many different factors.
“Because of the way that she [Taylor Swift] conducts herself and that she is so good as a recording artist, she gets a lot of loyalty from her fans, so I think that was part of it [the success of the re-recordings], it’s people that really wanted to see her being done right. It also felt like there’s a very personal narrative there; it was her and Scooter Braun; it wasn’t her and some corporation that people aren’t aware of, so I think there is a sense of her fans wanting to do right by her,” said Fowler.
To illustrate the degree of success that Swift has found throughout her re-recording journey, one can analyze the numbers that Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version) amounted to. For instance, Fearless(Taylor’s Version) amassed 722.7 million streams in the U.S in a year, while the original album only received 296.8 million.
Likewise, according to Billboard, Red (Taylor’s Version) has:
“ … earned 712,000 in pure album sales, compared to 14,000 sold of the 2012 version over the past six months. And Red (Taylor’s Version) has accrued 1.11 billion official on-demand U.S. streams of the album’s songs over that time period, while the original has earned 150.2 million in the same category.”
Impacts on the music industry and small artists
In terms of the influence of Swift’s re-recording journey, it has already been proven to leave a mark that will shift the strategies employed by record labels moving forward. Not only has Swift had the leverage to influence fans worldwide to exclusively listen to the re-recorded versions of her albums, but she may have the power to change how the public and artists alike think of music ownership rights.
Although Swift’s massive success has been proven incredibly lucrative for her, the singer-songwriter has expressed that the motives behind the re-recordings also encompass something more significant than herself – positively changing the music industry.
“We need to think about how we handle master recordings, because this isn’t it. When I stood up and talked about this, I saw a lot of fans saying, “Wait, the creators of this work do not own their work, ever?” I spent 10 years of my life trying rigorously to purchase my masters outright and was then denied that opportunity, and I just don’t want that to happen to another artist if I can help it. I want to at least raise my hand and say, “This is something that an artist should be able to earn back over the course of their deal — not as a renegotiation ploy—and something that artists should maybe have the first right of refusal to buy,” said Swift, in a Billboard Interview.
Despite the good wishes for fellow artists, it must be said that their leverage in the industry may not be enough to follow Swift’s steps to regain their ownership rights. Due to the exploitative nature of record labels.
“All of them (Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group) changed their base contracts (after Swift’s re-recordings) now so that they own master recordings for much longer than they did before,and so you’re seeing smaller artists being set back even further like they are now they don’t own their masters for even longer, they make less money off of their recordings, etc. This is the nature of the popular music industry, it’s about making money, and when they saw that something was challenging their ability to make money, they compensated,” said Fowler
Despite the unfortunate effects that small artists may face in the upcoming years due to the exploitative tactics employed by record labels, it would be misguided to shift the blame on Taylor Swift entirely. Not only has she been exploited by the industry in many different ways, but she has also proved to the general public and small artists that one must stand their ground, especially to defend personal values. With that said, it would be ideal to hear Swift speak on the new approaches that labels are taking to further destabilize artists’ ownership rights since she has historically been outspoken in matters that affect small artists.
For the fans, it has been a little over a year of receiving re-imagined versions of Taylor Swift’s work, but for Swift, the process of reclaiming her music has been far more expansive. After successfully being able to reclaim two out of the six albums she initially lost control over, the industry, as well as her fanbase, has shifted in unimaginable ways.
All those intrigued by Swift’s re-recordings must keep an eye open for the long-term effects these will have on the music industry and how they will empower or diminish the ability for small artists to exist in the industry.