Taylor Swift has been making a lot of noise recently with the re-release of an old classic single, “Love Story.” Along with the re-release of the song, Swift wrote a heartfelt message for her fans on social media, in which she reminisced on the fond memories of her second album, “Fearless” (originally released in 2008). The release of this single showcased the blueprint she is using to gain back control of her music catalog.
Music and copyright law is confusing and complicated, but basically, under American law, music copyright is divided into two sections: masters and publishing. Masters refer to the sound recording of the music, while publishing refers to the ownership of the musical idea, such as the chords, lyrics, melodies, and so on. For example, “Yesterday” by the Beatles is the most covered song in recorded history. Written by both Paul McCartney and John Lennon, the duo, alongside their publishing company, owns the publishing, while their record label owns the masters. When “Yesterday” was covered (whether by Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, or Frank Sinatra) McCartney, Lennon, and their publishers would receive royalties for the publishing. However, they do not get royalties for the master, because the artists created their own sound recordings for the composition. While this might seem confusing or trivial, the distinction between the two is key to Swift’s legal battle.
Under certain deals, ownership of these two copyrights varies. Swift signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV in 2004, where she maintained control of her publishing rights, and a record deal with Big Machine in 2006, where the record label maintained full control of her masters for her first six albums: “Taylor Swift” (2006), “Fearless” (2008), “Speak Now” (2010), “Red” (2012), “1989” (2014), and “Reputation” (2017).
After the release of “Reputation,” Swift was able to sign a new record deal with Republic Records that allowed her to maintain full ownership of her masters. Now, even though her contract was fulfilled with her first six albums, she still has no legal control over the masters. This point is crucial, because she built her career on her initial releases. There has been a lot of back and forth between Swift and her label, Big Machine, which claims that she was able to acquire her masters before they were sold. However, Swift claims that the deal she was presented with was only ownership of one album. With so little clarity, what we do know is that Swift is not in a position to obtain her masters.
Taylor Swift’s battle to obtain her masters first gained mainstream attention in 2016, when she released a statement sharing her discomfort that music producer Scooter Braun (the producer behind major industry players Kanye West and Justin Bieber) had purchased Big Machine for $300 million from former the label’s former chief executive Scott Borchetta. Swift has had a strained relationship with Kanye West dating back to 2009, when West interrupted Swift’s win at the 2009 Video Music Awards. Tensions increased when West included a naked depiction of Swift in his 2016 music video “Famous,” along with a derogatory line against Swift. Swift came forward about her discomforts with Braun publicly in a Tumblr post.
“When I left my masters in Scott’s hands, I made peace with the fact that eventually he would sell them,” she admitted. “Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter. Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words ‘Scooter Braun’ escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to. He knew what he was doing; they both did. Controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity. That means forever.”
It should be noted why Taylor Swift’s discography is such a hot commodity: her catalogue has been one of the most profitable of the 21st century. Last week, coinciding with the release of her re-recorded “Love Story,” seven of her previous albums—including the ones she owns the masters to, including “Lover” (2019),“folklore” (2020), and “evermore” (2020)—charted on the Billboard 200. Swift’s inability to gain control over her masters is a significant blow to her financial assets.
Although most people would feel hopeless in this situation, there is a solution. In every recording contract, there is a re-recording clause, in which the record label restricts the artists from recreating sound recordings of material under their contract for a set period of time. Luckily for Swift, this clause expired around the time her contract expired. She is now able to re-record her old material and maintain full ownership of these newer versions, which in a way act as covers.
Speaking to Stacy Epps (music lawyer and Partner at Epps Firm) about the Swift fiasco, I was able to learn more about music ownership and the ongoing battle between artists and labels.
In our conversation, Epps and I touched on the main benefits coming out of this re-recording process. With a dedicated fan base that would buy and stream these albums out of support and nostalgia, the re-releases are guaranteed to draw in listeners. The new versions will give new life to the albums and further expand Swift’s pop reign. With substantial financial means and the world’s greatest producers at her hands, the only things Swift needs are time and effort to revisit her previous work. The songwriting aspect is already complete, but recreating the moments that brought about these songs might be difficult, due to the fact that she has grown not just as an artist, but also as a person. Fans might feel disconnected from the new recordings because they don’t sound like their favorite hits.
The discussion soon led to Epps’ experience in the music industry, where she has been working for over 18 years, being both an attorney and an artist herself. This artistic perspective drives her passion to engage with music creatives about the importance of ownership.
“I teach people about the music industry so they can change it,” Epps said.
In an industry that can prey on the ignorance of young, eager artists, it can be easy to be manipulated. Epps believes that the Swift’s situation can be a major lesson for artists.
Swift signed her record deal at 16. At that age, most artists are worried about writing songs and performing, not focusing on the business aspect. Often artists are given contracts with long-term consequences that they don’t think about until it’s too late. Swift’s dilemma highlights the fact that there needs to be more transparency in record deals in order to prevent the exploitation of artists in the music industry.
The battle for artists’ ownership is a difficult one, as Epps can attest.
“[It’s] a lot of pushing and fighting for almost fair,” Epps said.“Fighting so hard to get something almost fair.”
With record deals that are designed against the artist’s autonomy, focused on low royalty rates, winning as an artist is near impossible. One of the most guaranteed ways of success in the music industry is maintaining control of your masters and publishing.
“Ownership controls your assets,” Epps said. “It’s your generational wealth that can be passed to your children and grandchildren.”
Along with its implications for the way in which the music industry exploits musicians, there’s a lot that artists can learn from Swift’s legal battles. Although it’s a small start, they can educate themselves about the music industry, especially when it comes to not signing any agreements until they have the right legal team to guide them to securing a safer future for their music career.
Angel Santana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.