Taylor Swift’s Push to Change Music Ownership

(This is a transcript of an episode of “The Journal” from Tuesday, November 16, 2021. The Journal is a co-production from Gimlet Media and The Wall Street Journal.)

In 2019, Taylor Swift announced she would re-record her first six albums after they fell into the hands of talent agent Scooter Braun. Last week she debuted her version of her album Red. It broke streaming records. WSJ’s Anne Steele says this decision is not only making Taylor money but also inspiring other artists to do the same — and that record labels are pushing back.

This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Kate Linebaugh: Ana Castillejos hosts a morning radio show based in Dallas. But when she’s not doing that, she’s probably listening to Taylor Swift.

Ana Castillejos: I’ve always kind of joked and said that Taylor Swift writes music for me specifically, because the way that her music has lined up for my life has been so perfect. She released the song 15 when I was 15, and the song 22 when I was turning 22. I say that it’s the soundtrack to my life because it is.

Kate Linebaugh: Ana’s such a Swift fan that she co-hosts a fan podcast. Her favorite album is Red, because some of those songs helped her through a tough time.

Ana Castillejos: I did a long distance relationship for like two years and I would go and visit my long distance boyfriend and then get on the plane and listen to Red, and I would listen to the song, Come Back… Be Here. And she sings about having a long distance relationship in New York, and he was in New York. I would fly to New York. So the details were very fitting for me, specifically.

Kate Linebaugh: Red originally came out in 2012, but last week, Swift re-released the album with new versions of songs and some extra tracks.

Ana Castillejos: I was so excited. I was over the moon. I was running on adrenaline. I was looking forward to it all week. I called it Taylor Swift week because we were leading up to Taylor Swift day, is what I called it.

Kate Linebaugh: What did you think when you first heard it? And what are your favorite parts?

Ana Castillejos: Oh my gosh. Everything. Absolutely everything.

Kate Linebaugh: Swift is not just re-releasing her music for her fans. She’s doing it because she doesn’t own the originals, and she wants to have versions that are all hers.

Ana Castillejos: I mean, it’s her art. It’s hers. It’s her emotions. It’s her heart. It’s everything. It’s her entire story. And for someone else to profit off of that just feels wrong.

Kate Linebaugh: Swift’s battle to control her musical legacy has delighted her fans and inspired other artists to do the same. But now, music labels are finding ways to make that harder. Welcome to The Journal. Our show about money, business and power. I’m Kate Linebaugh. It’s Tuesday, November 16th. Coming up on the show, Taylor Swift’s quest to own her music, and how big labels are fighting back. Taylor Swift signed away ownership of her music in 2005 when she cut her first recording contract with a label called Big Machine. At the time she was 15 years old and living in Nashville. She had a guitar and a talent for writing country songs. As an unknown artist, her deal with Big Machine was a pretty typical arrangement.

Anne Steele: Historically, it’s pretty standard that when you sign to a major label, you give up what are called your master recordings to that label.

Kate Linebaugh: Anne Steele reports on the music industry.

Anne Steele: So this label is assuming risk of signing you, helping you record your music, distributing it and promoting it. And in exchange, typically an artist gives up the ownership of the music that’s created during that contract to the label.

Kate Linebaugh: For a few years, this deal worked well for everyone. Swift became a huge star, selling millions of records and making a lot of money for herself and for Big Machine. But in 2019, the masters of her first six albums fell into the hands of someone she really didn’t like.

Anne Steele: Big Machine put itself up for sale, was looking for a buyer for a few years, and was purchased by Scooter Braun who’s a celebrity talent manager, and sort of rival of Taylor Swift’s. He manages big stars like Justin Bieber, who’s not had the best relationship with Taylor Swift, and Kanye West as well. Which of course, Taylor Swift historically has real bad beef with.

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Kate Linebaugh: Swift spoke out about the sale of her music to Scooter Braun in a blog post. She wrote, “Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter.” Swift said she tried to regain ownership of those six albums she made with Big Machine, but Big Machine didn’t give her the opportunity. The label denies this.

Anne Steele: So she very publicly rebuked this deal. There was a lot of public barbs traded back and forth, and then she went on Good Morning America, said that she was going to rerecord her music to regain control of it and basically said, come November, that appeared to be the time when she was free to start re-recording and she would be free for many conflicts with her contract.

Robin Roberts: And you also said that you’re planning on rerecording some of your music. Is that true? Wait a minute. Are you going to do that?

Taylor Swift: Yeah, that’s true, and it’s something that I’m very excited about doing, because my contract says that starting November 2020, so next year, I can record albums one through five all over again.

Kate Linebaugh: Swift began the process of rerecording, which meant redoing the instrumentals and vocals on each track. And in some cases, getting original collaborators in the studio. And in April, she released her version of the album Fearless. She called it Fearless (Taylor’s Version). Ana Castillejos, the Taylor Swift super fan, listened with enthusiasm.

Ana Castillejos: I thought it was perfect. I thought it was great. It was really cool to hear her sing the songs that she wrote over a decade ago, but with her voice now. She’s singing these songs that she wrote when she was 14 and 15, singing about finding love one day, but now that she has found love, it’s really cool to hear her voice now and her sing about that now.

Kate Linebaugh: And do you listen to the old Fearless album too?

Ana Castillejos: No, not anymore.

Kate Linebaugh: Why not?

Ana Castillejos: Well, I think because of the whole reason that she is rerecording her music. Now that she’s able to rerecord her music and her master so that she own owns it, and it’s fully hers, I’m only going to listen to that. I’m not going to go back and listen to the regular Fearless album when it profits someone else.

Kate Linebaugh: And how much is Taylor’s empowerment of owning her own art part of what the fans are connecting with?

Ana Castillejos: I think it’s really strong. I think she’s showing us that she can do it. It’s not something that she said one day like, “Oh, I’m just going to rerecord my entire masters and devalue the originals.” No she’s actually doing it. I think it’s very inspirational, and I think it’s fantastic.

Kate Linebaugh: Lots of Swift fans seem to love the rerelease of Fearless in the same way Ana did. Anne says that it was an instant success.

Anne Steele: It went to the top of the Billboard albums chart and streamed incredibly well. It got radio play. It got playlisted on Spotify’s best playlists and on Apple Music. It really got the treatment of like, Taylor Swift is putting out an album. Even though it was music she’d already released, this was treated like new music.

Kate Linebaugh: Is Taylor’s decision to rerelease her albums based on financial gain? What is her motivation?

Anne Steele: Her motivation is about control. So yes, a part of that is financial gain. But a lot of it is, this being her life’s work and her baby and her art, and so whoever owns that, controls it and benefits from it financially.

Kate Linebaugh: Swift plans to rerelease all of the six albums she originally made with Big Machine. And on Friday, she released a version of one of her most popular albums, Red, and she went even bigger than she had with fearless.

Anne Steele: This one was very much treated, I think, more like any new release. She’d went on the late night talk shows, Jimmy Fallon.

Jimmy Fallon: Welcome back. Taylor Swift is here. Come on.

Anne Steele: Seth Meyers.

Seth Meyers: Her album Red (Taylor’s Version) is out tomorrow. She’s also…

Anne Steele: She was the musical guest on SNL.

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Jonathan Majors: Ladies and gentlemen, Taylor Swift.

Kate Linebaugh: And give us a sense of the numbers. How big has this rerelease been?

Anne Steele: It has been massive. So on its opening day, it became the most streamed album in a day ever by a female on Spotify with over 90 million streams globally.

Kate Linebaugh: Anne says one reason the album was a hit: it includes a 10 minute version of the song All Too Well, which fans believe is about a relationship she had with the actor, Jake Gyllenhaal.

Anne Steele: In the 10 minute version, the verses are longer, and there’s more of them. And each time you think you’ve heard the worst of it, there’s more.

Taylor Swift: You said, “If we had been closer in age, maybe it would’ve been fine.”

Anne Steele: And there’s this driving beat under it that carries you through, and it’s just verse after verse after verse, plunging deeper and deeper into the devastation of this relationship. And the running joke since this thing came out is that Jake Gyllenhaal, whom this song is presumed to be about, must be in hiding because she just sort of eviscerated him lyrically.

Taylor Swift: Late night show. But then he watched me watch the front door all night, willing you to come. And he said, “It’s supposed to be fun turning 21.”

Kate Linebaugh: Ouch.

Anne Steele: Definitely ouch.

Kate Linebaugh: Swift’s new versions of her albums have been so popular that they’ve amped up tensions between other artists in their labels, because a lot of musicians have seen what swift has is done and are thinking about doing it themselves.

Anne Steele: So this has got a lot of artists looking at their work, looking at their future work and considering, what are my options? If I’m a new artist and I’m looking at signing a deal, do I want to try to maintain ownership over anything I record going forward? If I’m an artist who already has music out, should I look at rerecording? And so, this is inspiring artists to think about their work and how they can own it.

Kate Linebaugh: After the break, how labels are pushing back. In the music industry, Taylor Swift is known for her huge commercial success, but also for championing the rights of artists. For example, in 2014, she pulled her entire music catalog off Spotify in protest. She felt musicians were not being paid enough each time their songs were played. She eventually allowed her music back on the site in 2017.

Anne Steele: What’s interesting is that when Taylor Swift does things that are a business move, it’s very much in this, here’s what I’m doing for myself, but also here’s why I think it’s important for the industry and the artist community as a whole. And so she started to really speak about ownership and controlling your work and your art and your life’s work. And so she’s really inspired people to think about that.

Kate Linebaugh: It was in this spirit that Swift negotiated a contract with her new label, Universal, in 2018.

Anne Steele: In her new deal with Universal, Taylor Swift is at the top of the industry. She is what we call a superstar. So she has much more leverage and much more negotiating power. So when you hit that status, it is much more common for an artist to negotiate and say, “Yes, I’ll sign to you, but I will want to own my work.” So anything that is recorded under this agreement, Taylor Swift owns and Universal Music licenses for a period of time. And so they’ll handle the distribution and promotion and things like that, but at the end of the day, Taylor Swift owns the albums and the music that she records.

Kate Linebaugh: Few artists have quite the sway that Swift does, but some of them are now able to reach star status and have more leverage because of the way the music industry has changed.

Anne Steele: Technology has made the entire process of recording, releasing and promoting your music so much easier. We’ve seen artists record in their bedrooms, and then you can put that on SoundCloud. You can use any number of independent distribution services to get to the major streaming services, but the cost of getting your music out there is so much cheaper. So it’s actually kind of turned the tables a little bit because here’s an artist who is going viral on TikTok that’s translating into streams on their Spotify. Labels are taking a look at that, because streaming is where the bulk of recorded music income comes from at this point, and that can turn into a bidding war. So we have started to see artists ask for things that would not be typical, particularly for a new artist signing to a label for the first time, and one of those big asks is ownership. So increasingly, artists are looking at owning their work from the beginning.

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Kate Linebaugh: Taylor Swift’s own label, Universal, has responded to this changing dynamic by adjusting the terms of its contracts. It’s extending the length of time before artists are allowed to rerelease their music. Typically, an artist can rerecord either two years after the end of their recording contract or five years after their last recording is delivered, whichever is longer. Universal is increasing this to five and seven years, and is now only letting artists rerecord two songs in the seven years after that period.

Anne Steele: In this new contract language, they effectively double the amount of time before an artist can begin rerecording their music, and it gets to around the 14 year mark, which is significant because after 10 years, most of the money on music has been made. So what the labels have shielded themselves from in this case is an artist going out and creating competitive recordings during the time when a label is making the most money that it can from the music.

Kate Linebaugh: While Universal’s contract changes won’t affect Swift’s rereleases, Anne says they could have ramifications for new artists who may want to rerecord their albums in the future. So these changes to the contract terms aren’t happening because of Taylor, but do you think the two are connected in any way?

Anne Steele: I think it’s certainly interesting that Taylor Swift is doing this right now and she’s doing it successfully and at a scale that we just haven’t seen before, but it’s interesting that it might be difficult for artists to do this going forward because generally what happens at Universal, which is the largest company and most influential, that will roll out across the entire industry. So that’s sort of what artist lawyers and managers are expecting and a little concerned about.

Kate Linebaugh: If Universal and other labels are going to be tightening the terms on artists, what is it that they’re offering artists in return?

Anne Steele: The labels are still incredibly powerful. Just because an artist can record and put their music out there, doesn’t mean that they’re going to be successful or that it’s necessarily easy to find success. Because it’s so easy to put music out there, there’s a flood of new music to streaming services in the internet every single day. So to really rise above that and be a breakout success, the major labels are very good at that. They’re the ones with relationships and the backing to get your music around the world and help you get on the radio and playlisted in the right places. So the labels still have a lot of power. I mean, we see Taylor Swift, her deal was up, she could have started her own label, her own company, but she chose to go with Universal music, and that says a lot.

Kate Linebaugh: That’s all for today, Tuesday, November 16th. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and The Wall Street Journal. And a quick disclosure, Gimlet is owned by Spotify. Thanks for listening. See you tomorrow.

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