The music industry is currently in a state of duress. Taylor Swift has publically accused music executive Scooter Braun, who just purchased the rights to all of her music, of being a gross bully. So here’s an explanation of Taylor Swift’s music rights, because underneath all of this drama and picking sides, things are super complicated. To dial it back a tad, in an open letter to the music exec that she posted to her Tumblr, the Lover songstress accused Braun (who manages major acts like Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato) of stripping her of her life’s work. She also accused the music executive of trying to dismantle her career.
You can read the “You Need to Clam Down” singer’s entire letter here, but mostly it all boils down to this being her worst nightmare. We know that Swift is worth about $320 million, and since she is a singer and songwriter, we were honestly, super confused that she didn’t own the rights to her first six albums, but this is what makes contracts and music labels so insane.
Taylor used to be apart of Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group. The Fearless singer left Big Machine after many years, and when she exited, she had to leave her masters behind. When an artist signs with a major label, they give up the rights to their recordings (or masters). Whoever owns the masters will always benefit from any use or licensing of the songs. It’s an icky situation, and it’s the reason why many artists are now independent or have negotiated to keep their masters like SZA and 21 Savage.
On June 30, 2019, Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings LLC, acquired Big Machine for about $300 million. This led to Swift publishing her open letter and calling Braun out. She said in part,
When I left my masters in Scott’s hands, I made peace with the fact that eventually, he would sell them. Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter. Any time [Big Machine Records’] 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.
Getting a major record deal is huge for most artists, and in exchange for their masters, artists get massive advances, promotion, and other perks. Many entertainers who make it big like Rihanna and JAY-Z also have the opportunity to repurchase their masters eventually. However, there is also a catch 22–for someone like Taylor who has a massive catalog, her masters might be beyond her reach financially. She even said she was never given the chance to purchase her music back. Scooter Braun’s wife, Yael Cohen, accused Swift of not only knowing about the deal but of also passing on the opportunity to purchase her masters.
This is sort of true.
According to Taylor, when she tried to negotiate her contract, Big Machine told her she would get one album master back for every new album she recorded. That would have taken the Reputation yet another six albums to get back her masters. In her open letter, Taylor said, “I walked away because I knew once I signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label, thereby selling me and my future.”
In his own open letter, Borchetta released a statement saying that the terms of the contract were for another ten years with the label, for the masters, not an album per album deal.
Obviously, this is a massive mess and a big, “he said she said” debacle. We totally get why Taylor is so upset, someone else owns her blood sweat and tears. However, putting this all on social media for the public and other celebrities to chime in is muddling the real issue which is unfairness in the music industry.