Another chapter in the perpetual war between business and art was written this week, as Taylor Swift re-recorded her album Without fear (Taylor version). This begs the question, who actually owns an artist’s music?
To the average fan, the answer would seem rather straightforward. The artist did, and they should keep it. Then there is the question of investments. Would the artist be as successful as he is today without the music machine behind him? Unfortunately, the music industry is not a happy collaboration where conflict is secondary to creative expression. It is intellectual property, where lawyers sharpen their teeth while fighting over a product that is difficult to define.
The publishing rights to an artist’s catalog are essentially a financial asset that can be bought and traded. A famous example concerns Paul McCartney, who, like many artists, found himself excluded from most of his early recordings. In tycoon-type retaliation and with the wealth bestowed upon him later in his career, McCartney began purchasing the rights to other artists’ catalogs. McCartney ended up passing this friendly advice on to Michael Jackson, who ended up taking this advice and buy the Beatles catalog.
To understand how Taylor’s version happened, a basic timeline of facts will help:
- In 2004, 14-year-old Taylor Swift was signed by Big Machine Records. In the years to come, Swift became a household name.
- In 2018, after 14 years, six albums and a silver level from Goliath, Swift parted ways with Big Machine Records and signed with Universal Music Group.
- In 2019, mega manager Scooter Braun bought Big Machine for $ 300 million. Variety reported that “Big Machine has made up to 80% of its revenue from Swift’s music in recent years.”
- In 2020, the early music rights of Swift changed hands again, while Braun sold them to private equity firm Shamrock Holdings.
While there is always room in America for a long legal battle, Taylor Swift found a loophole that can only be described as “Look what you made me do.” She decided to re-record her old music. Most contracts prohibit artists from doing this, but depending on the contract, this clause ends after a certain amount of time has passed after the contract ends. According to Swift and her legal advisor, she was free to start re-recording in November 2020. Recovery Complete, titled Without fear (Taylor version), was released on April 9, 2021.
This ball movement had two immediate implications. To get started, Swift will be able to reproduce and sell Taylor’s version instead of the original product. On the other hand, there are now two recordings of the same songs, which will decrease the value of both.
Simply put, if you build a boat with Taylor Swift and try to navigate that boat, Swift will punch holes in the hull, and now you take the water.
To all of you who have spent time with a lawyer, my condolences, but you have probably heard the word “previous” come out of the lips of the trial on numerous occasions. This means that past events serve as a guide for future proceedings. You can be sure that by hearing about Taylor’s version, all music industry executives checked their existing contracts to see if they could fill this gap. For the young artists of tomorrow, desperate to strike a deal, we can be sure that a rock-solid deal will be in place to prevent this from happening again.
And the dance between art and business continues its two-fold sin. Artists need music labels because executives can make a career out of hobbies that artists give away for free in an attempt to be discovered. Taylor’s version is far from a nail in the coffin to solve the problem, but rather a middle finger pointed at the ocean that musicians must cross if they are to succeed. While special interests will always have their fingers in the creative cake, artists find a way to reverse the script every now and then.