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American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift has come in dispute with her former record label, Big Machine Records, its founder Scott Borchetta, and new owner Scooter Braun, over the ownership of the master recordings of her first six studio albums. It is a highly publicized conflict, drawing widespread attention and media coverage since its ignition in 2019.
Swift signed a record deal with Republic Records in November 2018 after her Big Machine contract expired.[note 1] Mainstream media reported in June 2019 that Braun had purchased Big Machine from Borchetta for $330 million, funded by various private equity firms. Braun became the owner of all of the masters, music videos and artworks copyrighted by Big Machine, including those of Swift's first six studio albums. In response, Swift stated she had tried to purchase the masters but Big Machine had offered unfavorable conditions, and that she knew the label would sell them to someone else but did not expect Braun as the buyer, recalling him being an "incessant, manipulative bully".[note 2] Borchetta claimed that Swift had declined an opportunity to purchase the masters.
Various musicians, journalists, politicians and scholars supported Swift's stance, prompting a discourse on artists' rights, intellectual property, private equity, and ethics in the music industry. Publications described her response and move to re-record as influential measures, encouraging new artists to negotiate for greater ownership of their music. iHeartRadio, the largest radio network in the United States, proclaimed it will replace the older versions in its airplay with Swift's re-recorded tracks. Billboard named Swift the Greatest Pop Star of 2021 for the successful and unprecedented outcomes of her re-recording venture. Braun has since expressed regret over purchasing Swift's masters and Big Machine at large, and subsequently sold his entire holding company, Ithaca, to Hybe Corporation.
Taylor Swift is an American singer-songwriter from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. In 2003, at age 13, she visited major record labels in Nashville, Tennessee, for record deals but was rejected. In 2004, Swift performed original songs at an RCA Records showcase, and received an artist development deal, following which she moved to Nashville and worked with experienced Music Row songwriters such as Troy Verges, Brett Beavers, Brett James, Mac McAnally, and the Warren Brothers. In 2005, she became the youngest artist (age 15) signed by the Sony/ATV Tree publishing house, but left the Sony-owned RCA Records due to her concerns that "development deals may shelve artists". Later in 2005, Swift participated in an industry showcase at Nashville's Bluebird Café, where she was noticed by a DreamWorks Records executive, Scott Borchetta, who had an idea of establishing his own independent record label. Eventually, Swift signed a 13-year recording deal with Borchetta's new Nashville-based label, Big Machine Records, as its first recording artist. The deal gave Big Machine the ownership of the masters to Swift's first six albums in exchange for a cash advance.
From 2006 to 2017, Swift released six studio albums with Big Machine: Taylor Swift (2006), Fearless (2008), Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), 1989 (2014), and Reputation (2017), all of which were commercially lucrative and established Swift as one of the most successful music artists in history. Although Big Machine owned the masters, Swift retained the publishing rights to the albums due to her role as the main songwriter of all of the songs she had released under the label. This would allow her to re-record the songs in the future if she desired, as per the artist-label agreement that limits the artist from re-recording a song for a fixed period of time; Swift would not have been able to re-record her musical work had she not been a songwriter.
In August 2018, as per Billboard, Swift's attorney Donald Passman and her management team proposed to Big Machine Label Group[note 4] that the masters be sold back to Swift as their contract was nearing expiration; the label group responded that it would happen only if she renewed her recording contract with Big Machine, agreeing to create more albums under the label for the next decade. The two parties never arrived at an agreement.
On November 14, 2019, Swift accused Braun and Borchetta of preventing her from performing her older songs at the American Music Awards of 2019 and using older material for her 2020 documentary Miss Americana. She said they were "exercising tyrannical control" over her music, and claimed Borchetta told her team that she would be allowed to use the music only if she agreed to not re-record "copycat versions" of her songs; Swift commented, "the message being sent to me is very clear. Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you'll be punished."
Swift's publicist Tree Paine released a statement the next day. Paine said Swift avoided performing her older songs at the Tmall Double Eleven Gala 2020, a Singles Day event in Shanghai, China, and sang only three songs from Lover, because "it was clear that Big Machine Label Group felt any televised performance of catalog songs violated her agreement", attaching a screenshot of a portion of an alleged email from Big Machine that reads: "Please be advised that [Big Machine] will not agree to issue licenses for existing recordings or waivers of its re-recording restrictions in connection with these two projects: The Netflix documentary and The Alibaba 'Double Eleven' event." Paine also denied Big Machine's statement that said Swift "has admitted to contractually owing millions of dollars and multiple assets" to the label, and claimed the label is attempting to deflect from "the $7.9 million of unpaid royalties" that the label owes to Swift "over several years", as assessed by "an independent, professional auditor". Swift performed six songs at the 2019 AMAs on November 24, 2019, four of which were from her first six albums,[note 6] and received the Artist of the Decade award.
Swift's solution to her crisis was to create new recordings of all of the musical work in the six albums, using the publishing rights she retained, and to have the finished product sound as close to the original as possible. She announced in August 2019, on a special episode of CBS News Sunday Morning with American journalist Tracy Smith, that she would "re-record" and release the six albums to own the complete rights herself, as soon as her Big Machine contract allowed her to.[note 7] By re-recording, Swift is technically covering her own songs as new recordings, resulting in new masters she fully owns, enabling her to control the licensing of her songs for commercial use, known as synchronization, by evading the owners of the older masters and subsequently devaluing them.
In October 2020, Braun sold the masters, associated videos and artworks to Shamrock Holdings,[note 8] an American private equity firm owned by the Disney estate,[note 3] for a reported $405 million. Swift stated that she attempted to negotiate with Braun, but that he offered her a chance to buy the masters back only if she signed an "ironclad" NDA that only allowed her to speak positively about Braun during the process; she refused to sign the NDA. She also claimed that Braun mandated Shamrock not to notify her about the sale until it is complete, and that she further declined an offer by Shamrock to become an equity partner, on the grounds that Braun and Ithaca Holdings would continue to financially benefit from her work. Swift upheld her original decision and began the re-recording process in November 2020. In response, Shamrock released a statement: "We made this investment because we believe in the immense value and opportunity that comes with [Swift's] work. We fully respect and support her decision and, while we hoped to formally partner, we also knew [Swift's re-recording venture] was a possible outcome that we considered."
Swift began releasing her re-recorded music in 2021. The re-recorded albums and songs are identified by the note "(Taylor's Version)" added to all of their titles, to distinguish them from the older recordings.
In February 2021, Swift announced that she had finished re-recording her Fearless and released "Love Story (Taylor's Version)", a re-recording of the album's lead single "Love Story", on February 12. Fearless (Taylor's Version) was released on April 9 to rave reviews from music critics, who praised Swift's move to re-record her music, viewing it as an act of preservation of artists' rights. On September 15, following a viral TikTok trend involving "Wildest Dreams" (2015) that was gaining traction, the older recording of the song accumulated 735,000 plays on Spotify, marking the highest single-day streams ever for the song on the streaming platform. On September 17, Swift teased the re-recorded song's bridge as part of the said trend with a snippet on TikTok, captioning "if you guys want to use my version of wildest dreams for the slow zoom trend, here she is!". "Wildest Dreams (Taylor's Version)" was subsequently released to streaming platforms. Swift stated that she saw "Wildest Dreams" trending on TikTok and thought fans should have "[her] version" of the song. In its first four hours of availability, "Wildest Dreams (Taylor's Version)" amassed 2,003,391 Spotify streams, breaking the record the older "Wildest Dreams" had set a few days prior. 041b061a72