“I promise that you’ll never find another like me,” Swift sings in “ME!,” her newest single. In the history of pop culture, that’s definitely true. If you’ve been connected to TV, social media, or Amazon Prime over the last week, you probably are aware that Taylor Swift just released her Seventh Studio Album, Lover, on Friday August 23, 2019. The album sold close to 1 million copies in its pre-sale, and is set to head for Platinum status by the end of the weekend.
While the pop juggernaut has re-emerged into the spotlight with a new sound and sparkling image, there is something else that is different about the release of this album. For the first time in her career, Taylor Swift owns the master recording of her album. So, why does this matter? And what does it have to do with law?
A master recording is the original, first recording of a song. All copies of the song are made from the master. These copies appear in places like YouTube, Itunes, Spotify, etc. Whoever owns the masters, owns the ability to make, sell, and distribute the albums.
In the case of Swift, when she signed on to Big Machine Label Group at 15, she did not contract to own the master copies of her albums. This means that anytime an entity or a person wanted to use one of her songs (like for the ending credits of a movie), permission had to be obtained from Big Machine Label Group, and not from Swift. This practice is not unusual for most artists. In fact, it’s the norm.
Prior to the release of Lover, in late summer 2019, Scott Borchetta, the original owner of Big Machine Records, sold the label and the master recordings made under that label, to Scooter Braun. Most notably, Scooter Braun owns two other recording labels, and was also a manager for Ariana Grande and Kanye West. Swift was furious, as she claims that Scott Borchetta sold the masters behind her back to Braun, without giving Swift the chance to negotiate to buy back her master recordings. Further, Swift has bad blood with Scooter Braun, as he was involved in the infamous Kanye West-Taylor Swift battle that raged on social media in late 2016.
Once Swift left Big Machine Records, she contracted with Universal Music Group. The main condition of Swift’s contract was to own the masters of any future album she made. So, in the case of Lover, Swift now has control over how, where, and for what the album is used. Her next plan is to re-record the first five albums from her repertoire, so that she can maintain control over her work. Her current contract allows her to start re-recording the albums in November 2020.
Swift noted to up and coming artists that they should “get a good lawyer.” As illustrated in this story, music (and entertainment, in general) is controlled by contracts. From a lawyer’s perspective, it is important to understand the fine details of a contract, such as the rights of the artist that are granted, and those that are not. The lawyer’s job is to garner as much creative and property control rights for the artist as is reasonably possible.
As Swift said on the Elvis Duran Show, “you have to stand up for yourself. The Record companies are not going to give you anything, unless you know how to ask for it.” In the case with Universal Music Group, it appears Taylor Swift found the right combination of legal representation and real world knowledge to make a good “power move.”
Even if Scooter Braun emerges unscathed from the ensuing battle, Taylor Swift brought attention to an important legal issue in the music industry, and offers her story as a teaching moment for new artists.
For a more detailed overview of the Taylor Swift Masters Controversy, follow the link here.
You can also check out the Washington Post’s analysis here.
This article is not legal advice. For legal advice, contact Graham & Mauer, P.C. today.