Somebody’s lying. It is not possible for manager to the stars, Scooter Braun, to be the terror Taylor Swift says he is and also the sweetheart defender of the arts Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato have claimed he is when stepping up to state that he’s been in prickly situations, sometimes involving Swift. It is not possible for Swift to have had no chance to buy her masters and no idea they were sold and also have been extended the opportunity for purchase and the notification of sale that Big Machine president Scott Borchetta says he offered the former crown jewel of his Nashville-based independent country imprint. It is not possible for Borchetta to be a merciful steward of good music and also be selling the singer her history back one piece at a time, as Swift said in her bombshell Tumblr post over the weekend, is it? Someone is fudging their details rather dramatically.
From a certain angle, a guy who has worked closely with Kanye West receiving the keys to the Taylor Swift back catalogue looks like a Machiavellian power play. Friendships and business partnerships have died over acquisitions like these. Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney famously stopped speaking when Sir Paul gave the young star a lesson on the value of stockpiling the rights to other artists’ music, only to have Jackson outbid him a few years later for the purchase of ATV, a music-publishing company that held the rights to over 200 Beatles songs, then sell large cuts of the stash to Sony to stay afloat in 1995 and 2006 (this is why we hear quirky Beatles covers in commercials now), and keep the last sliver in his family after he passed. Business does get personal; a quick, shrewd player is bound to make enemies.
Whether Taylor Swift is speaking unpopular truth to music-industry evil or getting out front of a story that might make her look bad over a long holiday, the issue of ownership in mainstream music is a thorny one. Music-industry deals can be Faustian bargains. You’re giving something not yet tangible away on the promise of immediate gain. Artists with the skill to write songs that can make a lot of money but not the resources to produce or distribute them properly might trade a chunk of their publishing — the ownership of their songs as compositions — in a deal with a company that manages royalties, offers cash advances against future earnings, and connects them with singers and writers who help grow their careers. Deals brokered for control of untested musicians’ future intellectual property are often structured around the performer having nothing to lose and the company having resources and money to burn. The value of what’s gained from a signing doesn’t always shake out against what was lost, especially for A-list stars.
Taylor Swift signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV in 2005 at just 14 in advance of work on her 2006 self-titled debut. At 15, she also signed with Borchetta’s fledgling Big Machine Records in a deal that, as is common practice in the industry for a young and unknown artist, gave the label control of her masters, or the signature recordings, for the songs from every album she released there, from Taylor Swift through 2017’s Reputation. When Swift’s six-album Big Machine contract expired last fall, and she signed to Universal with the stipulation that she retain control of the masters for each project she creates there (starting with this summer’s Lover), you could tell her sights were set on stewardship of her catalogue. It is a very lucrative body of work, though, and if you’re Scott Borchetta, whose label has been the subject of a bidding war for months at a minimum, there’s no way in hell you’re giving up the big fish before you sell the lake.
Swift is right to say that the music business is a place where people who write great music often toil at the mercy of people who don’t. Her efforts in spotlighting artists’ and songwriters’ struggles in an industry that sells and trades their life’s work like antiques shows are noble. Her row about how streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify treat and pay artists was vital. (It is strange to remember that the summer when Taylor took the industry to task for unfair splits on streams is the same one when people scoffed through Jay-Z’s star-studded Tidal press conference for pushing the same point.) Her sexual-harassment case cast light on predatory practices music-industry women have faced for years. Even if you don’t care for the music, there’s no denying that Swift uses her platform to force conversation and change. This tiff over masters continues her quest to illustrate how the biz should run but doesn’t, how it ought to go but maybe couldn’t.
Artists deserve to own their art, and young creatives deserve protections from deals that stiff them out of assets they live to regret forking over. The sense that you have to toil for a decade in order to earn the cultural cachet to chisel out a fair deal is not how a structure built to celebrate creativity and collaboration should work. (Ed note: And a new statement from Swift’s lawyer, Donald Passman, reiterates her argument that she was not given a chance to buy back her masters: “Scott Borchetta never gave Taylor Swift an opportunity to purchase her masters, or the label, outright with a check in the way he is now apparently doing for others.”) The decades and decades of stories about beloved artists fighting and failing to claim full ownership of their compositions and recordings create the impression that, to quote Prince, “if you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.” Creating a public fuss has worked for Taylor Swift in the past, and there’s a certain brilliance to casting the public support for your upcoming album as a matter of ethical consumption, but there’s something fishy about this Big Machine situation that’s hard to nail down.
The idea that Scooter Braun was interested in the Big Machine catalogue as a $300 million fuck-you to Taylor seems far-fetched. Most likely, he wants what anyone wants when they acquire a trove of beloved pop-music works: to make money or stash money somewhere he can be sure the value won’t depreciate. This is what Michael wanted when he stiffed McCartney out of the Beatles publishing. Is there a nefarious edge to this move, or is a major pop and rap wheeler and dealer just looking to dig his heels into country music? Is Taylor understandably taking this gesture personally, considering the history of all the players involved, or is it another case of her seeking woke points and weaponizing her fans and famous friends to help with her personal vendettas, the way she did with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian? Who’s lying?
This post has been updated.