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Tale as old as time: music ownership, is it time for industry-wide change?

04 June 2021. Published by Harpreet Kaur, Associate

Taylor Swift's battle with her former record label, Big Machine Label Group, and its buyer, Ithaca Holdings LLC, has been widely documented in the press over the last few years. This saga is another example of the exploitation that is rife within the music industry, but will Swift's experience finally bring about change? Fellow 'Swifties' and I hope so.

The battle unravelled before the public's eyes on 14 November 2019, when Swift was forced to appeal to her fans on social media as she didn't 'know what else to do'. In the post, Swift explained how Scott Borchetta, founder and CEO of Big Machine Label Group (Big Machine) and Scooter Braun, founder of investment holding company Ithaca Holdings LLC (Ithaca) and manager to countless big names including Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, were preventing her from performing her older hits at the 2019 American Music Awards (AMAs) and including them in her Netflix documentary, Miss Americana (a must watch by the way). 

Now, let's unpack the events leading up to this. Taylor Swift's music career launched almost 15 years ago in 2006 when she signed a record deal with Big Machine. Swift went on to become the jewel of the label, releasing 6 award-winning albums with them until 2017. Many of the albums reached number 1 across the globe and are certified 6, 7, 8 or even 9x Platinum. 

In November 2018, Taylor decided to call it quits with Big Machine and signed a global recording agreement with Universal Music Group (Universal), for reasons which later became apparent. In July 2019, Ithaca acquired Big Machine in what the Wall Street Journal has valued as a $300 million-dollar deal. With this acquisition, Ithaca hit a goldmine, acquiring ownership of the master recordings of each and every one of the multi-platinum albums Swift released with Big Machine. This ownership gave Ithaca the rights to sell and license the masters for commercial use rather than the true author of the works, Taylor Swift. 

This was the reason Swift decided to leave Big Machine a few months prior. According to a blog on the star's Tumblr page, when she 'pleaded' with Big Machine to give her ownership of her work, she was told that she could 'earn one album back at a time' i.e. for every album she was given ownership of, she would have to create a new album for Big Machine to release. This was when Swift made the decision to cut ties with Big Machine and sign with Universal, whom she described as 'a label that believes I should own anything I create.' 

Then came Swift's 14 November 2019 tweet about the AMAs and Netflix. The issue here being not that Ithaca had any standing to prohibit Swift from performing her songs live, but that under her original record deal with Big Machine, Swift was prohibited from re-recording any of her music released with the label without its consent until November 2020, as the label retained ownership of the master recordings. Performing her old hits live on TV would inevitably result in their distribution online which amounted to re-recording. Albeit quite unfair, Ithaca's legal position was sound, but its commercial position didn't appear to be; Swift performing her greatest hits at the AMAs would surely entice viewers to stream her past works in the millions, lining Ithaca's pockets. This was probably why Ithaca later recalled its position, giving Swift the necessary consent to perform at the AMAs and have the performance recorded and distributed. 

Now, Swift has just released Love Story, the first of the re-recorded versions of her previous hits. In an attempt to take back ownership of her work, Swift intends to release re-recorded versions of her entire Big Machine catalogue of albums. In doing so, Swift will be the owner of the re-recorded compositions and have the right to license the re-recordings for commercial use. The rationale is that companies will go straight to Swift to use the music, rather than to Ithaca for access to the original master recordings, diminishing Ithaca's control over Swift's music. 

Although Swift sees re-recording as a step in the right direction for her, whether it would benefit other artists facing similar issues is less clear cut as effectively, re-recorded songs would be in direct competition with the already known and loved originals. There is also a risk that re-recording restrictions in recording contracts will become stricter in the wake of high-profile artists adopting such a route. The hope for most artists would be that their fans would stick by them as opposed to the big-ticket record label that may be stifling them. If re-recording pays off, it could be a lucrative business decision for artists, who would be able to license their re-recorded songs to film and TV studios (amongst others) and reap the profits from this directly. 

So, whilst a record label's ownership of master recordings is commonplace in the music industry, the lesson is clear. The industry must take a stand against large record labels using their clout to exploit young musicians; Swift was only 16 when she signed her record deal with Big Machine and was clearly unaware of the lasting consequences of her signature. 

JoJo provides another example of the exploitation that is rife in the music industry. The singer shot to fame with hit single 'Leave (Get Out)' at the age of 14 and signed a record deal with Blackground Records and Da Family a year prior, when she was just 13. However, in 2013, the singer entered a long legal battle with Blackground Records and Da Family after the label prevented her from releasing new music or streaming her back catalogue of hits on popular streaming services like Spotify. The difference here was that JoJo was effectively being stripped of income as well as the ownership of her creative content. Eventually, in 2018, she re-recorded and re-released her first two albums.

It's a tale as old as time, with countless young artists including Prince, Def Leppard and TLC being forced to go through the same re-recording rigmarole to reclaim control of their music from record companies who leverage ownership rights in expensive acquisitions. We can only hope the publicity of Taylor Swift's battle with Big Machine and Ithaca will help to bring about positive change to the music industry. Swift has already garnered strong support from her fans, politicians, and musicians alike. This could be a watershed moment that inspires artists to take control of their music and even potentially lead to a re-structuring of recording contracts. 

For now, I will leave you with a link to Taylor's re-recorded version of Love Story - enjoy!