Taking a walk down memory lane.
Since 2021, Taylor Swift has been navigating her fans through the mists of time by introducing “Taylor’s Version” of her past albums. The reasoning behind this is steeped in a high-profile feud with a music manager, but at the heart of it all is Swift’s yearning to control her catalogue of musical masterpieces.
After an eager anticipation, Swift dropped a hint about the unveiling of the next “Taylor’s Version” album. However, this journey of re-recording isn’t reaching its final chords anytime soon.
Mastering the masters.
So why is Taylor Swift fine-tuning her old melodies? The answer lies in her ambition to own the masters — the original recordings of her songs.
Having the keys to her masters allows Swift to dictate their use, such as in commercials. While she already owns the rights to the compositions, without ownership of her masters, she found herself in a 2019 standoff with her record label, who she claimed was barring her from performing her medley at the American Music Awards or featuring her older music in a Netflix documentary.
“I’m re-recording my music because I want it to have a future,” Swift revealed to Billboard in 2019. “I want it to grace movies and commercials. But only if it’s mine.”
Battles over the masters.
Swift’s discography largely falls under the pact she signed with Big Machine Records at the tender age of 15, which handed the label ownership of her masters.
Fast forward to 2019, Swift shared her pleas to buy her masters were turned down by the label, instead offering a deal where each new album could earn back an old one. Swift declined, opting for a fresh contract with Republic Records that would grant her future ownership of her masters, leaving her past works out of the equation. Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta contested, asserting Swift was handed every opportunity to own her masters.
Who is Scooter Braun and what’s his role?
Music manager Scooter Braun purchased Big Machine in 2019, gaining command of Swift’s master recordings. Swift’s reaction was one of deep disappointment, accusing Braun of “relentless, manipulative bullying.” Her past run-ins with Kanye West, a former client of Braun, played a role in this narrative.
“My musical legacy is now at the mercy of someone who tried to dismantle it,” Swift lamented.
Braun retorted to Swift’s allegations, accusing her of using her fanbase as a weapon against him.
Who owns the masters now?
As of 2020, Braun bid farewell to Swift’s masters, selling them to Shamrock Holdings, a private equity firm.
Swift attempted to negotiate for her masters’ rights but was requested to sign a non-disclosure agreement to only ever speak positively about Braun, a condition she refused. She also expressed her wish to collaborate with Shamrock Holdings, but Braun’s continued profit from her catalogue was a deal-breaker.
It was then that Swift announced her journey of re-recording her older music.
Who owns what?
Swift’s contract with Big Machine encapsulates her first six albums released from 2006 to 2017. The masters of her four albums released since her deal with Republic Records belong to her.
In 2021, Swift’s journey of re-recording saw the release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version), followed by Red (Taylor’s Version). While she doesn’t own the original masters of Fearless or Red, she does own the newly remade ones, explaining their appearances in commercials and trailers in recent times.
In addition to mirroring the original, these re-recorded albums come with previously unreleased or extended songs, in the hope of depreciating the value of the original masters.
Why can Swift re-record these songs?
Her contract with Big Machine granted her the right to re-record her songs starting from November 2020. Another contributing factor is that Swift writes her own songs and owns their publishing rights, meaning she retains the rights to the actual compositions apart from just the recordings.
This empowers her to “basically greenlight her own covers” without messing with the masters, as The New York Times puts it. Moreover, since she owns the publishing rights, she could dismiss any requests to use her music unless they opt for her re-recorded versions, as The Wall Street Journal points out.
Master ownership: A common plight?
Nope. Swift’s agreement that permitted Big Machine to control her masters is pretty standard in the music industry. The conditions of the contract are typical for a budding artist at the time of signing, music attorney Susan H. Hilderley explained to The Washington Post. Larry Miller, director of New York University’s music business program, further elucidated to The New York Times that labels traditionally retain the masters as they invest in new talent.
Yet, Swift isn’t the first artist to tangle in such a dispute. Music legend Prince waged a similar war against Warner Bros., even threatening to re-record all his songs. Although he eventually won control of his masters before doing so, his words to Rolling Stone in 1996 are still remembered: “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.” Swift echoes this sentiment, urging young artists to safeguard their interests during negotiations.
How long will this take, and what’s next?
In a Nashville concert in May 2023, Swift announced that Speak Now is next in line for the “Taylor’s Version” treatment. Swift tweeted about the significance of the album, which she wrote entirely between the ages of 18 and 20, and revealed that it is set to be released on July 7, 2023.
This leaves three more albums to be re-recorded: Taylor Swift, 1989, and Reputation. The pace at which she’s going suggests that she won’t be done until at least 2024. However, she’s also been busy with new albums; her most recent work, Midnights, consisting entirely of new material, was released between the “Taylor’s Version” albums of Red and Speak Now.
A possible explanation for the length of the process is that Reputation, her final album with Big Machine, was off limits to re-record until November 2022, according to music attorney Rachel Stilwell. But now, all albums seem to be fair game for the re-recording journey.
Swift isn’t going chronologically, leaving fans guessing about the next re-recording. However, fans have been theorizing that 1989 (Taylor’s Version) might be next, given that she’s already re-recorded a couple of songs from the album. One thing’s for sure: Swift always has surprises up her sleeve, so watch out for the clues she’ll surely drop in the coming months. Remember how she hinted at Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) in her music video for “Bejeweled” by pressing a purple button for the third floor? A nod to her third album with its purple-dressed cover. Now that’s genius at work.
Taylor Swift: Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) releases on Friday, July 7.