Taylor Swift’s recent release of a compilation of her re-recorded songs has done more than make her fans happy.
A guest post by Emily James from Berklee College of Music: The Music Business Journal
Taylor Swift is a household name that has been making headlines and breaking records in the music industry for over fifteen years. As an artist, she has seamlessly crossed genres and constantly reinvented herself and her work, but not without controversy. During her teenage years, headlines constantly swirled around Swift’s love life and her ex-boyfriends. However, the headlines involving Swift and another man began in 2019 when Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings acquired Big Machine Label Group and then Swift’s entire master recordings discography.[i] After much public scorn from both parties and music industry figures who chose either Swift or Braun, Swift decided to make an unprecedented decision. She has vowed to re-record her six-album discography purchased by Ithaca Holdings.
On November 12, 2021, Taylor Swift released the highly anticipated Red (Taylor’s Version). This was the second reissue of a previous album, the first being Intrepid (Taylor’s Version)released on April 9, 2021. Upon release, Red (Taylor’s Version) broke the Spotify record for most-streamed album by a woman in one day.[ii] Additionally, the album also helped Swift break the record for most streamed woman in a single day.[iii] Why does this matter to the wider music industry, and not just dedicated fans excited by never-before-heard vault tracks and a public forum to bashing Jake Gyllenhaal? Swift’s decision to re-record her music to own her mastery sets the stage for artist empowerment, public support for artists’ property rights, and that has copyright significance.
Negotiate interests and hold songwriters accountable
When an artist signs with a record company, they usually have to agree to assign copyright ownership of their albums to the record company as part of the deal. The label will commercially exploit the album in exchange for copyright ownership, and an artist will receive royalties from it. An artist cannot assess the commercial success value of their work when negotiating their contract, which allows an artist to accept royalties potentially lower than they deserve. If their work proves to be a success that stands the test of time, they could lose much of the profits from the sound recordings of their work. Most recording contracts, including Taylor Swift’s, have a clause that states for a period of time (usually five years)[iv] artists may not make new recordings of songs appearing on sound or master recordings held by the label once they leave. However, Swift’s major success with her re-recordings may now allow artists to negotiate with record labels. For example, when discussing royalties, if an artist doesn’t feel like they’re getting what they deserve, they could use Swift’s example as a bargaining chip to increase royalties. Wouldn’t the record company rather pay a higher royalty rate for the duration, instead of one day seeing the value of its recordings greatly diminished due to new recordings? In Swift’s case, she makes her new recordings incredibly appealing because she’s released several “Vault Tracks” of songs that were considered for the original albums but didn’t make the final cut.
Engage fans (and the general public)
There’s no denying the power Swift wields over public opinion. With such a massive “Swifties” fan base, they will endlessly champion her on social media platforms and beyond if she issues a rallying cry. This power has helped raise awareness about artist ownership and the difficulty many successful artists face in owning their work. Like Swift, Sir Paul McCartney tried to buy the Beatles’ catalog several times, but lost to higher bidders. The general public is unaware of the ends and outcomes of the music industry and the common language and terms of a recording contract. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that they are unaware that artists do not own all of their works and receive the highest level of compensation for them. Swift’s public release of this issue helped educate the general music consumer on industry practices. Speaking about the issue, Swift said, “When I stood up and talked about it, I saw a lot of fans saying, ‘Wait, the creators of this work never own their work?’ I spent ten years of my life rigorously trying to buy my masters and then was denied that opportunity, and I just don’t want that to happen to another artist if I can help it.[v] There have been several artists who have managed to own their master recordings. Jay-Z, Rihanna, U2, LL Cool J and Frank Ocean are among notable artists who have openly taken ownership of their mastery and support other artists’ efforts to do so.[vi] They have shown that they are willing to pay a substantial sum to gain this level of control over their work.
Weigh the possibilities
With Swift’s level of success on her first two re-recordings, a valid question arises: Would the copyright owners of the original albums have made more money selling Swift’s catalog to her? The original albums still make money, but will the profits Swift receives from the new recordings outweigh what could have been made by selling to Swift all along? Only time will answer this question. It’s reasonable to assume Braun had the same question, because just as Swift was beginning the re-registration process, his Ithaca Holdings sold Swift’s catalog to Shamrock Capitol, an investment firm.[vii] The early numbers demonstrate the diminishing value of his original recordings compared to the new ones. The first re-recorded single released was her hit “Love Story”. When “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” was released, it had 10,000 downloads in the first 24 hours, while the original version was only downloaded 200 times during the same period.[viii] As the author of every song in her catalog, Swift has the upper hand in licensing revenue from her music, as she can refuse any licensing requests for older versions of her songs. In an interview with Billboard, Swift said, “Fortunately, there’s power in writing your music. Every week we get a dozen sync requests to use “Shake It Off” in a commercial or “Blank Space” in a movie trailer, and we say no to every one of them. »[ix] Owners of its original recordings risk losing many potential licensing deals if Swift continues to license only new recordings.
Potential Impact on US Copyright Laws
Swift’s journey of re-recording and releasing new versions of her old albums could potentially impact the importance of a particular section of US copyright law. The Copyright Act states: “In the case of any work other than a work made on behalf of another, the exclusive or non-exclusive grant of a transfer or license of copyright or any right under any copyright, executed by the author on or after January 1, 1978, other than by will, is subject to termination…”.[x] This right of termination can be exercised at any time during the five-year window from thirty-five to forty years after the transfer of the mission.[xi] Once termination is effective, “all rights under this title that were covered by the terminated grants shall revert to the Author, Authors, and others with termination interests…”[xii] The right of termination is of little importance to some artists because their music does not generate regular income thirty-five years after its release. Some artists may not even live that long after releasing their music. (The right of termination can also be exercised by the heir of an artist who could benefit from this income.[xiii]) However, like the Beatles, for an artist of Swift’s level of success, their catalog could make a lot of money even so long after its release. Suppose Swift’s path to re-recording becomes more mainstream with successful artists. In this case, it will diminish the importance of the right of termination because the value of new sound recordings will most likely be greater than that of old ones. When the time comes to end the copyright transfer of the sound recordings of the original album, it will not be such a crucial moment for an artist as he has already benefited from the re-recorded albums.
In conclusion, whether she is a Swift fan or not, there is no denying the impact she has had and will continue to have in the music industry. Additionally, NYU’s prestigious Clive Davis Institute recently launched its first-ever academic course on Taylor Swift, demonstrating her importance to the music industry.[xiv] His unprecedented spell of re-recording his old discography has the power to both break records and shatter glass ceilings.