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Artists and politicians intervene in Taylor Swift v Big Machine beef

By | Published on Monday 18 November 2019

Taylor Swift

Both artists and politicians have intervened in the latest bust up between Taylor Swift and her former label Big Machine, mainly taking the former’s side. Meanwhile, the label has insisted that Swift has misrepresented its recent dealings with the star.

Swift, of course, has been involved in a war of words with Big Machine ever since its founder Scott Borchetta announced earlier this year that he was selling the record company – and with it Swift’s master recordings – to Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings. Swift quickly declared that the deal was her “worst case scenario”, adding that her only experience of Braun to date was “the incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at his hands for years”.

Since then Swift has talked about recording new versions of her old albums in a bid to devalue the masters now owned by Braun. Record contracts usually restrict such re-records for a set time. But Swift has said that she will be legally allowed to start putting out new versions of her earliest LPs as soon as next year and that she plans to do so.

However, last week she took to the socials to claim that Big Machine has been trying to force her to abandon those plans by threatening to screw up various other projects she has on the go unless she complies with its demands. In particular, she went on, it’s refusing to license footage to a Netflix documentary that is in the works and is also blocking a plan for her to perform a medley of her hits at the upcoming American Music Awards.

If the producers of the Netflix documentary felt that the inclusion of tracks or videos owned by Big Machine was essential to make their programme work, that would definitely give the label bargaining power. Unless said producers were willing to argue that the inclusion of such content was ‘fair use’ under US copyright law and therefore a licence from the label was not required. But that’s a very grey area.

The AMA veto is more complicated, as a live performance of Swift’s former hits would not exploit the Big Machine recordings, and the label has no stake in the separate song copyrights. However, the AMAs are broadcast, which technically constitutes a recording.

That’s why TV shows often have to get waivers from labels when they broadcast performances by signed artists. Because – under most record contracts – said labels have the exclusive right to make recordings of their artists’ performances. So the broadcaster must get permission from the label to record a set by broadcasting it. A similar principle could be applied to any re-record restrictions in a record contract.

It’s almost unheard of for a label to veto TV appearances in this way, because labels want their artists to get media exposure, even if they are no longer actively work with (or talking to) those artists. After all, TV airplay will likely result in a spike in streams for those tracks, which financially benefits the label. However, contractual rights of this kind could provide a label with leverage if it’s involved in tricky negotiations with an artist.

After Swift went public about the latest phase of her beef with Borchetta and Braun – calling on her fans, Braun’s management clients and the financial backers of his Ithaca company to all support her cause – Big Machine issued a statement denying her allegations.

“As Taylor Swift’s partner for over a decade”, it said on Friday, “we were shocked to see her statements yesterday based on false information. At no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the AMAs or block her Netflix special. In fact, we do not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere. Since Taylor’s decision to leave Big Machine last fall, we have continued to honour all of her requests to license her catalogue to third parties as she promotes her current record in which we do not financially participate”.

Some noted that Big Machine’s denials seem carefully worded. It does not specifically deny having refused to allow Swift to perform her Big Machine released songs at the AMAs or to having specifically refused to license content to Netflix. Doing either of those things would essentially block the AMA performance and the Netflix special, but without Big Machine having technically blocked either project.

Among those noting this was a spokesperson for Swift who, responding to Big Machine’s statement, told reporters that “yesterday Scott Borchetta flatly denied the request for both American Music Awards and Netflix. Please notice”, they then added, “in Big Machine’s statement, they never actually deny either claim Taylor said last night in her post”.

The label’s missive then went on: “The truth is, Taylor has admitted to contractually owing millions of dollars and multiple assets to our company, which is responsible for 120 hardworking employees who helped build her career. We have worked diligently to have a conversation about these matters with Taylor and her team to productively move forward”.

“We started to see progress over the past two weeks and were optimistic as recently as yesterday that this may get resolved”, it then added. “However, despite our persistent efforts to find a private and mutually satisfactory solution, Taylor made a unilateral decision last night to enlist her fanbase in a calculated manner that greatly affects the safety of our employees and their families”.

Addressing the star directly, Big Machine went on: “Taylor, the narrative you have created does not exist. All we ask is to have a direct and honest conversation. When that happens, you will see there is nothing but respect, kindness and support waiting for you on the other side. To date, not one of the invitations to speak with us and work through this has been accepted. Rumours fester in the absence of communication”.

“Let’s not have that continue here”, it concluded. “We share the collective goal of giving your fans the entertainment they both want and deserve”.

Elsewhere in Team Swift’s response to Big Machine’s response, the spokesperson cited emails from the label that seemed to back up the musician’s claims that vetoes had been exercised. They then concluded: “Big Machine is trying to deflect and make this about money by saying she owes them but, an independent, professional auditor has determined that Big Machine owes Taylor $7.9 million dollars of unpaid royalties over several years”.

Beyond the back and forth between Swift and Big Machine, everyone had an opinion on the latest dispute on Friday. Including members of the American political community. Democrat presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren noted that Ithaca’s acquisition of Swift’s catalogue was financed by private equity outfit The Carlyle Group.

Warren then tweeted: “Unfortunately, Taylor Swift is one of many whose work has been threatened by a private equity firm. They’re gobbling up more and more of our economy, costing jobs and crushing entire industries. It’s time to rein in private equity firms – and I’ve got a plan for that”.

Now, it’s debatable whether a squabble between two sets of multi-millionaires over the intellectual property rights in some pop songs is really a good illustration of Warren’s wider concerns about the conduct of unregulated financial institutions and investment funds, and the mega-rich that they often represent.

Plus, stupidly structured private equity-led deals have actually had a much bigger impact on the corporate side of the music industry, fucking up both EMI and iHeartMedia. But Warren’s tweet was a sneaky way for her to get some political capital out of the big entertainment story of the moment.

Warren wasn’t the only politician supporting Swift via a dig at private equity. “Private equity groups’ predatory practices actively hurt millions of Americans”, said high profile Congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Their leveraged buyouts have destroyed the lives of retail workers across the country, scrapping one million+ jobs. Now they’re holding Taylor Swift’s own music hostage. They need to be reined in”.

Meanwhile, back in the music community, the recently created US Music Artists Coalition also came out in support of Swift. “Taylor Swift should be allowed to perform her songs where she wants and when she wants”, it said in a statement on Friday. “And she should be allowed to use her music to tell her story through her documentary”.

“For a label to take positions contrary to that would be unprecedented”, it then added. Correctly noting that – while the re-record restrictions in Swift’s contract are very common in the music industry – it’s very unusual for them to be exploited in the way that has been alleged in this dispute. The Coalition concluded: “We applaud Taylor for reminding all artists to be aware of their rights and to stand up for themselves”.

So, clap, clap, clap Ms Swift. Plenty more commentary has appeared over the weekend too, of course. In fact, all we need now is a Kanye intervention, given that it was Braun’s role as West’s manager that originally escalated tensions between him and Swift. West would presumably tell us that God moves in mysterious ways. Though whether by God he means Swift, or Braun, or West himself we don’t know. Maybe all three. A holy trinity. Hallelujah!

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