Artist News Business News Labels & Publishers Top Stories

Industry needs to rethink master rights conventions, says sync deal blocking Taylor Swift

By | Published on Thursday 12 December 2019

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift has said that the music industry needs to “think about how we handle master recordings”, while confirming she plans to veto any sync deals on the song rights side until she has new versions of her old albums to license. This was all said in a wide-ranging interview with Billboard, but you only really care about the ongoing Big Machine beef, right?

Swift, of course, has been beefing big time with her former label since it was bought by Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings earlier this year. Big Machine controls the recording rights in all but her most recent album, and she expressed dismay that Braun would now ultimately own those masters, accusing the artist manager of bullying her in the past.

The musician said she’d fought to regain control of the master rights in the albums released under her original Big Machine deal, but without success. Big Machine countered that it had offered her the option to reclaim the masters as part of a second deal with the label, but she had declined and instead jumped ship to Universal. There was then a dispute about what exactly had been discussed when Big Machine was trying to re-sign its biggest star.

Then Swift announced that she was planning to record new versions of her old records as soon as re-record restrictions in her Big Machine contract expire. This, of course, led to subsequent claims that the label was trying to veto Swift’s active projects unless she committed to not do any re-records and to stop bad mouthing Braun on social media. Talking to Billboard after it declared her Woman Of The Decade, Swift was asked about her role in standing up for artist rights.

“We have a long way to go”, she replied. “I think that we’re working off of an antiquated contractual system. We’re galloping toward a new industry but not thinking about recalibrating financial structures and compensation rates, taking care of producers and writers”.

Moving the conversation closer to her ongoing Big Machine dispute, she went on: “We need to think about how we handle master recordings, because this isn’t it”. What she really means by that is who owns the copyrights in an artist’s sound recordings, and for how long?

In most countries, when labels sign artists, they take the recording rights in any tracks that are then released under the deal, traditionally for ‘life of copyright’. So the label will control the rights in the recordings for as long as the copyright exists (the length of copyright terms varies around the world, and according to the kind of copyright, but for recordings, it is 70 years after release in Europe, and 95 years in the US).

Swift is distinguishing between recording rights and song rights because, with the latter, things work differently. When songwriters sign with publishers, not all elements of the song copyright are always fully assigned to the publisher, and any assignment that does take place will usually be for a fixed number of years, after which the rights will revert to the writer.

Or that’s how it works in Anglo-American markets today. Life of copyright assignments used to be common in publishing too, and plenty of writers from the 20th Century are stuck in those deals today. Plus life of copyright deals do still exist in publishing elsewhere in the world, so it’s not always the case that things are better with songs than recordings.

And actually, in the record industry, fixed term assignments – where a label takes the rights for a time, and then they revert to the artist – are becoming more common too.

Indie labels led in this domain, seeking to compete with the majors by offering shorter term assignments rather than bigger upfront advances and marketing budgets. The option for artists to self-release and ally with a music distributor has also opened up new options for said artists, which in turn has made some labels much more flexible on record deal terms.

Though life of copyright deals are still signed on the recordings side, especially with new talent, and especially when signing to a major label. Which why it is slightly ironic that, in the world of Swift, it’s an indie being portrayed as the anti-artist rights-grabber, while her new label partner Universal is the hero. Though you don’t see the mega-major moving to short term assignment deals with new signings or returning the rights it secured from old record contracts. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Swift took to Tumblr to rant about that.

“When I stood up and talked about this, I saw a lot of fans saying, ‘Wait, the creators of this work do not own their work, ever?'”, she added about her own master rights battle with the Big Machine. “I spent ten years of my life trying rigorously to purchase my masters outright and was then denied that opportunity”.

In the past some superstar artists have been able to negotiate back some or all of their master rights as part a second or third deal with the same label. Labels use that option to try to keep their big name acts on the roster. Which is basically what Big Machine tried to do when it was seeking to persuade Swift to sign a new record contract.

“I want to at least raise my hand”, Swift went on, “and say, ‘This is something that an artist should be able to earn back over the course of their deal – not as a renegotiation ploy'”.

And as for third parties who you may or may not approve of buying your catalogue off your former label, “artists should maybe have the first right of refusal to buy”, she added. “God, I would have paid so much for them! Anything to own my work that was an actual sale option, but it wasn’t given to me”.

That’s an interesting proposal. Maybe Swift could pen another Tumblr post calling on Universal to offer all of its artists the option to buy back their rights ahead of Vivendi’s deal to sell Chinese web giant Tencent a 10% stake in the mega-major!

At least Swifty is making music in a country and an age where song rights usually revert quite quickly. “Thankfully, there’s power in writing your music”, she told Billboard.

“Every week, we get a dozen sync requests to use ‘Shake It Off’ in some advertisement or ‘Blank Space’ in some movie trailer, and we say no to every single one of them”, she added. “And the reason I’m re-recording my music next year is because I do want my music to live on. I do want it to be in movies, I do want it to be in commercials. But I only want that if I own it”.

So, basically, there’ll be no more sync deals involving Swift’s music in the short term, because the sync licensee would need permission from both Big Machine on the recordings side and Swift on the songs side. But as soon as those re-records are done, meaning Team Swift can license both, it will be sync-tastic party time, with Big Machine not invited.

Artists re-recording old tracks once record contracts allow for the purposes of sync licensing – rather than commercial release – is more common.

Partly because labels and publishers are generally squeamish about commercially releasing an artist’s re-records, not wanting to kickstart a turf war with their competitors, who could go after artists whose old recordings they control. And partly because sync clients often only need the hook, so it doesn’t matter if the new recording isn’t entirely faithful to the original.

While quite what Swift plans to do with her future re-recordings isn’t yet clear, she is definitely looking forward to reworking those old records. “It’s going to be fun”, she said in the Billboard interview, “because it’ll feel like regaining a freedom and taking back what’s mine”.

“When I created [these songs]”, she continued, “I didn’t know what they would grow up to be. Going back in and knowing that it meant something to people is actually a really beautiful way to celebrate what the fans have done for my music”.

Lovely. But what negative impact will Swift’s re-records have on big bad Big Machine? That is, after all, part of the motivation. Well, we don’t know. Though the private equity firm that bank-rolled Braun’s Big Machine purchase is optimistic it will still see a return on its investment in Swift’s original recordings, even if new versions are out there.

The boss of that private equity set up, the Carlyle Group’s Kewsong Lee, did a good job of skirting around questions about Big Machine’s big Swifty bust up when questioned about it on CNBC this week, stressing that he is not “involved in the day-to-day of all of our portfolio companies”. However, he said: “I’ve got every confidence in the world that it’s going to turn out to be a successful investment”.

But I guess he would say that, wouldn’t he? And whatever you think about the Swift v Big Machine debacle – and whoever’s side you take – it will be interesting to see in what way she goes through with her re-records project, and what impact it does indeed have.