Some of you may be surprised to learn that iCLAW partner, Owen Culliney, behind that tough bearded exterior, is a big Taylor Swift fan. So much so that when we informed him about the genius of her re-recordings of previously released music, we weren’t given any choice but to write this article.
Love or hate her, Taylor has held constant attention in pop culture from 2006 at the age of sixteen when she burst into mainstream radio.
So, what’s the deal with the new recordings? U.S. copyright law is slightly different to our copyright laws in New Zealand. Under U.S. law, there are two distinct types of music ownership:
The master – protects the specific sound recording (i.e. the final product). The master is the final product, from which all copies are made for sale and distribution – including digital versions for streaming and downloading and physical copies such as CDs and vinyl records. To legally reproduce a recording, you must get permission from the master owner.
The publishing rights - includes the lyrics, sheet music, melodies etc. The credited songwriters typically own the publishing rights.
In 2005, at fifteen years old, Taylor signed a 13-year recording deal with Big Machine Records, producing six albums – Taylor Swift, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, and Reputation. As part of the contract, Big Machine Records gained ownership of the masters for these albums in exchange for a cash advance. Taylor maintained the publishing rights of all six albums as the primary songwriter. Following the contract, Taylor would be able to re-record the songs after a fixed period.
Jump to 2019, and Big Machine Records (and therefore Taylor’s first six albums) was acquired for between US$300-$450 million by a company named Ithaca Holdings, owned by Scooter Braun. Now there is so much more we could go into here, but for the sake of brevity, we will just say that these two have beef.
Following Scooter’s acquisition of Big Machine, the record label (and Scooter) would not allow Taylor to perform any songs from her first six albums at the 2019 American Music Awards, where she received Artist of the Decade. She was also unable to use any older material for her 2020 documentary, “Miss Americana”.
Remember how we mentioned that Taylor held the publishing rights to the first six albums as the songwriter? In August 2019, Taylor stated her intention to re-record the musical works of all six albums, which she was entitled to do under the rights she held as publisher. By doing so, Taylor would create new masters that only she would own, allowing her full control over the commercial licensing of the new songs and therefore not only bypassing but devaluing the masters that Shamrock Holdings had purchased. Taylor really said: “F… the patriarchy” and ran with it.
These new recordings are easily distinguished from the original song by the note “(Taylor’s Version)” at the end of each song title and album name. Making true on her word, Taylor released the first re-recording “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” in April last year, and in November released “Red (Taylor’s Version)”.
The battle between recording labels and artists for rights to masters is not a new tale. Historically, we have seen greats such as Prince, The Beatles, and Def Leppard go through similar issues. Taylor has been one of the first artists to discuss her fight publicly, showing rare transparency in the music industry. By doing so, many have hailed Taylor as a trailblazer – whose conduct may signal a big change coming to the music industry in the era of streaming.
While many doubted the success the re-recordings would have, “Red (Taylor’s Version”) broke a myriad of records in its first week alone. Taylor Swift has shown the power of the artist and the consumer in the digital age and is making history for artists’ rights. So next time you feel like listening to a bit of T-Swizzle, be sure it’s got “(Taylor’s Version)” next to it.