There is so much to unpack in the Taylor Swift/Scooter Braun/Scott Borchetta dispute that it feels like moving house.
But beyond speculating which celebrity will be next to be dragged in to the row; how much lawyers stand to lose now these disputes are played out on social media rather than in legal letters; and whether all executives and stars send each other such beautifully-composed text messages, one big unanswered question is surely: Where does Universal Music stand in all this?
Well, right in the middle obviously. The major has yet to comment but it has, after all, just made Taylor Swift the ultimate Galactico signing, with a ground-breaking, artist-friendly deal with Republic that puts these issues (artist rights and master ownership) at its very core.
But Universal also has a long-standing distribution deal with Borchetta’s Big Machine that is currently up for renewal, and includes Swift’s catalogue (Pictured: Swift and Borchetta in happier times). It also has a joint venture with Braun’s Schoolboy Records label. And Braun’s two biggest management clients, Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, are both signed to Universal labels, the latter to Swift’s new home, Republic.
All of which makes taking a side all-but-impossible. Universal, of course, is experienced at navigating the feud-strewn world of the modern music business. But the fact that the newly-formed Borchetta-Braun label alliance has Swift’s catalogue as its biggest asset makes this a very tangled web indeed.
Because this is much bigger than a row between executives and artists over the finer points of contracts and the exact timing of text messages. This is about the rights of creators over the art that they make which is why, for all the back-and-forth, few observers would begrudge Swift her claim to have a say in what happens to the six albums she poured her heart and soul into.
So any artist shopping for a deal is likely to look at this dispute and its outcomes very closely. Because notice was served on the old label model of owning masters in perpetuity a while ago. And, while legacy deals mean that there are plenty of artists still in that situation, many bigger acts have negotiated their way into master-ownership over the years, and fewer and fewer new ones are prepared to sign up under such terms. Part of Swift’s legacy may be that she’s the last global superstar who will come up under that system.
Universal won the Swift deal by giving her the rights to everything she records in the future. It will no doubt also be conscious that it has to deal with the backlash caused by the historical handling of the 2008 fire that destroyed swathes of its archive.
Ironically, it may well be that Universal’s outright ownership of those masters is what limits its liabilities over the blaze. But, with the likes of BMG, AWAL and now even Spotify offering artists an alternative licensing/ownership model at scale, this is one fire Universal, and the rest of the record business, will want to be put out fast.
For all the rhetoric, you’d like to think this particular situation may still be salvageable. Certainly, many would prefer it if Braun and Borchetta, both super-sharp businessmen, could find a longer-term solution that gives Swift what she wants while protecting their own investment.
That would be smart, because the balance of power has long since shifted towards the artists, and all deals need to start reflecting that change.
After all, Swift’s text to Borchetta, published as part of his rebuttal of her criticism of the Big Machine deal, states: “I had a choice whether to bet on my past or to bet on the future and I think knowing me, you can guess which one I chose.”
It’s now time for the rest of the music industry to make the same bet – and the stakes have never been higher.
* To read Scott Borchetta's Music Week interview about the post-Taylor Swift Big Machine, click here. For the latest on Swift's new album campaign for Lover, click here. To subscribe to Music Week and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.