What the Taylor Swift-Big Machine row means for the music industry

Taylor Swift

So it looks like Taylor Swift’s American Music Awards show will go on after all, after the Monday night announcement that Big Machine – Swift’s former label, which she said was blocking her performance – had “come to a licensing agreement that approves their artists’ performances to stream post show and for re-broadcast on mutually approved platforms”.

Show producers Dick Clark Productions have since disputed that they reached any such agreement, saying any deal had to be done with Swift's management, rather than them. It's the latest confusing chapter in the on-going row and whether or not it draws a line under the dispute remains to be seen, although given the level of rhetoric from both sides, you wouldn’t bank on it.

To bring you up to speed, last week Swift posted on social media, saying that Big Machine Label Group boss Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun – whose Ithaca Holdings bought BMLG for $300 million earlier this year – were blocking her from performing her old songs at the AMAs. She also said the right to use the songs in a Netflix documentary was being withheld.

Big Machine issued a rebuttal, and additionally claimed Swift owed them millions of dollars. Swift’s PR rep then denied those claims – and said in fact Big Machine owed the superstar singer-songwriter millions.

And so on. Along the way, everyone from Selena Gomez to Democratic Party presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren got involved, blowing what would once have been a backroom music biz bust-up into a full-blown international news story.

And therein lies Borchetta and Braun’s problem: Swift’s spotlight illuminates the lack of transparency and artistic control around many recording contracts. The ins and outs of exactly what recorded music rights-holders can and can’t control are complicated. Swift has the absolute right to perform her shows live, but it’s possible Big Machine could block a show like the AMAs on the grounds that the TV broadcast represents a re-record (Big Machine is keen to avoid Swift re-recording her back catalogue, as she has pledged to do, as it would almost certainly affect the value of their company, with Swift’s catalogue being Big Machine’s biggest asset).

Viewing a TV broadcast as a re-recording would seem to be an unusually broad interpretation of that rule and, while turning down a sync deal would be possible, it would surely be fairly counter-productive to block the use of the very catalogue you’re keen to make money off.

But, crucially, whether or not contractual law is in Big Machine’s favour, morally, Swift looks like the one with the winning argument here.

After all, Swift is the one who poured her heart and soul into writing those songs, and whose recordings and performances of them made her the greatest star of her generation. They’re indisputably her songs and it’s hard to justify why she shouldn’t be allowed to use them as she sees fit, certainly for live performances and documentaries.

Borchetta and his team helped Swift’s career, of course, but Big Machine had been well recompensed for that hard work, even before Borchetta cashed in with the Ithaca deal.

Also, it’s difficult to see what the execs really have to win here, but easy to identify what they might lose. Braun – who some reports suggest is keen to distance himself from the handling of the row – has built up a hard-won, um, reputation as an artist-friendly super-manager. Similarly, Borchetta has put in the hard yards to make Big Machine a powerhouse far beyond Nashville.

There may have been little sign of their current artist stables answering Swift’s appeal to help “talk some sense into the men who are exercising tyrannical control over someone who just wants to play the music live”. But in an age when artists have multiple options, why would either risk new acts viewing them through Swift’s eyes? After all, as many people pointed out on Twitter over the last few days, if the biggest star in the world can fall foul of such contractual muscle-flexing, what chance does anyone else have?

Especially as Swift’s immense popularity and platform gives her leverage that no new artist has. That allowed her to call the shots with her new deal with Universal’s Republic Records.

“In my previous situation, there were creative constraints, issues that we had over the years,” she told Music Week in her recent, widely-read cover story. “I’ve always given 100% to projects, I always over-delivered, thinking that that generosity would be returned to me. But I ended up finding that generosity in a new situation with a new label that understands that I deserve to own what I make.

“That meant so much to me because it was given over to me so freely,” she added. “When someone just looks at you and says ‘Yes, you deserve what you want’, after a decade or more of being told, ‘I’m not sure you deserve what you want’ – there’s a freedom that comes with that. It’s like when people find ‘the one’ they’re like, ‘It was easy, I just knew and I felt free’.”

That creative freedom has re-energised Swift, with Lover a smash hit. And, if she follows through with her pledge to re-record her old songs, that will make everyone choose a side – including the streaming services and maybe even Universal Music, which also distributes Big Machine (and also has deals with many of Braun’s management clients).

To quote Swift on the original Ithaca deal, that is surely Big Machine’s “worst-case scenario”. It’s time for wise heads to prevail, but also for the entire recording industry to look at its deal structures.

Things may have improved since Swift signed her Big Machine contract, let alone since the notorious deals of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Many classic artists have regained control of their masters, and new acts have options that mean they need never give them up in the first place. But you can’t help but consider more of Swift’s words from our cover story, when she said she initially spoke out over the Big Machine deal to help up-and-coming artists.

“It was important that the fans knew what I was going through, because I knew it was going to affect every aspect of my life and I wanted them to be the first to know,” she said. “And in and amongst that group, I know there are people that want to make music some day. It involves every new artist that is reading that and going, ‘Wait, that’s what I’m signing?’ They don’t have to sign stuff that’s unfair to them. If you don’t ask the right questions and you sit in front of the wrong desk in front of the wrong person, they can take everything from you.” 

And that, however this particular row ultimately plays out, is a message the entire industry needs to hear. Songs and albums can no longer be regarded as playthings for companies or executives to do with as they please, without consideration of the creators. The future has to be less about ownership and more about partnership. Otherwise, unlike Taylor Swift’s gig at the AMAs, the whole show could be under threat.

* To read Taylor Swift's Music Week cover story, click here. To subscribe to Music Week and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.

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