Earlier this summer, renowned music manager, Scooter Braun, through his company, Ithaca Holdings, purchased the Nashville-based Big Machine Label Group. Along with this purchase came the rights to the master recordings of Taylor Swift’s first six albums, which were all recorded with Big Machine Label Group. Swift is particularly upset with these circumstances, especially considering the “bad blood” between Swift and Braun and some of his clients (e.g., Kanye West). Swift refers to Braun’s acquisition as her “worst case scenario,” as Braun’s Ithaca Holdings now controls how Swift’s songs from these albums may be sold and used in the future. Given Swift’s commercial success and popularity, the masters to her these albums are incredibly valuable.
Unwilling to take this personal blow lying down, Swift has proposed a creative solution to her problem. Swift intends to re-record and then re-release her old catalog, with the goal of owning the music she has made it her life’s work to create. Master recordings, the original recordings of an artist’s work, and the associated copyright are extremely valuable. As such, recording contracts between music labels and artists generally provide that the label owns the master recordings of the artist’s songs. The owner of a master typically has the right to sell the song or album as well as the right to license the recordings to movies, television, video games, etc. However, there are separate rights to the composition itself. These rights are generally split among the songwriters.
Music compositions do not require permission from the songwriters to use. For example, when a song is covered by another artist, it is unnecessary for the covering artist to first ask permission from the songwriters to cover the song. However, if this covering artist is using the song for commercial purposes, this artist must credit and pay the songwriters (as owners of the copyright to the composition), which requires a mechanical license. Today, the rate paid is 9.1 cents per copy sold.
Swift hopes to take advantage of the distinction between the masters of her previous albums and the compositions themselves. Swift is credited as a lead writer across her entire catalog, except for a host of songs on her 2007 Christmas album. To re-record and re-release her earlier works, Swift would essentially be giving herself permission to “cover” these albums.
Recording contracts typically contain terms barring artists from releasing re-recorded works for a period of time, generally “the later of two years following the expiration of the agreement or five years after the commercial release.” Supposing that this language were present in Swift’s contracts with Big Machine, every album that she has recorded up to her 2014 album, 1989, could be re-released by Swift in late 2020. Though the cost of producing and re-releasing her catalog would be immense, Swift has the capital, the drive, and the motivation to accomplish the task at hand.
Swift has no cause for fear regarding the ownership rights to the masters for her most recent album, Lover, as her recording contract with Universal Music Group’s Republic Records grants her those ownership rights. Considering the fact that every song on Lover is currently on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, this is a huge feat for Swift.
Stay tuned for future updates.
Liz Costello, University at Buffalo School of Law, Class of 2020. Liz is the Treasurer of the Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Law Society, an Articles Editor of the Buffalo Law Review, and an anticipated associate at Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham LLC. Having grown up in Los Angeles with an entertainment attorney mother, Liz is especially interested in the legal issues surrounding music, film, television, and sports. Her favorite activities include going to local live music and sporting events.