The music industry has been notoriously rife with sexism for decades. Female artists are often pressured to enter unfair contracts and subjected to sexual harassment from the people managing their careers.
One of the most popular musicians in the world, Taylor Swift, has been releasing and working on re-recordings her first six albums, after the masters to her music were sold to longtime rival Scooter Braun. Swift’s decision to reclaim ownership of her music after its purchase, and the tremendous success of the artist’s first two re-releases may be remolding the limits of female artists in the industry.
Swift announced her intention to re-record her first six albums in a 2019 interview with Billboard magazine in which she was named “Woman of the Decade.”
“I spent 10 years of my life trying rigorously to purchase my masters outright and was then denied that opportunity, and I just don’t want that to happen to another artist if I can help it,” said Swift to Billboard. “I want to at least raise my hand 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 something that artists should maybe have the first right of refusal to buy.’”
A “master” recording is the original and official recording of a song that is distributed by its owners. To have ownership over the masters of a record means having rights over distribution of songs on streaming platforms and for commercial use, as well as being able to collect financial benefits.
Swift is not the only female artist to re-record and re-release music following contract disputes. Singer JoJo in 2018 re-released her first two albums from 2004 and 2006, respectively, following legal disputes with her former labels.
Taylor Swift was only 15 years old when she signed her record deal with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records. This contract expired in 2019, and instead she signed with Universal Music Group’s (UMG) Republic Records.
After signing with Republic Records in 2019, Big Machine was acquired by Scooter Braun’s holding company in 2019. In Swift’s original contract with Big Machine, the company obtained ownership of the masters of her records.
Swift was especially upset by the fact that Braun would have ownership over her music, someone she claims has made her the target of “incessant, manipulative bullying” according to a Tumblr post. Braun is also the manager of Kanye West, who had a public dispute with Swift in 2016 after he named her in his song “Famous.” Swift was upset that West referred to her as “that b*tch” in the song, something that was not discussed in a call with West in which he asked for permission to mention her, according to Rolling Stone.
Swift wrote in the post that by purchasing Big Machine, “Scooter [Braun] has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy. Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”
In November of 2020, Braun sold Swift’s master recordings to a private equity fund, Shamrock Capital, for $300 million. Swift claims that like the initial sale of BMR, she was unaware that her music was being sold.
Shamrock reached out to her after the sale for collaboration, which she refused under the assumption that Braun would continue reaping financial gains from her music, according to a social media post from her. Swift in this post stated that she was already in the process of re-recording her first six albums that she no longer owned. Because she is credited as a songwriter on most of her music, Swift has the legal ability to re-release her music.
Been getting a lot of questions about the recent sale of my old masters. I hope this clears things up. pic.twitter.com/sscKXp2ibD— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) November 16, 2020
This April, the Grammy award winner released her first re-recording with “Fearless,” her sophomore album that originally debuted in 2008. The title of the re-recording was “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” and all of the tracks in the album showcased her ownership over the record and its masters. Swift was able to generate anticipation amongst fans by debuting six songs that she describes as “from the vault,” which are “never before released” songs Swift wrote while developing the original “Fearless” record.
“Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” reached 143 million streams within its first week according to the New York Times, and topped Billboard’s top albums in its debut. According to Billboard, her album is the only re-recording by an original artist or cover album that has reached number one on their charts.
On June 18, Swift announced that “Red,” originally released in 2012, would be her next released re-recording. Swift’s re-recorded version of the album contains 30 tracks, nine of which are unreleased tracks “from the vault.” Swift has always been a master at taunting fans with easter eggs about upcoming projects, and released a cryptic video for fans to decode titles of the unreleased songs that would be featured on “Red (Taylor’s Version).” Swift’s extensive promotional efforts generated unprecedented fan anticipation for the album.
“Red (Taylor’s Version)” debuted Nov. 12, and according to Spotify, the album “broke the record for the most-streamed album in a day by a female and Taylor broke the record for the most-streamed female in a day in Spotify history.”
Swift’s ability to create widespread anticipation and excitement for albums that have existed for nearly 10 years is unprecedented, and her dedication to going through with releasing re-recordings of the music that was taken from her is a new move for a pop artist, especially a woman.
“Red (Taylor’s Version)” debuted the same day that pop icon Britney Spears’ 13-year-long conservatorship came to an end. Spears’ hearings regarding the restrictive conservatorship she has been in at the hands of her father has garnered a lot of attention, with coverage from news media as well as documentaries.
Mistreatment of women in the music industry through abuse and unfair contracts has been covered in the news in recent years, most prominently with Spears, but also with pop icon Kesha.
In 2005 at the age of 18, Kesha alleges she was raped by Lukasz Gottwald, former head of Kemosabe Records which she had signed a six album contract to. Kesha and Gottwald had legal and career disputes for years, and in 2014 Kesha filed a lawsuit against Gottwald claiming sexual assault as well as “long-term emotional and psychological abuse” according to Vulture.
Kesha remains contractually obliged to make music under Kemosabe Records, though Gottwald is not creatively involved. However, Gottwald has slowly but surely begun to produce music again, working as a producer for hit records for artists such as Doja Cat and Saweetie, this time under pseudonyms.
One of the most popular artists of the last year, rapper Megan thee Stallion, who in 2020 sued her record label 1501 Certified Entertainment to exit her contract, claimed she had been paid $15,000 for $7 billion of revenue generated from streaming and song downloads. According to Billboard, Megan thee Stallion has decided to stay with the label, but is negotiating new terms for her contract.
Evidently, within the past few years, a multitude of female artists have been empowered to share the stories of their mistreatment in the industry. The story behind Taylor Swift’s album rerecordings sheds light on the widespread mistreatment of women in the music industry, and perhaps, the success of her second rerecording of “Red (Taylor’s Version)” may galvanize new standards of practice for musicians’ contracts.