Taylor Swift feud with record label spotlights ownership rights

Taylor Swift performs on "Good Morning America" in Central Park in New York City in August. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 21 (UPI) — The ongoing feud between pop sensation Taylor Swift and her former label, Big Machine Records, casts a glaring spotlight on music ownership rights — and the way in which record labels expect to recoup their investment over time.

Record executives say it’s a standard part of a musician’s contract to cede ownership of the master recordings in exchange for fronting the costs to produce the songs.

“The business model for the recording industry has always been — since the beginning — that the artist would really make their money off their live performances,” said Joey Reynolds, former creative director of 20th Century-Fox Records.

Under Reynolds’ leadership, the label enjoyed success with artists like Barry White and The Alan Parsons Project, as well as the “Star Wars” soundtrack album.

“You sell a certain amount of music, and out of that comes the recording costs and promotion costs,” Reynolds told UPI. “Everything that has to do with the release of the record comes out of the budget. And the record company owns the recording — mechanically, whatever the format is — but the real money for the artist is always going to be in live performing.”

The public battle between Swift, who was nominated this week for two Grammy Awards, and Big Machine began earlier this year when media mogul Scooter Braun purchased the label from Big Machine co-founder Scott Borchetta, setting off a firestorm of ill feelings and harsh words.

As the former manager of rap megastar Kanye West — with whom Swift has also maintained a long-running feud — Braun’s ownership of the masters was a “worst case scenario” for Swift, she wrote in an emotional Tumblr post in June.

“For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work. Instead I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records,” Swift posted.

“I walked away because I knew once I signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label, thereby selling me and my future. I had to make the excruciating choice to leave behind my past,” she wrote.

Big Machine owns Swift’s catalog of recordings through her 2017 album “Reputation.”

“Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work. Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it,” Swift wrote. “When I left my masters in Scott’s hands, I made peace with the fact that eventually he would sell them. Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter.”

The rift escalated in August, when Swift told “CBS Sunday Morning” that she would re-record the material from her first five albums in order to own master recordings of them.

But contract stipulations between Swift and Big Machine prohibited any such re-recordings prior to November 2020. Swift later claimed that Braun and Big Machine had forbidden her from performing any such past material on Sunday’s “American Music Awards” show — where she is set to receive the Artist of the Decade Award — as such televised performance would constitute “recording.”

TMZ and “Entertainment Tonight” reported last weekend that Braun had received death threats from Swift fans, prompting the company to close its offices early and issue a statement agreeing “to grant all licenses of their artists’ performances to stream post-show and rebroadcast on mutually approved platforms.”

While the statement did not specifically mention Swift, the move was clearly timed to address the feud.

“The public image of Taylor Swift, in the minds of her fans, is as someone who was getting ripped off. But she wasn’t ripped off,” said Ron Alexenburg, former senior vice president of Epic Records. “The recording company advances all the monies for the recording sessions, and retains ownership of the masters. Masters have never, ever been in question as to who owns them.”

As a past VP at both Epic and CBS Records, Alexenburg helped shepherd the career of pop superstars Michael Jackson, Boston, Meatloaf and Heart, among others.

“Swift has said that she’s going to re-record all of her songs so she could own them. But the problem with that is that the public always wants the original recordings. They want the exact recording the same way they’ve heard it a thousand times. So I don’t really see that having any impact,” Alexenburg told UPI.

While rare exceptions have existed — Frank Sinatra’s ownership of the Warner Bros.-affiliated Reprise record label is one example — Alexenburg is careful to note that, during his tenure with both Epic and CBS, none of the artists with whom he was associated owned their master recordings.

“I had the biggest names in the business — (Barbra) Streisand, Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan. And they didn’t own their masters,” Alexenburg said.

“Taylor Swift’s management would have had to have the negotiating prowess to put recouping ownership of the master into the contract. That has sometimes been put into agreements, but it was not in hers.”

In her Tumblr post, Swift wrote that she hopes young artists will learn from her experience.

“I am now signed to a label that believes I should own anything I create,” Swift said of her current deal with Universal Music Group. “Hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation. You deserve to own the art you make.”

Alexenburg said she’s telling young artists they should own their masters.

“But you know who’s paying for them? The record companies,” he said. “Many artists get what I call selective amnesia. They forget how it all happened.”


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