Taylor Swift is once again fighting an elemental and somewhat arcane music-industry battle in plain sight, raging against a pitiless machine and theoretically leveraging her megafame on behalf of mistreated artists everywhere, throughout history. She is also feuding with Justin Bieber. The light, heat, and devout media attention she can bring to any issue, instantly, is unparalleled, and invaluable. But the frivolous and exasperating noise that accompanies her is unparalleled, too.
On Sunday, Swift graced the content industry with a lengthy Tumblr post decrying the blockbuster sale of her old label, Big Machine Records, to Ithaca Holdings, a media conglomerate owned principally by Scooter Braun, the famous-in-his-own-right manager and pop-star whisperer who has worked with Bieber, Ariana Grande, and, for a time, Swift archnemesis Kanye West. Thus did a fairly typical industry deal—underpinned by a very typical music-biz arrangement as to who exactly owns a pop star’s work—blur into an atypical celebrity feud.
The lead image of Swift’s Tumblr post is a screencap of a 2016 Bieber Instagram post, showing him on a video call with Braun and West. His original caption: “Taylor Swift what up.” This was yet another salvo in Swift’s forever war with West and Kim Kardashian, with Braun now an enemy by association. Further down in the post, Swift accused Braun of “incessant, manipulative bullying,” adding, “my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”
The Big Machine sale includes, of course, the masters to Swift’s first six albums, from her 2006 self-titled debut to 2017’s Reputation; she’d famously signed with the Nashville-based indie Big Machine at 15, and sought to buy back her masters amid the negotiations that led to her inking a new blockbuster deal with Republic Records in late 2018, wherein she’ll own all her future albums immediately. “For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work,” her Tumblr post begins; she goes on to excoriate Big Machine head Scott Borchetta and cast Braun’s involvement in apocalyptic terms:
“This is my worst-case scenario. This is what happens when you sign a deal at fifteen to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept. And when that man says ‘Music has value,’ he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it.”
Bieber immediately clapped back, defending Braun and accusing Swift of bullying; since then, everyone from Demi Lovato to Halsey to Scooter’s wife, Yael Cohen Braun, has taken sides and/or shots. Borchetta responded as well in a lengthy post that included screenshots of contract negotiations (and not-quite-screenshots of text messages) and specifically took issue with Swift’s contention that “I learned about Scooter Braun’s purchase of my masters as it was announced to the world.” Borchetta contended that he’d texted Swift personally prior to the news going public on Sunday morning, and added that several people in her orbit—including her father, Scott Swift, a Big Machine shareholder—had known about the deal for days. Taylor is, once again, embroiled in a messy public battle about receipts.
The background here is a lot more complicated and a lot less sexy. Artists, even famous ones, very rarely own their own masters: The sordid tale of the Beatles catalog alone is both salacious (Michael Jackson is prominently involved) and nearly impenetrable. As a consequence, most fans—even media-savvy fans—often can’t articulate exactly what “owning your own masters” means, or how masters rights (which concern the recordings themselves) differ from publishing rights (which concern the songs as compositions). We can agree, broadly, that artists should own their own art, but from there the details get dicey.
“I think some people say, ‘Well, fans may not know exactly what it means, but they sense that it’s good,’” says Bill Werde, the former editorial director of Billboard, who now runs the Bandier Program in Recording and Entertainment Industries at Syracuse University. “I think there’s a lot of people in the music industry that don’t know exactly what it means.”
This in turn helps explain why, for example, Prince’s lengthy battle with Warner Bros. in the ’90s, which largely concerned ownership of his masters, is now shorthanded in the public imagination as that time Prince changed his name to a goofy, unpronounceable symbol. Likewise, when Jay-Z orchestrated a star-studded 2015 press conference to launch Tidal, a streaming service theoretically by artists and for artists, the resulting spectacle was largely regarded as absurd and self-aggrandizing and painfully out of touch. Pop superstars are often the only people who can start a public conversation about how the music industry actually works or should work; they are also, in terms of the sympathy afforded to them, the worst possible people to lead that discussion.
Swift has been here before. Her battles with both Spotify and Apple Music over streaming royalty rates resulted in meaningful change—principally to her benefit, of course, but not entirely to her benefit. Even her 2018 megadeal with Republic Records has major financial ramifications for every artist under the Universal Music Group umbrella, should UMG ever sell its shares in Spotify. To some, that makes her a “labor radical” changing the industry for the better; to her many, many detractors, any good she does is an inadvertent byproduct of her own craven self-interest, any goodwill she might enjoy vaporized by the gossip-driven and fiasco-prone Taylor Swift of it all.
Werde has followed Swift’s career, from both the artistic and the industry perspectives, from the onset, and he sees this new public battle with Borchetta and Braun as a rare misstep for her: “This is a frankly surprising overreaction from Taylor,” he says. (The “You Need to Calm Down” jokes, he adds, write themselves.) “You could make the argument that there are no two humans connected to the music industry who are better at controlling their own narratives than Scooter and Taylor,” he continues. Business ramifications and moral issues aside, this is a PR battle now, and a battle where the superstar artist and the new owner of her back catalog are very ideally on the same side, controlling the same narrative.
Indeed, any further use of Swift’s existing Big Machine catalog—for reissues, for greatest-hits packages, for song syncs with brands or causes—will require Swift and Braun to work together, and to carefully manage her legacy and image. Braun now has hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the notion of showing Taylor Swift in the most flattering possible light. “You have to look at this as a situation where now, two parties are thinking very carefully about how do they position this, what does it look like when the dust settles, what does the story become,” Werde continues. “Right now, in part because of the way that Taylor set this up, Scooter is light-years ahead. Right? It’s hard to accuse Scooter of gender issues when Scooter has a company that’s largely run by women. It’s hard to play the victim when you’re a millionaire many, many times over and probably could’ve bought these masters for yourself if that’s what you really wanted. But that said, I’m sure Scooter will be smart enough to know that it doesn’t benefit anyone if he owns the master catalog of an artist he’s essentially publicly humiliated or destroyed.”
The industry ramifications here are enormous, and complex both legally and morally: It is easy enough to say the musicians should own the music they make, though as Werde gently points out, the industry that bet on those musicians in the first place, against long odds, deserves some payoff too. The question with Swift, as always, is whether the substance can withstand all the gossip. To plenty of onlookers, this spat is merely the 10,000th chapter in the Taylor-Kanye war. But it’s also part of an existential industry crisis as old as the music industry itself. Taylor Swift has given the music business a whole lot to chew on in the past 24 hours—and as always, a whole lot of bullshit to try to tune out.