Private equity now owns a stake in Taylor Swift, and while she’s not happy about it, she’s taken to the bully pulpit to repeat her concerns over eroding artists’ rights in the rapidly-changing music industry.
On Sunday, media mogul Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings, LLC acquired Big Machine Label Group for an estimated $300 million. The Carlyle Group also invested, adding to the minority stake it took in Ithaca in 2017.
Ithaca now owns BMLG outright, including its distribution deals, master recordings and artist roster, which included Taylor Swift until November. That was when she signed with Universal Music Group, departing the label that first signed her as a 15-year-old, after they couldn’t agree on new terms.
Swift’s UMG deal gives her rights to new master recordings, but she left behind the crown jewels at Big Machine: the master recordings of her first six albums. Swift no longer has any say on how those records are licensed or utilized.
“This is my worst case scenario,” Swift wrote in a Tumblr post. “This is what happens when you sign a deal at fifteen to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept.”
While Swift says she’s “sad and grossed out” over Braun owning her master recordings, the deal may be a tipping point due to her stature as one of the top-selling musicians of all time. Labels may be beginning to learn to put the artists, who make the music they profit from, first.
The Modern Musician
It may seem odd that someone as powerful as Taylor Swift doesn’t own her own music, but it’s surprisingly common.
When artists sign with a label, they typically agree to give up the rights to their recordings in exchange for an advance — essentially a loan — recoupable against the artist’s royalties. Labels then profit from every record sale or stream, and they have the right to license the recordings to TV and film. While some labels return rights to the artists once they are able to recoup their advances, some don’t.
Or in Swift’s case, the value of the recordings becomes too high for the label to afford to return the rights to the artist. If Scott Borchetta, Big Machine’s founder and CEO, had returned masters rights to Swift, his company’s $300 million price tag would have plummeted.
Borchetta, who signed the teenage Swift as his label’s first artist in 2005, tweeted a screenshot of Swift and Big Machine’s new proposed contract, which does state that Swift would have gained rights to “all recordings (audio and/or audio-visual), artwork, photographs, and any other materials relating to TS which BMLG owns or controls” if the contract had been signed.
However, Swift decided to walk away because she believed that when she “signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label, thereby selling [her] and [her] future.”
But it brings up an interesting question. Being a popular musician doesn’t mean the same thing it did a decade ago, so why is the industry still tied to this standard? Why aren’t today’s music stars, many of which come to labels with dedicated fan bases baked in, properly attributed rights to the music they create and the personas attached to their faces?
Today’s stars can develop online revenue streams that have never existed before and reach new audiences at a much faster rate than artists of the past. It’s no longer about record sales; it’s about streaming numbers, tours and merchandise. Brand power can easily surpass talent value.
Just a glance at Billboard’s Top 100 makes it clear that today’s music industry is not the same. Today’s chart toppers weren’t grinding it out in dingy downtown bars. They were recording EPs in their childhood bedrooms and carving out personal brands on social media.
Lil Nas X, who has held onto the top spot for 12 straight weeks, signed with Columbia Records only after his self-distributed song “Old Town Road” took off as a meme on TikTok. Pop heartthrob Shawn Mendes was a Vine star before signing with Island Records. And 17-year-old Billie Eilish was approached by Darkroom/Interscope after the then 14-year-old’s self-released single “Ocean Eyes” racked up millions of streams on SoundCloud.
Top pop artists are not coming to labels with nothing to offer besides an interesting voice or a new take on a genre. They’re coming to labels with fleshed-out brands and fans willing to spend money. They don’t have to prove their value. They already have.
“You deserve to own the art you make.”
Though Swift came up the traditional way — discovered by Borchetta while performing at an open mic in Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe — she has championed artists’ rights and gone toe-to-toe with some of the most powerful companies in music.
In 2015, she called out Apple Music for not paying royalties to artists during the service’s three-month trial offer. Apple reversed that decision that same day.
She has also criticized Spotify for its artist payment structure. Swift removed all of her albums from Spotify (except 1989, which she never listed) in 2014, leaving the world’s largest music streaming service without the library of one of the biggest musical acts.
Her albums returned to Spotify in 2017, but she still practices “window releases,” in which she doesn’t immediately list her new albums on streaming services, instead hoping to drive sales of more lucrative physical and digital albums.
She made musicians’ rights a key point of her new contract with UMG, too. The label agreed to split future sales of Spotify shares with its artists. Today, Universal Music Group holds a 3.5% stake in Spotify, which it acquired when Spotify first inked deals with the big three music labels in 2008. That stake’s value fluctuates between $800 and $900 million. This stipulation does little to benefit Swift, one of the richest self-made women in the U.S. It instead sets an precedent for the broader industry.
Even now, after Ithaca’s acquisition, she’s using her power to voice her concerns for artists’ rights while potentially losing out on millions. In her post, she urges the next generation to be more critical of contracts. After all, they will likely encounter an even more complex industry as the Wild West of streaming gets corralled by a maturing digital landscape and changing artist-label relationships.
“And hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation,” Swift wrote. “You deserve to own the art you make.”