Taylor Swift may feel that she’s been burned, but she’s far from the only one. The conflict between artists and commerce is an ancient one, and superstars such as Paul McCartney and Prince have felt its sting.
Swift is losing the rights to her first six albums, thanks to a deal announced Sunday by Ithaca Holdings. From 2006’s self-titled debut to 2017’s “Reputation,” Swift was with country-pop record company Big Machine Label Group. That company has been acquired by Ithaca, which is owned by Scooter Braun, a manager and businessman who represents pop stars Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Carly Rae Jepsen.
The 29-year-old Swift is fuming. In a Tumblr post, she wrote, “For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work.”
It’s all about the master recording
Musicians sign record deals with labels, allowing the record company rights to their recordings, according to AWAL, a service that helps independent artists. The artist receives a cash advance to record an album and can receive royalties after it’s released.
But deals often come with strings attached. Artists can be prohibited from releasing music with other labels, and the labels own full rights to the master recordings, which are the key asset.
The original recording, or master recording, is the one from which all the all copies are made. For certain albums, the master can be copied millions of times.
And every time you stream or download a track, it’s the holder of the master rights — often the label — that gets paid first. Then the company doles out a percentage in royalties to the individual artist.
Artists often have a tortured relationship with the industry
Swift isn’t the first entertainer to lose ownership of the original art her fans adore, and she certainly won’t be the last.
George Clinton, whose funk outfit Parliament Funkadelic was one of the most well-known musical acts of the late 20th century, had to stage a protracted legal fight to win back the rights to his master recordings.
And besides legal and business hurdles, acts of God may keep masters out of musicians’ hands. Last month, the New York Times Magazine published a report on a little-known 2008 fire at a Universal Music warehouse that destroyed masters from dozens of artists such as BB King and Nirvana.
Some musicians are staking out new ground outside the traditional structure.
After gaining early fame online, Chance the Rapper said he’ll “stick with SoundCloud until the day I die,” forgoing a record label so that he retains the rights to his music. He became the first streaming artist to be nominated for a Grammy in 2016, garnering Best Rap Album honors for “Coloring Book” and Best Rap Performance for “No Problem.”
Swift could reclaim her music rights, but it would take decades
And though it might feel like Swift and her old music are never, ever getting back together, she has longer-term options.
The US Copyright Act of 1976 allows artists to terminate copyright transfers 35 years after a copyright deal was originally inked. Congress included the provision as an artist’s “second chance” to regain music rights if they felt that they “made a disadvantageous first deal,” according to the NYU Law Review.
More than three decades after it was enacted, the law creates a slow drip by which record companies gradually lose rights to their back catalogs. Each year, the threshold creeps forward. This year, artists who composed works released in 1984 can exercise their option to win back rights.
Paul McCartney, still smarting over the loss of rights to the Beatles’ catalog to Michael Jackson, is eager to use these termination rights to get his rights back. The entirety of the Beatles’ creative output was released before the 1976 law shortened the time frame for artists to regain their rights, so McCartney is only now getting his chance.
McCartney’s troubles started when Jackson purchased the ATV Music catalog for $47.5 million in 1985, including the rights to songs co-written by McCartney and John Lennon, as well as music by Bruce Springsteen, Elvis and the Rolling Stones. The warm friendship between McCartney and Jackson went helter skelter.
As the Lennon-McCartney catalog from the Beatles’ years began closing in on their eligibility window, 56 years after their original release, McCartney plotted a strategy to reclaim them. In 2015, per copyright law, McCartney began writing letters to the US Copyright Office, informing it that he wanted to obtain rights to the music.
The copyright on most Beatles’ songs carries a termination date in October 2025. (He would receive income from only his half of the song, with Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, allowing Sony/ATV to retain its publisher’s share.)
McCartney’s journey to re-ownership has been a long and winding road, but it’s one that artists in Swift’s position can keep in mind.
Poking the bear
In 1993, during a contractual fight with his record label, Warner Bros., Prince changed his name to a symbol that looked like a combination of the symbols for male and female. Referring to himself as a symbol didn’t give him the chance to distribute music outside his Warner Bros. contract, but it did give The Artist Formerly Known as Prince as a great way to annoy his corporate overlords.
He changed his name back to Prince in 2000, after his publishing contract with Warner Bros. expired.
Swift, who’s free of her original record contract, won’t need to resort to Prince’s unusual tactics. She says she left her past in Big Machine’s hands, “not my future.”
Swift is finding it hard to just shake it off, but she’s hoping sharing her story might help future artists retain their rights.
“Hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation,” Swift wrote on Tumblr.