Here’s what we know so far: Taylor Swift left her lifelong label, Big Machine Records, to sign with Universal Music Group in November 2018. It was assumed that this move was an amicable decision between the singer-songwriter and her label. On June 30, 2019, Scott Borchetta, CEO of Big Machine Records, sold the label to Scooter Braun—chairman of Ithaca Ventures and manager of acts like Justin Bieber and Kanye West who have given Taylor grief in the past.
Later in the day, Taylor wrote a scathing Tumblr post condemning Borchetta’s sale of Big Machine and her extensive back catalogue of music to Braun. This triggered an onslaught of celebrity social media posts weighing in on the issue (and occasionally, slinging mud at the players.).
But if we filter out the drama and focus on who should be owning what aspects of music, what exactly is wrong with this situation? We break it down in 8 points.
Big Machine Records wouldn’t be what it is without Taylor Swift
Perhaps the most saddening part of this story is the beginning. A young Taylor left her development deal at a big Nashville company called RCA Records when she was 15, because they were hedging on whether or not they would sign her as an artist who wrote and sang her own songs.
Enter Scott Borchetta, who approached Taylor after hearing her perform her original songs at a Bluebird Cafe showcase. He offered her a spot on the independent record label he was going to put up. And Taylor was willing to wait for Scott to build his company, saying in a 2010 television special that, “I knew that if I could be a part of building something from the ground up—of being the first artist on a brand-new record label—that would be okay with me as long as I could do something really adventurous and bold and new.”
In 2005, Taylor signed a six-album contract with Big Machine Records that began with her country hit ‘Tim McGraw’ and ended with the record-breaking commercial success that was reputation. Before she left Big Machine in 2018, it was estimated that 80% of the label’s revenue was derived from Taylor’s albums and tours showcasing her original work.
Taylor had been expressing intent to buy her music, but was denied
In her Tumblr post, Taylor explained that “for years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work.” Instead, she was told that she had to “earn” the rights to each album one by one, by renewing her contract with Big Machine Records and getting one previous album back for every new one she made with them.
Taylor said no and left, because she knew that even if she signed with Big Machine Records a second time, Scott still had plans to sell the label (and if a label that held Taylor Swift’s back catalogue was juicy pickings, imagine how a label that had Taylor Swift on its roster would be that much more attractive to buyers). In effect, he would sell the next ten years of her career to the highest bidder.
Scott Borchetta responded to this hours later with a post of his own on the Big Machine website, saying “Taylor had every chance in the world to own not just her master recordings, but every video, photograph, everything associated to her career. She chose to leave.”
How is offering Taylor one of her old masters for every new one she releases through Big Machine an “extraordinary” offer? Are you OK? #WeStandWithTaylor
— Taylor Swift News | TSwiftinAsia (@TSwiftinAsia) July 1, 2019
The statement doesn’t really help his case, because it confirms that Taylor’s only chance of gaining ownership of her past music was if she stayed chained to Big Machine, and she wasn’t offered any other option to acquire the master recordings of her music. Plus, the idea that she had to “earn” each album she made is frankly, ridiculous, seeing as (going back to item no. 1) Big Machine would not have achieved its present success without her.
Taylor was not offered a chance to bid on the rights to her own music during the sale of Big Machine
Telling someone about a deal days before it’s public means the deal was already done & she never had the opportunity to even make a bid to own her own work. These deals take months to negotiate in long form. https://t.co/Ra7NdxzcOM
— IGGY AZALEA (@IGGYAZALEA) June 30, 2019
Artists own their masters in part because they performed the song, but various people involved in producing, mixing, recording, or marketing the song have a stake in it as well. That was definitely the way things were done when 15-year-old Taylor Swift signed on to her contract in 2005.
However, present-day 29-year-old Taylor is in a financial position where she is capable of offering Big Machine Records a hefty sum in order to fully own her masters. If the priority was money, Scott Borchetta could have simply charged her double or triple the worth of her masters to compensate for the loss Big Machine would take.
The problem was that selling Taylor her masters would have meant that Big Machine no longer held the megastar’s back catalogue. This would have decreased the value of Big Machine Records as a company, making it less attractive to buyers. Ownership of Taylor’s first six albums drove up Big Machine’s selling price to $300 million.
Scott Borchetta has reasoned that Taylor’s father, Scott Swift, who is a shareholder in Big Machine Records would have been informed of the sale on June 25, five days before it happened. Taylor’s publicist has responded: “On June 25, there was a shareholder phone call that Scott Swift did not participate in due to a very strict NDA that bound all shareholders and prohibited any discussion at all without risk of severe penalty. Her dad did not join that call because he did not want to be required to withhold any information from his own daughter.”
In addition, singer Izzy Azalea has spoken out in Taylor’s defense, saying that it takes months to broker a deal like this, and if Taylor had been informed a mere five days before the sale then she would not have been given the opportunity to bid on her own music.
Scooter Braun profited off Taylor’s one bad year in 2016
— Scooter Braun (@scooterbraun) June 25, 2016
2016 was not a good year for Ms. Swift. This was the year that her ill-fated phone call with Kanye West was leaked on the Internet, where Taylor was heard approving the line “Taylor and I might still have sex” on his song ‘Famous’. The phone call was recorded and uploaded on Snapchat by Kanye’s wife Kim Kardashian in July. (Notably, the line she had actually slammed Kanye for writing was “I made that bitch famous.” Nowhere in the Snapchat clips do we actually hear Taylor approve the contested “bitch” line.)
As Kanye’s manager, Scooter Braun would have had his fingers in that publicity pie. And he definitely would have been involved in Kanye’s “revenge porn” music video for ‘Famous’, where Kanye lay next to a naked wax model of Taylor’s body. In effect, Scooter jumped on the Taylor hate train and rode it all the way to the bank.
Now Scooter Braun stands to profit from Taylor’s 14 years’ worth of success
Of course, Taylor Swift is nothing but the queen of getting the last word. After a year of silence, she dropped reputation in 2017, an album she wrote addressing public opinion of her. It went on to sell 4.5 million physical copies worldwide in 2017, and the resulting reputation Stadium Tour grossed $345 million, broke several records, and won five awards.
Big Machine Records gained enormous profit off reputation – and the irony is that Scooter Braun, a man directly involved in the personal harassment and cyberbullying that drove Taylor to write the album, now owns it. He also now owns Taylor’s first five albums, the cornerstones of the very career that he sought to take down for his and his client’s benefit.
Scooter Braun reposted an Instagram story which was captioned:
“WHEN YOUR FRIEND BUYS TAYLOR SWIFT!!!” pic.twitter.com/YhJXSwyzJN
— Taylor Swift News | TSwiftinAsia (@TSwiftinAsia) July 1, 2019
This means future sales of physical copies of Taylor’s first six albums plus the revenue from streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music will disappear neatly into Scooter Braun’s pocket. As early as 24 hours after the sale of Big Machine Records, reports are surfacing of Taylor’s back catalogue being republished on streaming services, misleading less vigilant fans to repurchase music they already own.
WARNING: they are republishing her music to gain money!!! (the “R” in reputation is even capitalized now) PLEASE DO NOT REBUY! You should still have your downloaded music! Please be careful not to stream or repurchase music! RT TO SPREAD THE WORD!!!!! pic.twitter.com/rpxDR85wfc
— caroline (@GetawayCaroline) June 30, 2019
Scott Borchetta KNEW how Scooter treated Taylor in recent years – and still chose to sell her body of work to him
Despite questions of loyalty (or artist rights), business is business. Taylor Swift, an astute businesswoman herself, understood why Scott chose to prioritise his company and had to make peace with it. And as sad as that was for her, it would have been just another day in the music industry if Scott Borchetta had sold her masters to any other buyer.
But he sold them to Scooter Braun, a person whom Taylor claims: “Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words ‘Scooter Braun’ escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to.“
imagine your parents having a yard sale and selling your journals from your teen years. imagine the buyer being one of your biggest bullies from those days. a person that should never own anything of yours let alone something so personal. sad for taylor today. #WeStandWithTaylor https://t.co/cR0C9O7jtb
— Maggie Clark (@maggiejclark) July 1, 2019
And this is where the fairy tale story of the pop princess and the dreamer behind Big Machine Records ends, because if someone you worked with for 14 years—someone you trusted with your life’s work, welcomed into your family, and was in your camp the whole time you were being chased by the lynch mob—turns the product of your blood, sweat, and tears over to the witch hunter, you gotta admit that you got well and truly played.
Basically, two men made money off a woman’s professional successes and personal troubles
…making this a women’s issue as much as an artists’ one. In Scott Borchetta’s post, he expresses, “Taylor knew that I was close to Scooter…Scooter was never anything but positive about Taylor.”
Yet Taylor goes on to say in her post: “[Scott] knew what he was doing; they both did. Controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity. That means forever.”
Because Taylor has a songwriting credit on all of her songs across her six released albums, Scooter Braun cannot legally use Taylor’s music (in commercials, movie soundtracks, samples, etc.) without her approval. But then, that means whenever an opportunity comes up involving her past body of work, she has to deal with a man who subjected her to “incessant, manipulative bullying” at his and his cohorts’ hands. And Scott Borchetta has tied her to that man for the rest of her career—possibly the rest of her life.
If it could happen to Taylor, it likely happens to other smaller artists
— h (@halsey) June 30, 2019
Though shaky claims of big-name artists unfollowing Scooter Braun on social media have been going around, a definite stream of support from smaller artists (Todrick Hall, HRVY, Keala Settle, and JoJo to name a few) has been trickling in. After all, if a veteran like Taylor Swift with the clout and purchasing power to reshape the music industry can get manipulated and locked out of owning her own music, then that’s disheartening news for the new artists still trying to find their feet.
The takeaway from this issue shouldn’t be to pin down who is a liar and who is a victim, but rather to blow open a conversation about the rights of artists to own their creations in full, to live out careers safe from harassment, and to have a say in who gets to touch, as Halsey calls it, “the painstaking labor of [their] heart.”
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