News broke Sunday that Ithaca Holdings LLC had acquired Big Machine Label Group, in a deal that gives the record label’s founder, Scott Borchetta, a minority interest in Ithaca and a seat on its board. In return, Ithaca gets all of BMLG’s clients, its distribution deals, and, most importantly, the label’s master recordings. Former Big Machine artist Taylor Swift found out about the sale of her entire back catalog when the news broke, and she is not happy about it. Swift left Big Machine for Universal Music Group in 2018, but doesn’t own her old master recordings and had no say in the sale. In a Tumblr post on Sunday, the pop star chronicled her failed attempts to buy back her own masters and explained that her history with Ithaca Holdings head Scooter Braun makes the purchase her “worst case scenario” because of the “incessant, manipulative bullying” she says she’s received from him.
Swift’s bad blood with Braun dates back to her 2016 spat with Kanye and Kim Kardashian West. Swift objected to a lyric in Kanye West’s “Famous,” in which he raps, “I feel like me and Taylor Swift might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.” Kanye claimed she’d approved the line in a phone call, while Swift’s publicist said he was mischaracterizing their conversation. Then Kim Kardashian West released videos taken during the call that seemed to back Kanye’s account, and the internet exploded for a few months. Braun was managing both Kanye West and Justin Bieber at the time (he still manages Bieber and is in West’s orbit, although their business relationship has become more ambiguous), and Swift blames him for capitalizing on the controversy, including appearing in an Instagram post from Bieber showing a FaceTime call between Bieber and West. When originally posted, the photo was captioned “Taylor Swift what up,” although Bieber seems to have deleted the caption since then:
West went on to release a nightmarish video featuring nude wax figures of naked celebrities, including a pretty convincing Taylor Swift, which she described in her post Sunday as “a revenge porn music video which strips my body naked.” In short, Braun is one of the last people in the world Taylor Swift would choose to let profit from her art, but she wasn’t given a choice. One of the rarest and most valuable things about Swift’s place on the public stage is her willingness to leverage her celebrity to improve conditions in the music industry for people who are not Taylor Swift—as David Turner has argued, she’s a labor radical—and her anger at Borchetta and Braun didn’t distract her from pointing out the systemic exploitation that put her in this situation:
Now Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy. Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.
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.
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. Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words “Scooter Braun” escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to. He 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.
Owning master recordings—which have recently been in the news because Swift’s new label Universal Music Group lost many of theirs in a fire—means more than just having the physical tapes, although that’s part of it. Those rights allow their owner to determine how and where (and if) the recordings are released and distributed in the future. It’s commonplace for successful artists to try to reacquire the rights to their own back catalogs—see, e.g., Prince, the Beatles, Rihanna—but Big Machine never let Swift do this. Instead, Swift writes, they tried to use the master recordings as leverage to keep her on the label when her contract expired, offering to let her buy back the rights to one old album for each new album she released with them. Beyond venting her frustration at the unfairness of being forced to watch her art—“music I wrote on my bedroom floor and videos I dreamed up and paid for from the money I earned playing in bars, then clubs, then arenas, then stadiums,” per Swift—make money for someone she loathes, Swift spoke out in hopes of encouraging upcoming artists to keep their master recordings in the first place:
Thankfully, I am now signed to a label that believes I should own anything I create. Thankfully, I left my past in Scott’s hands and not my future. And 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.
This is not the first time Swift has tried to use her power to make her industry and the world a little fairer for people less fortunate than she is. In 2015, after discovering that Apple was planning to not pay any royalties during Apple Music’s three-month trial period, she got the policy changed for everyone; a few years later, she candidly testified in a sexual assault trial in which she stood to gain only $1 in order to serve as a model for other women. Of late, she’s also become politically active, endorsing candidates and legislation alike, although her forays into LGBTQ activism have been less successful. The jump between “someone has treated me unfairly” to “this system is unfair to everyone” can be a difficult thing to negotiate gracefully or convincingly, but Swift has done it with style. Read her complete Tumblr post here.
Update: In an Instagram post that didn’t mention master recordings at all, Justin Bieber has apologized for his old post and offered to broker peace between Braun and Swift. But he also criticized the pop star for calling out Scooter Braun, writing, “seems to me like it was to get sympathy.” We’ll have to wait to see if Swift’s cogent critique of the systemic exploitation of artists, pegged to a particularly offensive outcome produced by that system, can be successfully reduced to a celebrity feud, then fixed by an apology. Swift’s track record suggests this is unlikely.