Taking back music ownership (taylor’s version)

Caption: GRAPHIC BY HALEY KEIZUR/FOGHORN

Haley Keizur is a senior media studies major. 

I fell in love with Taylor Swift’s Fearless album at the age of nine. I remember dancing around my bedroom; the purple walls sparkling as I blasted Taylor’s songs on my CD player. Now that I’m back home, in my childhood room due to the pandemic, the news of Swift’s re-release of “Love Story,” among other songs, felt like a full circle moment.

The re-recording of such an iconic song not only gave me a tug of nostalgia and a burst of serotonin — it shed light on an important issue: women and music ownership. At 16, Taylor signed onto a six-album contract with founder Scott Borchetta and the rest of the team at Big Machine Label Group (BMLG). But, in doing so, Swift also signed away the rights to her masters — the original audio recordings of her songs — of her first six albums, the last of which was released in 2017.

While their agreement was legal, it feels like Borchetta cruelly took advantage of a naivë new artist. Swift’s songs are all her own original music, but by not being allowed ownership of her masters, she lost copyright protection, and therefore the exclusive rights to make, sell, or distribute copies, and perform or display her work publicly independent of her label. 

After Borchetta sold Swift’s masters to prominent music manager Scooter Braun, in November of last year, they were again sold to a private equity group. According to the letter Swift posted on her social media platforms, “Scooter [Braun]’s team wanted me to sign an ironclad NDA stating I would never say another word about Scooter Braun unless it was positive, before we could even look at the financial record of BMLG… My legal team said that this is absolutely not normal, and they’ve never seen an NDA like this presented unless it was to silence an assault accuser by paying them off.”

As someone who has watched Taylor’s passion and talent flourish over the past decade of her career, it was upsetting to see her art — which she had put so much of herself into — taken from her. 

Luckily for Swift she has a big enough platform — and fanbase — that when she took to social media to call out this issue, conversation sparked. The visibility Swift has brought to the issue of music ownership, such as a letter she penned to Apple Music in 2015 disapproving of their 3-month free trial, which failed to pay artists for their work, shows her solidarity with all artists and how much the voices of those at the top matter. 

Unfortunately, music ownership rights and finance management aren’t just struggles for young musicians, but women in the industry in general. Britney Spears has recently been in the spotlight after her recent documentary exposed the conservatorship, a judge-appointed ownership over one’s finances and/or personhood, her father has imposed on her for more than 12 years. The LA County Superior Court’s February ruling was a step in the right direction, but there is a lot to be done to better support women in the music industry. 

When I think of all of the little girls who also grew up dancing around their rooms to “Baby, One More Time” (Britney Spears) and “You Belong With Me” (Taylor Swift), it hurts to realize that both of these artists matured under such misogynous oppression. The media coverage of both of their situations gives me hope for the future of the music industry, as well as for the young girls sitting at home with dreams of one day being at the top of the charts and in ownership of their own work.

Swift’s first re-recorded album, Fearless, will come out April 9 — 13 years after its original release, and 11 years after it was named Album of the Year at the 2010 Grammys. Because she already owns the copyrights, the re-recordings, which will be titled “taylor’s version” will finally give Swift the rights to a master recording of each of her songs. 

While the private entity that recently purchased her master collection will still own those, the idea is that fans and new listeners will opt to stream Swift’s versions, rather than the originals. On Instagram, Swift said, “I’ve spoken a lot about why I’m remaking my first six albums, but the way I’ve chosen to do this will hopefully help illuminate where I’m coming from. Artists should own their own work for so many reasons, but the most screamingly obvious one is that the artist is the only one who really knows that body of work.”

As a long time fan, I am quite proud of her resistance against industry norms and her consistency in using her voice to get what she, and other artists, deserve. While some have claimed that the re-recordings are a move to make more money, if you know Taylor at all, it’s clear that she just wants her stories back — her diary entries, written in her childhood bedroom, tour buses, coffee shops, and all across the world.

I remember hearing “Love Story” live for the first time at age 11, as Taylor floated around the arena, confetti falling all around us. I remember listening to her songs on my iPod nano as I rode home on the bus in junior high, and crying to her song “Enchanted,” moments after I found out I was going to meet Taylor backstage. I remember singing (or, rather, screaming) to her songs with my best friends when we learned to drive, and listening to the entirety of her album Speak Now the first night I moved into my dorm at USF. 

For those of us who have been Taylor Swift fans for a while now, the beauty of her music is that it lives with us. Now we get to make new memories with the songs we were raised on, as they continue to aid us in moments of need…  perhaps alongside a little bit of wine.

To read more about Taylor Swift’s impact and how she reflects the music industry as a whole, check out my capstone project.

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