Taylor Swift v Scooter Braun: When copyright gets personal
A social media spat between pop princess Taylor Swift and entertainment mogul Scooter Braun has shone a spotlight on the complicated intersection between music and copyright, with Swift calling on future singer-songwriters to "better protect" their work.
Taylor Swift at the Billboard Music Awards earlier this year. Credit:AP
Over the weekend, Braun's Ithaca Holdings announced it was acquiring Big Machine Label Group, the label that released all of Swift's studio albums up until 2017's Reputation. Big Machine also owned the pop star's master rights for her back catalogue (master rights are granted to whoever financed a recording and usually lie with the record label if not the artist).
"This is my worst case scenario," Swift wrote on Tumblr. "When I left my masters in (Big Machine Label Group founder Scott Borchetta'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."
Taylor Swift’s post to her Tumblr account over the sale of her old record label, Big Machine, by owner Scott Borchetta to Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun.Credit:Tumblr
The Shake It Off singer had a history with Braun dating back to 2016, when he used to be a talent agent for her musical nemesis Kanye West and who she believed had a hand in the infamous spat between herself, West and wife Kim Kardashian over the use of her lyrics in West's Famous song.
In her recent post, she accused Braun of "incessant, manipulative bullying … for years", which included arranging for his clients, like Justin Bieber, to antagonise her via social media. (A claim that Bieber has since disputed.)
"My musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it," she wrote.
Swift also called for artists to own their master records outright. (Major record labels generally own an artist's master recordings so they can recoup their costs via royalties.)
Gregg Donovan, the co-owner of Wonderlick Entertainment, says music copyright is complicated because multiple people work on a song before it reaches the public. His label licenses music from Australian artists such as Montaigne, Josh Pike, Paper Kites and Amy Shark.
"It's complicated because there are multiple different parties that need to be protected," he said. "It might not just be a single writer on a song – there might be co-writers. Then there's the performers who performed it in the studio."
While he can understand that record labels want a return on their investment – after all, they sometimes spend years nurturing young singer-songwriters – Mr Donovan said he would like to see more artists own their master recordings outright and lease them to their label for a set period of time.
"[Their music] is their creative baby so to speak," he said. "They should be allowed to make the choices about where it goes, how it's played and who to. As a manager I never really understood those labels that tied up all those rights. Bob Dylan's manager said it best when he said, 'If the birdie isn't happy the birdie won't sing.'
"There's nothing wrong with gatekeepers in certain industries. Artists will always need teams of people working around them. But we are seeing more control going to artists. A nice balance between and business has always been a tricky thing to do."
Tim James, the general manager of Caroline Australia, works with the likes of singer-songwriter Alex Lahey and Australian psychedelic rock band Pond. He said traditional label arrangements have been around for a long time and many artists have been happy with them. He added it wasn't unusual for a musician's copyright to pass from one company to another.
Mr James said more and more artists, however, are finding that they don't need the traditional label arrangement and are instead looking for help with marketing and publicity once they're ready to release their music.
"Some artists are collaborative and want to work with a team and work with different songwriters and producers," he said. "A label relationship probably suits them better. For an artist that is totally self-sufficient and can record themselves and doesn't want to co-write, then you could do that yourself and there's a myriad of options for that now."
A spokesman for the Australian Recording Industry Association said the organisation did not have a stance on whether artists should own their master recordings.
"There is a no one-size fits all model," the spokesman said. "It varies from artist to artist and often evolves throughout an artist's career."
The owner of her former label, Borchetta, has since posted a lengthy blog outlining his account of events leading up to the sale of Big Machine Label Group, and Swift's back catalogue, to Braun, titled So, It’s Time For Some Truth…
In it he published texts between himself and Swift and said he gave the singer plenty of notice regarding the deal.
"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," he wrote.
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