By Briana Herrera
It’s a story as old as time. The year is 1993. Seinfeld is in its 5th season, Bill Clinton is serving his first term as president, Michael Jordan announced his first retirement from professional basketball, and the artist formerly known as Prince decided to go by what has become known as “Love Symbol”: an unpronounceable symbol that was an amalgam of the male and female gender signs. Prince, after dominating the charts in the 1980s, had over 500 songs recorded and wanted to put them all out. However, his label Warner Bros, thought about music from a financial standpoint instead of an artistic standpoint, and thought that releasing everything at once would saturate the market and instead spaced the music out in what we know to be a traditional album cycle.
Prince began to see a record label as constraining, as something that held back your artistic potential. He came to the conclusion that the power should be in the artist’s hand. Thus came the name change, with the pretense that Prince was under contract, but the artist formerly known as Prince was not. In 2000, when the contract expired, Prince formally went back to going by and recording as Prince. In Prince’s struggle, came to shine upon the new cultural touchstone, of artists staying independent of labels, or seeking to own their masters.
In this new age of music, came Taylor Swift. Signing to Big Machine Records at the age of 16, springing to stardom upon releasing her self titled debut, “Taylor Swift”, with songs such as Teardrops on My Guitar, and “Our Song”, came almost instant acclaim and stardom seemed imminent for the young starlet. However, with this stardom, also attached the details of her record contract. For Years, to sign an “unknown” to a label, the label pays the artist upfront, almost as if was a loan, in turn, the label, owns your master recordings and profits and controls whatever the use and likeness, something that, is either a loss for the label if an artist doesn’t take off, or a predicament for artists who establish themselves and don’t see an equal piece of the profit down the line.
Taylor went on in 2009 to release her second LP, Fearless, and have what would be a turning point in her career. At the MTV Video Music Awards, Taylor was called upon the stage for what should have been a crowning moment, receiving the best music video award for “You Belong With Me” and instead, she was blindsided, by a moment that was unprecedented in the awards show history. Rapper and artist Kanye West, stormed the stage, claiming that he would “let Taylor finish” but that Beyoncé in fact had the best music video of all time. However, with the controversy, many argued it turned Taylor into a bonafide star, cementing her into Pop culture. Receiving wall to wall coverage, it seemed as though the national conscious rose to Taylor’s defense, with even President Barack Obama coming to her defense by labeling Mr. West as a “jackass”.
As Taylor Swift rose as a pop artist through the traditional route of radio play, a new burgeoning moment was arising, with more artists wanting to own their masters, and be independent of labels. Around the end of the 2000s, came a time where people who wanted to become artists, realized they had the internet at their disposal, posting videos to Youtube to wrack up Millions of plays, and hoping to be featured on popular blogs such as 2Dopeboyz. Many were becoming in tune to the fact that, when a record label owns your masters, they own a part of you. In 2011, Mac Miller’s debut album, was released independently, and came on top of the Billboard 200 at #1. Miller had been hunted after by the major labels when songs such as Nikes on My Feet were garnering acclaim and positive attention, but decided it was more worthwhile in the long run to, set up his own means of recording and self promoting, all by using the internet, and garnering a much larger profit off of album sales then would an artist signed to a label.
As the 2010’s went on, more artists began to take that route. Chance the Rapper, dropped 3 successful mixtapes all without the backing of a label, claiming that “I can do whatever I want. I can do whatever videos I want, I can play whatever shows I want, I can release when I want, talk how I want, freely about any subject. I have a certain responsibility and I feel like conforming to the mixtape to mixtape to album rule would just defeat the whole purpose of not signing [with a major label].”. Not having to face the repercussions of having someone over your head, while maintaining that you’ll always have a flow of cash to rely on by owning your own music. Notably, even singer Frank Ocean chose to surprise release an album to get out of his contract with Def Jam, and then release a second album, “Blonde” the independent route only days later.
With more acts notably being independent, a conscious movement of artists of major label artists began, such as Big Sean talking about being forced to drop off of Chance The Rappers song “No Problem” because he wasn’t on the label, and Kanye West tweeting out he wants to own his masters, Taylor saw herself at the forefront of being an activist for artists rights. In 2014, noticing that streams of her songs make $0.0006 of a cent, thrust her music off of streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, going on the record to state “All I can say is that music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment. And I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free… I thought, ‘I will try this; I’ll see how it feels.’ It didn’t feel right to me.” Taylor Swift recognized her music for what it is, art. Art that has value, and she herself shouldn’t have to settle for less because that is what the culture provided her, and standing firm that artists shouldn’t have to settle for what streaming services give out, because without the artists, there would be nothing to stream.
A year later, Taylor further explained her views, not just for her own career, but for her contemporaries who yet hadn’t had their break, saying “This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create”. Though her poignant comments on streaming helped foster positive change, Taylor Swift came at a crossroads in her career, when her contract with Big Machine Records ran up, and Taylor decided to sign with Universal Music Group.
Upon the signing, Universal had expressed noted interest in buying Big Machine Records. Though this would be a moment to celebrate, turned to ruin, when in 2019 Manager Scooter Braun bought Big Machine Records, which included Taylor Swift’s masters up to that point. Upon the sales announcement, came the shocking realization that Taylor learned of the sale the same time as everyone else, her entire life’s work to that point. Mrs. Swift had also expressed interest and had been making multiple attempts to earn back her work. To that end, it was sold to a man, who she was not only in bad terms with, but had expressed disdain, including clients of his being direct to bully Taylor.
To take a working relationship between Taylor Swift and Big Machine Records, a label she helped keep afloat time and time again and make a name for itself, without the ability and professionalism to consult her on who her music was going to. Claiming that the owner of Big Machine knew of her frayed relationship with Mr. Braun, and having to experience the trauma of what she held so dear to be in the hands of someone with no disregard for it.Taylor further explained that “For years,” she wrote, “I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work. Instead I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and ‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in. I walked away because I knew once I signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label, thereby selling me and my future. I had to make the excruciating choice to leave behind my past.” while mentioning that, now in regards to her deal with Universal, she was working with a label who had the moral sense to believe she should own what she creates.
Scooter Braun swiped off the criticism by claiming he’s never had a problem with Taylor, and didn’t know she wanted to own her masters and claiming they could work together. However when it seemed that no agreement could be met, Taylor acknowledged that she would be re-recording all her previous albums, so she would then own the master recordings.
At the American Music Awards, Taylor had another hurdle in the form of Scooter Braun blocking her from performing old songs, to which Braun complained caused him to receive death threats. The saga upended again recently, when Braun sold her masters to an investment fund, with the loophole that he also helps oversee them. Swift again having to relieve the trauma of her work being passed around, adamantly came to defend her work being sold without her permission twice.
In the end, the record deals of old are being revealed to be more and more draconian then should have ever been allowed. While Taylor Swift was an unfortunate victim in that, and people like Scooter Braun being the beneficiaries of others labor, Taylor has cemented herself as someone who will fight for artistic integrity, and anyone to be compensated for their work. The time has come for artists to be in control of their own futures, with or without a label.