Taylor Swift's lockdown work ethic is making the rest of us look bad. Not content with releasing two of 2020's biggest albums, Folklore and Evermore, in the latter half of last year, the singer will embark on a new phase of her career on Friday when she unveils a re-recording of her 2008 album Fearless. Along with new versions of the hits that kickstarted her chart ascendancy like You Belong With Me and Love Story, she's dusted off songs written in her late teens that didn't make the original cut.
But why is one of the biggest, and most prolific, artists in the world focusing her creative energies on recreating old tracks almost beat for beat? Swift's scheme is the latest chapter in a long-running struggle to reclaim her musical catalogue and in doing so she is not only making money but shaking up the music industry, giving artists more power.
It all began after the masters for Swift's first six albums were sold to impresario Scooter Braun and his company Ithaca Holdings back in June 2019. As a 15-year-old country star, Swift signed a 13-year deal with Big Machine Records, founded by Scott Borchetta; it elapsed late in 2018, when she made a new contract with Universal's Republic Records. Months later, Big Machine was acquired by Braun, making him owner of the star's master recordings, the original versions of every track she had released with the company. Every time a fan, say, streamed Shake It Off or downloaded Red, Braun would now profit.
Back catalogues regularly change hands behind the scenes, but almost never make headlines (contract negotiations don't exactly make gripping reading). This deal was different. Braun has managed some of the biggest pop acts of recent years, from Justin Bieber to Ariana Grande, and he was also working with Swift's nemesis Kanye West in 2016, when she and the rapper became embroiled in a messy dispute over a reference to her in his track Famous.
In an explosive Tumblr post (how else?) Swift described Braun's buyout as her "worst-case scenario", accusing him of "incessant, manipulative bullying" and Borchetta of betraying her trust. "Scooter has stripped me of my life's work, that I wasn't given an opportunity to buy," she wrote. "Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it." Strong words indeed, it's no surprise that the row split the music industry down the middle. Halsey, Haim and former frenemy Katy Perry supported Swift, while Demi Lovato and Biebs backed Braun.
Borchetta also weighed in, disputing in a statement (ominously titled "So, It's Time For Some Truth") that Swift had only learned about the sale at the eleventh hour and claiming that Swift's father Scott, a Big Machine shareholder, would have known beforehand (the singer's rep, however, said Scott did not join a call ahead of the deal as he would have been blocked from discussing it by "a very strict NDA").
It wasn't long before Swift outlined plans to re-record her first five albums, from her eponymous country debut to the all-conquering 1989, in November 2020, as soon as her contracts allowed (she can't remake 2017's Reputation just yet - most contracts block artists from re-recording songs until five years after the release). Things took another turn in November 2019, when the singer claimed that Big Machine and Braun were blocking her from performing old tracks at the televised American Music Awards ceremony as "they claim that would be re-recording my music before I'm allowed to".
Finally, an agreement was reached - but not before Braun revealed in an open letter that he and his family had received death threats on social media. "I am certain there is no situation ever worth jeopardising anyone's safety," he wrote. In her eventual AMAs performance, Swift wore a white shirt covered in the names of her six albums released with Big Machine.
Another twist came in November 2020, when Braun sold the masters to LA investment firm Shamrock Capital in a rumoured $300 million deal. Swift said she had been "hopeful and open to the possibility of a partnership" with Shamrock but ruled that out upon learning that "under their terms Scooter Braun will continue to profit off my old music catalogue for many years". Swift is certainly no stranger to public wars of words (remember the volley of Notes app statements and tweets that characterised her row with West and Kim Kardashian?) but this one feels different. It is not just another celebrity feud, this could have wide-reaching repercussions for the music industry.
Re-making her back catalogue is a financially savvy decision. As Taylor's versions arrive online, the value of the originals will diminish - given the choice, fans will inevitably pick recordings that support Swift over ones that profit Braun (her new version of Love Story racked up 10,000 downloads within 24 hours of release; the original was downloaded 200 times in the same period).
She has revealed that she will start to license her re-recorded tracks for film and advert use, too, which will prove lucrative (Swift, who still has publishing rights on her old recordings, currently turns down these requests because doing so would - you guessed it - give Braun a pay out).
Hold the cynicism, because there's more to Swift's battle than turning over a mega-profit. For years, the singer has spoken out to ensure musicians are fairly remunerated in the streaming era. From 2014 to 2017, she pulled her back catalogue from Spotify over concerns about their royalties package; her 2018 record contract with Universal was hailed as a game changer when she revealed that the label had made a huge promise - that if the company sold off its Spotify shares, it would share out some of that profit to all the artists on its roster.
Swift is one of few artists with the power and profile to create change in the music world - when she acts, the industry listens. In reclaiming her masters, and drawing attention to the saga surrounding it, she has made a dramatic statement about the importance of artists owning their work and refusing to let others capitalise on their creativity. Sure, she's a multi-millionaire but in using her platform in this way, she's galvanising other, less established artists to fight for a better deal. "Hopefully [...] kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation," she wrote in one tweet.
Indeed, Swift's experience has prompted other female musicians to speak out about their struggles in a male-dominated industry yet to have its #MeToo moment. Singer Sky Ferreira said that she too "signed contracts when I was 15 [and] I'm still paying the consequences for it. Every contract I have ever signed has always been set up to take advantage of me/my work in some way". Fellow musician Halsey, meanwhile, suggested that industry bosses "are protected because they inspire complicity with fear."
This saga has served to underline the inevitable power imbalance of a world where older men pull the strings of even supposedly empowered female acts. When Swift wrote in her AMA statement that "the message being sent to me is very clear. Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you'll be punished", it wasn't hard to imagine her smiling through similar exhortations over her 15-year career. She doesn't have to grin and bear it any more.
Fearless, Swift's bestselling album to date, is her second record, but feels like the right place for this musical do-over to begin. These songs feature some of her most personal stories. Knowing that a bunch of faceless, doubtless male execs were profiting from those outpourings felt deeply unpalatable - now fans can listen to some of her best-loved tracks in good conscience. © EVENING STANDARD