Taylor Swift has made a career out of airing her dirty laundry.
Her songs are filled with kiss-offs to famous partners like Joe Jonas, Jake Gyllenhaal, and John Mayer, she has famously clashed with Kanye West, Katy Perry, and Kim Kardashian, and she is currently embroiled in a drama that has seen her set her fans loose on one of the biggest talent managers in the business.
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Earlier this year, Taylor Swift had the chance to buy back the rights to her entire recorded catalogue from Big Machine, the independent, Nashville-based record label she signed to when she was 15. She passed up the opportunity, and decided to instead leave Big Machine and sign to a global conglomerate.
Under the terms of the new deal, she will own the masters to her new work – the album Lover and any subsequent recordings.
But her first six albums still belonged to Big Machine Records.
In June, the company entered into a merger/acquisition with Scooter Braun and Ithaca Holdings, which basically meant that Braun now owned Swift’s catalogue.
Braun is the high-profile manager of acts such as Justin Biber, Ariana Grande and Carly Rae Jepsen. He also used to manage Kanye West.
Swift hit the roof when she found out about the sale, calling it her “worst case scenario” and claiming that, for years, Braun has engaged in “incessant, manipulative bullying” of her.
It’s his relationship with Bieber and West – and by extension Kim Kardashian – that is largely the cause of Swift’s consternation.
After the sale was announced, Swift wrote an open letter to her fans, and posted it on her Tumblr.
“This is what happens when you sign a deal at fifteen to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept,” she wrote, referring to Scott Borchetta, who heads up Big Machine.
“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.”
This argument, although understandable, betrays the personal manner in which Swift approached the sale of her masters, and continues to do so. This was a business deal.
On Friday, she wrote another open letter explaining how Braun and Borchetta are blocking her from performing a medley of her old hits at the AMAs.
Don’t know what else to do pic.twitter.com/1uBrXwviTS
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) November 14, 2019
They claim that doing so would constitute Swift ‘re-recording’ her music, something she legally isn’t allowed to begin doing until next year.
In addition, they have declined the use of her back catalogue in a forthcoming Netflix documentary about her life.
They nevertheless agreed to lift the ban on both, if she stops badmouthing them both in the press, and agrees not to record ‘copycat’ versions of her old hits – something she threatened to do on Good Morning America when she appeared on the show in August.
Such pettiness could be considered ungracious by all parties, but just as it is Swift’s legal right to re-record her old songs, therefore being the rightful owner of these new versions, it is Braun and Borchetta’s legal right to block her use of the originals.
Faced with these roadblocks, Swift then took the extraordinary step of asking her fanbase to bombard Braun and Borchetta, as well as Braun’s other high-profile clients, in the hopes that such public pressure will cause them to acquiesce. It’s a bad move, and it is built off emotion, not logic.
Music is inherently a deeply personal pursuit, but it is also a business. And although Swift signed her contract when she was just fifteen, her father Scott Swift acted as her guardian for this signing. She was a child, but he was an adult, tasked with making the best decision for his daughter.
It’s hard to argue that Big Machine didn’t take care of Swift’s best interests. They shepherded a career that has seen her sell over 50 million albums and 150 million singles, and turned her into one of the most famous and respected musical artists of all time.
Although Swift was undeniably the architect of her own incredible success, Big Machine and Scott Borchetta were instrumental in this success – and the main reason for his unwavering commitment was a financial one.
By paying for, and therefore owning, the master recordings to her catalogue, he was taking a massive financial risk, ponying up millions of dollars in the hope that his label would not only recoup, but make a fortune – which undoubtedly he has.
But this was not assured when he first signed an untested fifteen year old, and the gamble he took could have lost him millions.
This is how record labels operate – they bet on an artist’s future success by fronting them a substantial amount of money, and allocating time and resources. It’s a long term bet, with a heavy initial risk.
In exchange, the record label owns the rights to the artist’s recordings.
Swift knew all this.
Even if she didn’t know it at 15, her father did, and growing up in the industry, she would have been aware of her contractual stipulations. Her open letter makes that clear. “I made peace with the fact that eventually he would sell them.”
That peace was shattered when someone that Swift considered a bully was the highest bidder. Again, this is personal.
The person Swift should be angry at is her father. He was a shareholder in Big Machine Records, and was alerted of the pending deal with Braun five days before it was announced to the world, the morning Swift claimed she “woke up to the news when everyone else did” and fired off her angry letter.
Scott Swift, along with two of Taylor’s managers, were given three days to go over the details of the proposed transaction, and voted, along with the other shareholders, two days before the deal was announced. Borchetta even texted Swift the night before the announcement as a courtesy.
By this time, Swift had already long passed on the opportunity to buy back her masters.
Her own narrative, however, suggests she held she was being held to ransom.
“For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work,” she claimed in the June letter. “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.”
Borchetta tells a slightly less salacious version of the story.
“Taylor had every chance in the world to own not just her master recordings, but every video, photograph, everything associated to her career,” he explained in his own response. “She chose to leave.”
Borchetta shared a document outlining the proposed agreement, which backed up his claims.
“100% of all Taylor Swift assets were to be transferred to her immediately upon signing the new agreement,” he reiterated, rebuffing her claims that she would have to deliver six records in order to ‘earn’ back her catalogue.
“We were working together on a new type of deal for our new streaming world that was not necessarily tied to ‘albums’ but more of a length of time.”
He explained how Big Machine are an independent label that doesn’t have the resources of a major.
“My offer to Taylor, for the size of our company, was extraordinary.”
Swift left Big Machine Records for Universal, and therefore gave up any chance of buying her back catalogue.
“Owning my masters was very important to me, but I’ve since realised that there are things that mean even more to me in the bigger picture,” Swift wrote to Borchetta, in a private text message that he republished in order to tell his side of the story.
“I had a choice whether to bet on my past or to bet on the future and I think knowing me, you can guess which one I chose.”
There you have it. Swift had a clear choice, and she made her bets.
Now that the cards are on the table, she is spitting chips.
Nathan Jolly is a Sydney-based writer who specialises in pop culture, music history and true romance. Follow him on Twitter @nathanjolly