This time next year, Taylor Swift might sound a little different.
If you’ve been keeping up with the back-and-forth between Swift and the now-owners of her first six albums (who we’ll return to), you’ll know two things for sure: She’s not happy that she doesn’t own the recorded rights (masters) to these records; and come November 2020, she is contractually permitted to re-record her biggest hits — something she appears determined to do.
For clarity, it’s worth a quick recap on this situation, focusing on industry context that is arguably too often left out of the narrative:
- For the past couple of years, Nashville-based indie label Big Machine Label Group has been rumored to be up for sale in music biz circles, with the most likely buyer believed to be Universal Music Group. However, on June 30, it was announced that Ithaca Holdings, led by Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun and backed by private-equity giant Carlyle Group, had in fact acquired Big Machine for around $300 million. Universal, it appeared, had been pipped to the deal by the manager of some of its biggest artists;
- That news came seven months after Swift snubbed Big Machine by declining to ink a new recording contract with the company. Instead, she signed a direct label agreement with Universal Music Group (and Republic Records) for her future material, including the album we now know as Lover. Crucially, UMG permitted Swift to maintain ownership of her future masters — a facet that wasn’t part of her prior agreement with Big Machine;
- Since Ithaca’s buyout of Big Machine this summer, Swift has publicly railed against both Braun and the man who signed her as a 15-year-old to Big Machine, Scott Borchetta. Swift concedes that Big Machine did give her the opportunity to acquire her original masters, but on one condition — that she sign a new deal with BM (i.e., turning down her Universal deal), which would see her “earn one album [master] back . . . for every new one I turned in.”
This narrative helps frame the potential business-led motivations (and aggravations) of each party. Swift re-recording her hits would clearly create yet another flashpoint — but it looks likely to happen.
In August, Swift indicated to CBS News that she fully intends to re-record some, if not all, of her Big Machine LPs. “It’s something I’m really excited about doing, because my contract says that starting November 2020, I can record albums one through five all over again,” she said. In a follow-up tweet that caused on November 14th, Swift reiterated her plan. She claimed that re-recording her hits next year was something “I’m legally allowed to do and looking forward to.”
Here, three people working in the music business with personal experience of artists re-recording songs give their view — and offer their direct advice to Swift.
Glenn Tilbrook, lead singer and co-songwriter, Squeeze
After forming in the late Seventies, British group Squeeze recorded a series of hits, including “Cool for Cats” and “Up the Junction,” which both reached Number Two in the U.K. in 1979. Squeeze’s biggest chart success in the U.S. came with Hourglass (1987) which landed at Number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. The band’s first eight albums were all signed to A&M, and as a result are owned by Universal Music Group today.
In 2010, Squeeze re-recorded a run of their hits on the album Spot the Difference. The plan, according to Glenn Tilbrook, was financially motivated. When Squeeze songs are usually “synced” to movies, TV shows or ads, he says, the advertising party pays a premium to Universal, which then pays out a portion of this money to Squeeze based on their historic contract.
“It was an economic punt,” says Tilbrook. “Our argument was that [media companies looking to sync Squeeze’s hits] could pay us half of what they pay Universal — they’d get it cheaper, but we’d get the money. Everybody wins.”
He adds: “We knew we were never going to get back control of our masters from Universal. The thinking was that we could create faithful reproductions of some of our most popular songs, and offer those up as alternatives.”
However, Tilbrook says that “10 years later, we’ve not had a single uptake.” It’s also noticeable that, when searching for Squeeze songs on services like Spotify, the re-records are not highlighted — you can’t find them without digging into the band’s discography. Does Tilbrook believe that Spot the Difference’s lack of sync and streaming exposure might be because of the power of a major record company like Universal to ensure their own recordings get prioritized?
“Absolutely,” he replies. “They undoubtedly do have a power, and of course they use that power in every way they can to maintain their market position — that’s what business is all about.”
He adds: “My advice to Taylor Swift is that it takes an awful lot of time, trouble, and money to [re-record hits faithfully], and I would question what the intended outcome would be. If she does it and gets away with it, of course, I support her efforts 100 percent.”
Allen Kovac, founder of Better Noise Music
Allen Kovac has a unique perspective on the subject of master recordings. He is the manager, among others, of Mötley Crüe, who acquired their masters back from label Elektra in a fairly unprecedented move in the late Nineties. Kovac is also the manager of Blondie — who released 11 re-records of their greatest hits in 2014, included as a bonus with the studio album Ghosts of Download.
Although Kovac declines to discuss Blondie, he has a strident view on Swift’s current situation: “[Swift] already made the decision to move on [from Big Machine]. The minute she did that, she lost her leverage. . . . Something broke down. She didn’t get the kind of advice that would allow her to have a win-win.“
Kovac says that, in the case of Mötley Crüe, he negotiated with then-Elektra head Sylvia Rhone, settling on a deal not dissimilar to the offer Big Machine apparently made to Swift. “When Sylvia Rhone decided not to believe in the band, I said, ‘Well, instead of paying them an advance of eight figures [for future recordings], you keep that money — we’ll take $2 million [instead], and we’ll take all the masters,’ ” Kovac says. “That’s a deal; that’s a transaction.
“What’s Taylor Swift’s transaction? Is she saying, ‘I’ll give you six more albums, let’s split it?’ Or did she just want her masters back because she’s Taylor Swift? Why does someone who invested in her as a teenager have to just give them to her? Even the Beatles don’t own their masters.”
As for the prospect of re-records, Kovac is unconvinced. He estimates that “the average re-record does 10 to 20 percent of what the original master does” in revenue terms. His company once had a JV with an advertising agency, he says, where he learned that whenever a re-record was considered in order to save money “it was ultimately rejected by either the company who wanted to use the song, or the creative department.”
He adds: “When you re-record, do you ever capture that same atmosphere? Do you have the same band, the same studio? What is it you’re trying to do — say to your fans, ‘Don’t listen to the music you already love’? I don’t know fans like that. . . . If you could show me [one artist for whom] it’s worked out well, I’d say it’s a great idea and everyone should do it; I just haven’t seen any evidence of that.”
Justin Kalifowitz, founder and CEO, Downtown Music Holdings
Downtown Music Holdings is the owner of digital distribution platform CD Baby, as well as one of the biggest independent music publishers in the world, representing Grammy-winning songwriters including Jason Isbell, Ryan Tedder (Adele, Beyoncé) and Jimmy Napes (Sam Smith, Stormzy).
Music publishers are in the business of songs, rather than recordings; by and large, the more recordings an artist wants to make, the better for the world of music publishing.
Discussing Swift’s situation in relation to the history of re-records, Kalifowitz says, “Consider the fact that any single master recording is just one possible interpretation of a song copyright, open for endless reinvention.
“Artists re-recording songs for different labels is a practice that’s decades old. Take Frank Sinatra, who recorded different arrangements of Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate On You” for Columbia in 1947, Capitol in 1960, and finally, for a label he founded, Reprise, in 1967.
“In fact, it was the Reprise version appearing on the groundbreaking bossa nova collaboration Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim that had, arguably, the greatest impact: the album was nominated for a Grammy.”
When asked if he believes Swift can make a success of re-recording her classic hits, Kalifowitz replies, “Of course. And considering the strength of Taylor’s songwriting, the options are endless.
“Provided she’s honoring the terms of her recording agreements, how or if she chooses to revisit songs from her catalog is entirely her call.”
Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for “Rolling Stone.”