The spat between Taylor Swift, her former label boss Scott Borchetta, and music mogul Scooter Braun has devolved into a sturm-und-drang public saga. Months after Swift panned Braun’s $300-million takeover of Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group, the singer is saying that the two executives are preventing her from performing her older hits at the American Music Awards — but the validity of both the claim and the alleged action are murky.
On Thursday night, Swift publicly reignited her feud with Borchetta and Braun, who own the masters of her first six albums. The singer claimed she’s “not allowed to perform my old songs on television because they claim that would be re-recording my music before I’m allowed to next year.” But in a statement Friday, Big Machine shot back that “the narrative [Taylor has] created does not exist,” adding that Swift’s allegations are “based on false information” and that the label did not ever tell the singer she couldn’t perform at the AMAs. “All we ask is to have a direct and honest conversation,” the company wrote. “We do not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere.” In true Swift fashion, she responded immediately, via a rep, that Big Machine did deny “the request for […] the American Music Awards.”
At hand are two questions: first, whether or not Big Machine is actually trying to block Swift from performing pre-2019 hits onstage at the awards show on November 24th. (Big Machine’s statement refers to Swift’s performance at the AMAs at large without specifically addressing her Big Machine-owned catalog; Swift’s counter-statement does not explicitly say Big Machine refused to let her perform that catalog at the event.) Secondly: Can Big Machine actually prevent Swift from performing her older songs?
Under the re-record restriction in Swift’s contract, which is boilerplate for major artist contracts, Big Machine is legally allowed to block the performance — but it would be unusual for the label to interpret the clause that way, industry veterans say. “A television broadcast is technically a re-record,” entertainment lawyer John Seay tells Rolling Stone. “However, labels usually don’t care about preventing that type of thing, because a broadcast recording is emphatically not going to compete with the label’s original master. In fact, the broadcast recording is actually likely to boost sales and streams of the label’s original master. You don’t normally see a label try to prevent an artist from, for example, playing [Saturday Night Live], because it’s ultimately good for the label, and is not the type of activity that a re-record restriction is designed to prevent.”
But in the particular case of Swift — who has publicly announced that she wants to re-record her masters to take back those revenue streams — Big Machine might now see an “opportunity to get some leverage” by enforcing the full breadth of the re-record clause, Seay says. The case somewhat evokes a 2016 incident in which Kesha’s label withdrew its approval of her performance at the Billboard Music Awards, but that matter was complicated by Kesha’s then-ongoing legal dispute with producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. Susan C. Genco, a music lawyer and lecturer at UCLA’s law school, told the New York Times Friday that while labels might have a “technical argument” to prevent taped television performance of songs they own, it’s not a position she’s ever witnessed before.
“You don’t normally see a label try to prevent an artist from, for example, playing SNL, because it’s ultimately good for the label, and is not the type of activity that a re-record restriction is designed to prevent.” — John Seay, entertainment lawyer
Outside of their dueling public statements, neither the Borchetta/Braun camp nor Swift’s team has responded to press inquiries about the specifics of the situation. What’s clear is that both parties are using the tussle over the awards-show performance as a launching point for broader accusations of foul play and mistreatment; in an escalation of the claims they lobbied four months ago, Swift and Big Machine are now both saying the other party contractually owes millions of dollars to the other. In her Thursday social media posts, Swift explicitly asked fans and other Braun-managed artists to stand with her in solidarity. The Twitter hashtag #IStandWithTaylor trended all Friday morning, and a Change.org petition to “let Taylor Swift perform HER art” garnered more than 77,000 signatures in less than a day.
Swift said earlier this year that she plans to begin re-recording her first six albums, which span her 2006 eponymous debut to 2017’s Reputation, in November 2020, presumably following the expiration of the re-record clause in her contract with Big Machine.
Additional reporting by Brittany Spanos