Sometime in the new year, Taylor Swift will belt out, “She wears short skirts/ I wear T-shirts/ She’s cheer captain/ And I’m on the bleachers.” She won’t be doing this in front of thousands of adoring fans, though. Instead, she’ll be in a studio with just a few other people, rerecording a song she recorded 11 years ago for her second album.
Swift, like many artists, doesn’t own the master recordings to her older albums. Now, in a bold and unusual move, the pop star said she will rerecord at least five of the six albums she recorded under Big Machine Records, her former label, to create a second set of masters that she’ll have control over.
Swift’s announcement came after Scooter Braun, a music mogul she claims has bullied and manipulated her, purchased Big Machine — and her masters along with it.
So, why doesn’t Swift already own her own music?
When a teenage Swift originally signed with Big Machine, which released her first six records, she signed away the copyright to her master recordings. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary,” said Susan H. Hilderley, music attorney and instructor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, calling it the “kind of terms … you would expect for somebody who was an unknown artist when she signed.”
Regardless, Swift feels cheated, and she believes artists should retain the full rights to their recordings — though she’ll have to wait a spell. Experts said most standard music contracts have a clause disallowing an artist from rerecording their own songs for a set period of time. According to Swift, that period will end next fall for her first five albums.
“My contract says that starting November 2020, so next year, I can record albums one through five all over again. I’m very excited about it,” Swift said Thursday on “Good Morning America.” “I just think that artists deserve to own their work. I just feel very passionately about that.”
How is she able to rerecord her own songs if they’re owned by someone else?
There are two different copyrights in play here: that of the song composition (the musical arrangement and lyrics), and that of the recording itself. And “the copyright for the song is compensated completely separately from the compensation for the song recording,” said David Israelite, president of the National Music Publishers Association. And “because Taylor writes her own songs, she can do this without much trouble. If there was someone else writing her songs, you’d have to go through a different process.”
To better understand, consider one of music’s most famous cover songs: “All Along the Watchtower.”
Bob Dylan wrote and recorded the song. Jimi Hendrix later recorded and released a cover of the song, which gained far more popularity. Both of them have some claim to Hendrix’s version, according to Jason Karlov, a music lawyer who represents Dylan.
“So if you want to put ‘All Along the Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix in your movie, you have to get the permission of the song owner, in this case Bob,” he said. You also have to get permission from “Hendrix, or his estate, or his record company — whoever owns the recording.”
If Swift indeed rerecords these songs, they will function as “covers” of her own music, much like in the Hendrix situation, at which point either she or her new label will own those new recordings.
What does it mean to have two versions of the same songs?
The original masters of Swift’s songs wouldn’t disappear just because she records new versions, so there would essentially be two sets of songs. That could have a few different consequences.
On one hand, Swift’s team should be able to exert some control over her original songs. Remember the Dylan example: A licensee would need to license the song from him (for the song) and the Hendrix estate (for the actual recording). In that scenario, Swift could effectively control which version of the song is licensed, the old or the new.
On the other hand, it could potentially devalue each song by creating inverse bidding wars. If, for example, Toyota wanted to use “Shake It Off” in a commercial and there are two versions of the song, the company might attempt to license both, choosing the cheaper version. “If there are two different versions, a [movie studio] could actually negotiate with both versions over which price they want to pay,” Israelite said. “Whichever one they agree to, that’s the version they’ll use, and that’s the only one that makes any money.”
Is this a common thing for musicians to do?
Swift might become the most high-profile artist to rerecord her own records, but she won’t be the first. At the end of 2018, singer Joanna “JoJo” Levesque released new versions of her first two albums, “JoJo” (2004) and “The High Road” (2006) after a long legal battle with her former label, Blackground Records, which owned the masters of both albums. The label had removed them from streaming services, and JoJo felt they were being held hostage.
“I wanted to see if there was something that could be done to get these first two albums in the hands of my fans,” she wrote of the ordeal in Billboard. “My lawyer said we’d reached the end of the statute of limitations on my rerecord clause, so I was within my rights to ‘cover’ my old songs. It seemed like I was going to have absolutely no chance of seeing eye-to-eye with my former label and getting to an agreement, so my only option was going to be to get into the studio. I had to recreate new masters of these songs. We had to completely redo everything.”
Though such a drastic move remains unusual, Hilderley said it could potentially become more common in the streaming age. “If she does rerecord ‘Shake it Off,’ and someone goes on Spotify to listen to it, they might play the version she rerecorded. And that’s where the money goes,” Hilderley said, pointing out that most fans would be unlikely to go to a record store to purchase a new version of an old album. But “when you’re just talking about songs on a playlist, it’s certainly possible she could rerecord her hits and take away some revenue [from Big Machine].’”
For now, her newest album, “Lover,” will be released on Friday through Universal Music Group, marking her first record unaffiliated with Big Machine.