On Sunday June 30, 2019, it was announced that Ithaca Holdings, led by Scooter Braun, who manages Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, and others, acquired Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group (BMLG), meaning Scooter now owns Taylor Swift’s back catalogue – every album up to and including reputation.
The industry was aware for a while that Borchetta had been trying to sell Big Machine. The big question was whether or not Taylor would still be a Big Machine artist at the time of the sale. Taylor’s contract with BMLG expired in November – and as I wrote at the time, for months, the music industry was waiting to see if she’d re-sign with Scott Borchetta or if she’d go with a new label. It was no secret at the time that one of the sticking points was ownership of her master recordings, the crown jewel of BMLG’s assets. Three weeks after her BMLG contract lapsed, she announced that she’d signed with Universal and Republic Records and that, as part of the deal, she’d own her masters for all new music going forward. Back then, Universal was still in play to buy BMLG so it was still possible that her new label would fold her old label into their system, making it possible for Taylor, one of their most important artists, if not their most important artist, to take full control of her entire body of work. Everyone fronted like it was an amicable situation on all sides. Until this weekend. Once the news broke that Scooter Braun bought BMLG, Taylor shared her feelings about it on Tumblr. And now everyone is taking sides. Since this happened 48 hours ago, if you are reading this site, probably you are caught up on where certain celebrities are landing, Team Swift or Team Scooter. The latest person to declare for Team Swift is Cher. The latest person to declare for Team Scooter is Sia:
You're a good kind man @scooterbraun I hope this passes quickly.— sia (@Sia) July 2, 2019
I love you keep going.
In case she ends up deleting that tweet, here’s the screenshot:
A few hours later, probably after getting harassed by Taylor’s fans, Sia posted this:
For the swift fans trying to make out that I would ever do blackface please see this video. I was painting myself into the backdrop, it was a pre cursor to the wig... https://t.co/6St0hWl1k1— sia (@Sia) July 2, 2019
And here’s the screenshot for that:
I mention harassment because on Tumblr, Taylor wrote about the “incessant, manipulative bullying” she’s experienced “at [Scooter Braun’s”] hands for years”. But apparently her fans were bullying other people after her post – which is presumably why Scooter’s wife, Yael Cohen, went off on Instagram, showing off her own songwriting abilities. She could be a lyricist with this line:
"Girl, who are you to talk about bullying? The world has watched you collect and drop friends like wilted flowers.”
Yael Cohen is very connected in her own right. So there were noteworthy celebrities who “liked” her post, including Kacey Musgraves (who has since “unliked” the post, but could very well re-“like” it by the end of this sh-t, if there ever is an end), adding yet another dimension to this mess: the original conflict, the side conflicts, and the split in the celebrity ecosystem between two very powerful industry players.
Here’s a great thread that’s been updating with all the alliances – scroll down to see the additions as they’ve been coming in:
Kacey Musgraves, Busy Philipps, Courteney Cox and CL have UNLIKED their support for #ScooterBraun. Brendon Urie is siding with #TaylorSwift. #WeStandWithTaylor #WeStandByTaylor pic.twitter.com/OqeFypiq8r— Courtney Soliday (@CourtneySoliday) July 1, 2019
And if you need overall catching up, Yashar Ali has also been maintaining a long thread watching this gossip asteroid as it’s been picking up debris over the last couple of days:
26. @Sia, the singer and songwriter, has come out in support of Scooter Braun. Sia is one of the most successful and prolific songwriters in the business. She’s written big hits for/with Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears pic.twitter.com/5oXfdEc86i— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) July 2, 2019
Artists fighting labels over their masters has been a longstanding music industry dilemma. Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney famously fell out over The Beatles catalogue. Prince fought publicly over his masters and once said, “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you”. Rihanna and a handful of artists have been able to buy back their masters over the years but, for the most part, the industry still operates by the old model where labels compel artists to sign over the rights to their masters in exchange for the distribution and marketing fees associated with selling the music. Which, if you wanted to argue it, made sense… back then, especially where new artists are concerned, as they didn’t have the resources to promote their work. That’s the label’s rationale for the system. The artists’ counter to that is simple: we made this, it’s ours, it’s wrong that it doesn’t belong to us.
And, certainly, in these times, the traditional model is looking more and more archaic, particularly if you consider all the tools that artists have on their own to build their professional identities. Consider Lil Nas X, who says he spent less than $100 on “Old Town Road”, uploaded it to TikTok, and from there you know the rest. A label had little to do with the success of that record.
Taylor Swift’s deal with Universal/Republic Records, as she said at the time, was a merging of old and new, groundbreaking in that it ensured the label could make a smart investment that did not compromise on the entitlement of the artist. It was a good look for Taylor because she was setting up a new template for a future generation of artists. Excellent work.
This fight with Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun, though – is this excellent work? Does this meet her own “excellent work” standard that she has set in the past?
Most people, I think, are supportive of artists owning their masters. I am in support of Taylor Swift owning her masters. I am particularly in favour of the young woman who has been a leader in the business, one of the most influential women in entertainment, being able to control her art and how it is licensed and commercialised. Because since the very beginning, that power belonged to the few, and those few were always men.
But that’s not what’s up for debate right now. We’re not *just* talking about ownership of masters. We’re also talking about celebrity feuds and old grudges. We’re talking about who’s taking whose side. It’s Avengers: Civil War. Because in publicising her disappointment that she’s not been able to gain control of her work, Taylor didn’t make that the only issue. She related her disappointment to her beef with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, one of the biggest gossip stories of the decade. It’s a beef she has claimed she’s moved past. Her whole sh-t right now, with the imminent release of her new album, Lover, is that she’s all about butterflies and not snakes anymore. So breathing life back into that conflict, connecting Scooter Braun to it, as an explanation for why she’s so upset that he’s the one who now owns her work, only revives the conversation about what part she played in that dispute, which is where Yael Cohen’s line about “friends like wilted flowers” comes in. Taylor Swift knows her way around a dispute. Every month, it seems, the internet is revisiting her disputes.
So instead of having a focused conversation about artist rights and ownership, which is what this really should be about, we are now back in a conversation about what she knew and when she knew. Just like it was with Kim and Kanye and the Day of the Receipts, when she claimed she had no idea about the song and Kim released the recording of the phone call between Taylor and Kanye. Scott Borchetta says he gave Taylor a heads up. Others are pointing out that her father, Scott Swift, is one of the Big Machine shareholders, and that he would have known about the deal with Scooter Braun. Taylor’s reps are claiming that her dad removed himself from those meetings to avoid a conflict of interest. And all of that is happening on top of the debate about whether or not Taylor should have attacked Scooter’s character in the first place when this was about the business of music and artistic claim.
As I have said many times, Business Taylor is my favourite Taylor. I love it when she makes boss moves. I’m not sure this was a boss move. I’m not sure this couldn’t have been done without the accessories. I have no issue with her taking it public. Taylor has made it a part of her brand to advocate for what artists should be entitled to – and releasing an on-the-record statement calling out an industry standard that disempowers artists is not a bad move. Diluting that with petty sh-t, however, is a risky strategy – and we have seen that risk and its consequences play out in real time.
Why not keep her statement to the immediate issue of ownership of her masters? Like this:
“The music came from me. This is my art. I should own it, all of it. This is why I signed with my new label. This has been my priority as I’ve built my career, from a teenager first starting in this business to this point, and after all I’ve learned and the experience I’ve gained, I have made it my goal to defend the creator’s right. With the acquisition of BMLG by Ithaca Holdings and Scooter Braun, I still do not have ownership of my masters for my previous seven albums. It continues to be a profound disappointment to me, as an artist and entrepreneur, even after all I’ve accomplished, that I still do not have complete claim over my work. I will continue to advocate for fair artistic entitlement.”
That would have been enough. And the world would have done the rest. Her fans alone could have done the rest. They would have connected the dots – she KNOWS they could have connected the dots, since she’s always leaving eggs for them to follow all the way to whatever surprise she’s cooked up for them – leaving everyone else to amplify the main issue she’s claiming to be addressing. But the way she’s gone about it, it does the issue, the ownership of masters, a disservice when it’s diluted by pettiness from the past. Because this is not just about her. As she has tried in the past to point out, this is about an archaic industry model that undermines the creative. She’s not the first artist to be vulnerable to it, this is not unique to Taylor Swift – and none of the others, Paul McCartney, Prince, all the boy bands etc, the list is endless, had anything to do with Kim and Kanye and Justin Bieber and Scooter f-cking Braun. You take Kim and Kanye and JB and Scooter out of the equation and you’re still left with the fact that artists are still made to sign contracts that require them to give away the rights to their work and THAT is the thing she has been saying she’s trying to solve. So why even involve them here at all?! Why… give them that power?
Maria texted me about this situation the other day and made the best – and hilarious – point. She wrote, “Taylor has an affliction that even when she’s right, she’s wrong. It’s a classic Real Housewives trait: she takes a good point and makes a bad argument”.
Will she see it this way? Or will she remain self-righteous both about her original (and accurate) position re: her masters and the way she’s gone about making her case?
We are coming up on the 10 year anniversary of one of the most notorious MTV VMAs in history, when Kanye West stormed the stage during Taylor’s acceptance speech, kicking off a decade of drama. At the time, I wrote that Kanye thrived on conflict, that it seemed like he had to keep manufacturing conflict in order to keep creating. Since then, Taylor’s seen her share of conflict – with Kanye and with so many others. Just as she’s about to drop a new album, Lover, where she maintains she’s taken herself out of fight mode and is living in peace mode, we find her back in the battle. The battle SHOULD be over her masters. That is the battle we can all get behind. It is the major battle that could help so many others who do not have her clout. But she’s out here liking posts from fans who are having sidebar conversations about whether or not Justin Bieber cheated on her friend Selena Gomez, seeming to confirm that that is indeed what happened between the two. Is that the right battle to be engaging in right now? Is that the war that needs to be won?