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Why Taylor Swift Is Calling The Sale Of Her Old Music Label Her Worst Case Scenario


When musicians sign with record labels, they usually sign away ownership of the music they create. That's true for Taylor Swift. She signed her first record contract with Big Machine Label Group when she was 15. She stayed with Big Machine for more than a decade, creating six platinum albums and winning 10 Grammys.

Now she's with Universal Music Group. And her old label just got sold to a new owner, meaning her master recordings now have a new owner, too. In a blog post earlier this week, she called the sale her, quote, "worst case scenario."

Here to unpack this music news is Jem Aswad, senior music editor for Variety. Welcome to the program.

JEM ASWAD: Thank you.

CORNISH: So we're going to get to the business side of this in a moment, but first, let's talk about the person who bought her old label, Scooter Braun, because they have a little bit of history, right?

ASWAD: They do. It's quite a personal story, actually. Scooter Braun manages, most prominently, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Kanye West. Now, he kind of insinuated himself into this really kind of ugly public feud between Kanye and Kim Kardashian on one side and Taylor on the other. And she takes things like that personally. So the fact that Scooter, who has insinuated himself into a couple of, you know, Instagram photos with Kanye and all that and very clearly is in his camp - the fact that he now controls her recorded legacy is abhorrent to her.

CORNISH: So essentially, her master recordings now belong to someone she doesn't trust, possibly may not like. What does this mean in practice? - because she still gets royalties from the use of those songs, right?

ASWAD: What it means in practice is probably not very much unless someone were to get very spiteful about it. That seems extremely unlikely under these circumstances because, you know, neither of them wants to hurt their own incomes or their own reputations. But you know, it's pretty nasty right now.

CORNISH: The previous owner of Big Machine Label Group says that he gave Taylor Swift the option of buying back her master recordings. Is that true, and does she have any legal recourse here?

ASWAD: To answer the second question first, she has zero recourse. She's out of contract. She had the opportunity to do a new contract with Big Machine that she apparently found unacceptable. She would get the rights to one past album every time she turned in a new album after signing a new deal with Big Machine.

Scott Borchetta, the owner of Big Machine - or excuse me, former owner of Big Machine, posted very selective excerpts from a deal memo that said she would get the rights to all of her material once she signed the deal. Now, do we know what else was in that deal? No, we don't. So I don't think either side is necessarily lying, but neither is telling the whole story, clearly, and they may be talking about different points of the negotiating process.

CORNISH: People pay very close attention to what Taylor Swift does in the music industry on the business side because she's known for taking public stands. Can you talk about what's meaningful about this moment?

ASWAD: What's interesting here is what she's shooting for, what her ultimate goal is, and I presume it's to come to a negotiation that gives her more control over that back catalog than she already has. The issue here is, artists should own their work, OK? And that's where you see Halsey and Sky Ferreira coming in and chiming in and tons of fans saying, yes, yes, that's the way it should be.

She has used her clout on at least two occasions to make big moves for artists at large, right? In 2015, when Apple Music was new, they were not paying royalties on the trial subscription for the streaming service. She publicly shamed them on Father's Day, and by the end of the day, Apple had agreed to do it. So that's one example.

Another example - and this is a little more complicated - the major labels all owned equity in Spotify. A big issue there is, when Spotify went public and the labels got dozens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in profit from it, did they share that with their artists? And she made a deal point in her deal with Universal that they would share those proceeds with all artists. She did not have to do that.

So that's a kind of all-for-one move that she has made in the past. Maybe that's what she's ginning up now.

CORNISH: That's Jem Aswad, a senior music editor at Variety. Thank you for explaining it to us.

ASWAD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.