After a few months of public détente, a bitter fight between some of the music industry’s most powerful figures was ratcheted up again on Thursday night when Taylor Swift called on her fervent army of fans to express their displeasure with the men she said were controlling her most recognizable music.
In a note posted to Tumblr, and then across the rest of her millions-strong social media channels, Swift said that she was being blocked from performing her old songs at an awards show, as well as from using them in a coming Netflix documentary, by the executives who own the master recordings for her first six multiplatinum albums.
Big Machine Label Group, the Nashville-based home of Swift’s music for more than a decade, said in a statement on Friday that it was shocked by the singer’s claims and that it had “continued to honor all of her requests to license her catalog to third parties as she promotes her current record in which we do not financially participate.”
The move by Swift, one of pop’s biggest and most carefully calibrated stars, yet again brought typically opaque industry negotiations into the open. Her followers promptly made #IStandWithTaylor the top trend on Twitter as some shared what they said was the personal information of her named rivals.
The escalating battle — a sort of chess game of contract maneuvers and public relations — started over the summer, when Swift spoke out against the music manager and entrepreneur Scooter Braun after he announced his company’s purchase of Big Machine.
Braun — who once managed the noted Swift adversary Kanye West — was a bully, the singer said, and in teaming with the Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta, who signed Swift when she was 15, the pair would partially dictate her musical legacy. (Borchetta countered that Swift had been offered a new deal at Big Machine that would have allowed her to eventually own her recordings; Swift instead signed to a new label last year, and stipulated that she will own her masters there.)
On Thursday, Swift called explicitly for her fans to “help” by letting Borchetta and Braun “know how you feel about this,” and by asking her followers to lean on artists managed by Braun, whose roster includes Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. While thousands of Swifties, as her supporters are known, shared messages of solidarity for the singer and even circulated a Change.org petition (“Let Taylor Swift perform/use HER art”), Twitter was also forced to delete multiple posts that it said violated its rules by purporting to share Braun and Borchetta’s phone numbers.
Swift’s call to action did not stop there: She also invoked the private equity firm the Carlyle Group, a major investor in Braun’s company, Ithaca Holdings, that helped to fund the purchase of Big Machine, leading her followers to share information among themselves about the firm. Carlyle did not respond to a request for comment.
In the wake of the sale of the label, and ahead of her most recent album “Lover,” Swift had said publicly that she would rerecord new versions of her old music in a workaround that would allow her to regain some control of the work. The singer said her contract with Big Machine allowed her to remake her first five albums beginning in November 2020.
“Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun have now said that I’m not allowed to perform my old songs on television because they claim that would be rerecording my music before I’m allowed to next year,” Swift wrote in her statement on Thursday.
Swift is scheduled to be named the artist of the decade at the American Music Awards on Nov. 24, with the show having promised “an epic, career-spanning performance.”
It was not immediately clear how Swift’s appearance at the awards would fall under the control of her former label. Typically, the only copyright issues in a live performance would have to do with her songwriting rights, which do not involve Big Machine.
“At no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the A.M.A.s,” the label said. “In fact, we do not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere.”
According to Susan C. Genco, a music industry lawyer and lecturer at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, the fact that TV shows can be replayed by consumers may require Big Machine’s approval of the so-called synchronization rights of Swift’s songs — required whenever music is used on TV or film — but the situation still seemed unusual.
“Technically, it is a rerecord of a composition because the A.M.A.s are recording and being played back by consumers,” Genco said. “But I have never heard of a label claiming a TV performance was a violation of a rerecord.”
The A.M.A.s did not respond to requests for comment.
Record companies generally retain rights to masters, which allow them to sell albums or license songs for commercial use, in exchange for the financial investment they make in an artist’s career. But some stars, at the urging of musicians like Prince and Jay-Z, have used their leverage to gain ownership of their past work or negotiate for such control when signing new contracts.
In her post, Swift also announced for the first time that Netflix “has created a documentary about my life for the past few years,” and said her former label had declined the use of older music or performance footage for the film.
Big Machine denied that it had tried to “block her Netflix special.” Though the full picture of the negotiations was not clear, a representative for Swift provided The New York Times with an email dated Oct. 28 in which an executive from Big Machine said the company “will not agree to issue licenses for existing recordings or waivers of its rerecording restrictions in connection with” the Netflix documentary.
The two sides also invoked a dispute over what they said was millions of dollars, though they disagreed about who was contractually owed.
Swift wrote: “Scott Borchetta told my team that they’ll allow me to use my music only if I do these things: If I agree to not rerecord copycat versions of my songs next year (which is something I’m both legally allowed to do and looking forward to) and also told my team that I need to stop talking about him and Scooter Braun.”
The singer added that she hoped to raise awareness for other artists who did not control their work. “The message being sent to me is very clear,” she wrote. “Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you’ll be punished.”
“I’ve tried to work this out privately through my team but have not been able to resolve anything,” she wrote.
Big Machine said that Swift’s activation of her fan base “greatly affects the safety of our employees and their families,” and addressed the singer directly in a call for further negotiations. “To date, not one of the invitations to speak with us and work through this has been accepted,” the label said. “Rumors fester in the absence of communication. Let’s not have that continue here. We share the collective goal of giving your fans the entertainment they both want and deserve.”
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