In 1965 legendary country music artist Johnny Cash was involved in a very public dispute with his record label, Columbia Records.
The bad blood created between Cash and his label resulted in an abrupt end of the relationship in 1986, when after 26 years Columbia unceremoniously dropped him from its roster.
Singer-songwriter John Fogerty wound up in court after being sued by his record label, Fantasy Records, for alleged plagiarism (otherwise known as copyright infringement).
It all happened over a song that Fogerty, the co-founder and front man of Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), had released as a solo artist. Fantasy Records claimed that the tune was merely a CCR song with a different title.
Prince had a very open feud with his record company, Warner Bros. The musical artist and performer extraordinaire made an appearance in public with the word “slave” written across his face. The entertainment industry dubbed him with the new royal title of “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”
Taylor Swift has had a long public battle with a music executive connected to her career. The country-turned-pop superstar recently made the decision to re-record and re-release her second album. The move was prompted in part by the attenuated dispute.
All of the above artists that have been involved in fights with their respective record companies have something quite interesting in common. They were extremely upset over a fundamental issue, one that carries great weight with human beings across time and around the globe – property rights.
The right to the private ownership of property is a hallmark of civilization.
Just like she famously is able to do with her song lyrics, Swift encapsulated the private property notion in a recent Instagram post.
“Artists should own their own work for so many reasons,” Swift wrote. “But the most screamingly obvious one is that the artist is the only one who really knows that body of work.”
A term that almost always appears in contracts between musicians and record labels is “master recording.” It refers to the complete, original, or official recording of a performance fixed in a tangible medium, from which copies are made.
The ownership of master recordings is at the heart of Swift’s desire to re-record her music.
Back in 2005, 15-year-old Swift signed with an up and coming label, Big Machine Records. The terms of her contract gave the company the rights to her original master recordings.
The Nashville-based independent label signed Swift to the roster shortly after the company had formed. Other artists who also recorded with Big Machine include Rascal Flatts, Florida Georgia Line, and Sugarland.
When Swift’s contract expired in November of 2018, she switched companies and signed with Universal’s Republic Records. However, Big Machine still maintained ownership of the master recordings of Swift’s first six albums.
As her fans already know, Big Machine sold the master recordings to a private equity group that is owned and controlled by a powerful music manager and executive named Scooter Braun.
Swift reacted almost immediately to the purchase by Braun, posting the news to her massive social media following. She alleged repeated bullying by Braun, sounded off bitterly over the fact that her artistic output was controlled by an individual not of her choosing, and called the situation her “worst case scenario.”
In 2019 Braun sold off the rights to the Swift master recordings for a reported $300 million.
Swift had promised that someday she would re-record and re-release her original six albums in order to obtain ownership over her music. In December of 2020, she started to make good on the promise, beginning with her 2008 release “Fearless.”
She gathered the same musicians who had worked on the original album and re-recorded the material a second time. The result, “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” was a re-do of the 2008 album with a bonus of six new songs.
The re-release worked out swimmingly for Swift. Not only does she now own the new re-recorded versions of her songs, but the newly released album hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart, giving her added incentive to continue the re-recording trend.
Swift’s 2021 release of the same music that she had recorded back in 2008 may sound the same. But the ownership and control of her music is as different as it can be.
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