Art can be understood as an extension of personhood — to deny someone the rights to their art is to actively detract from their sense of self.
In the past four years, Taylor Swift has been extremely vocal regarding the anguish of losing ownership of the masters of her first six albums, amplifying the discussion around intellectual property rights and the exploitation of artists in the entertainment industry.
Swift signed a contract in 2005 with her now-former record label, Big Machine Records, which effectively stripped her rights to all of the recordings she made while signed with the company. After her time with Big Machine Records concluded in 2018, her musical catalog spanning the past thirteen years was sold for $300 million. She did not profit at all from this hefty sale and does not financially benefit from the streaming of any of these recordings, despite the fact that she created them.
Swift alleged that she attempted to obtain the rights to her masters but was denied the opportunity by Scott Borchetta, the CEO of Big Machine Records. To add insult to injury, Borchetta opted to sell her masters to music executive Scooter Braun, a man Swift views as antagonistic. In an Instagram post in 2019, Swift stated, “I learned about Scooter Braun’s purchase of my masters as it was announced to the world. All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at his hands for years.” Swift claimed that she was not even able to negotiate with Braun about buying her masters, as she was pressured to “sign an iron-clad NDA” — precluding her from making any disparaging remarks about Braun — before she could even place a bid on them.
Swift has been deeply affected by her inability to own her masters — her grief continues to manifest in her recent music. In 2020’s “My Tears Ricochet,” she hauntingly belts, “And when you can’t sleep at night/ You hear my stolen lullabies.” This theme resurfaces in 2022’s Karma, where she laments, “Spiderboy, king of thieves/ Weave your little webs of opacity/ My pennies made your crown.”
It is very apparent that being obstructed from owning one’s creative work is a traumatic infringement for artists. Unfortunately, record labels and other huge companies in the entertainment industry have long been able to exploit artists by capitalizing on their desperation. In 2005, Swift was a sixteen-year-old girl anxious for exposure and opportunities. Placing the blame on a naive and hopeful teenager for signing a life-changing contract is a misguided attribution of fault — the discussion should be centered around dismantling a system where corporations routinely deny artists their rights to their intellectual property.
Taylor Swift is just one example; corporations in the entertainment industry regularly leech off the talents of artists. Take Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of the immensely successful series “Squid Game,” who revealed in 2021 that he is “not that rich.” His contract did not include a performance clause, meaning that Netflix does not have to take the success of the series into account when giving him his cut of the profit. This seems especially nefarious, as Netflix has estimated the show’s value at nearly $900 million — a series that Hwang described as “physically, mentally, and emotionally draining” to create. Corporations will provide as little recompense as possible — opting to maximize their profit rather than caring about the individuals who create the products.
Swift has decided to address this problem by re-recording her lost albums, which is legal because she still owns the copyrights to her songs. This process entails creating near-identical duplicates of her past albums, which she refers to as “Taylor’s Version.” This enables listeners to enjoy her past music in a way that Swift can rightfully reap benefits from. Swift adds additional incentive for listeners to stream her re-recordings, including new music videos and previously unreleased songs from each era — dubbed “from the vault.” It is not a perfect system, as some fans will negatively compare and contrast the duplicates with Swift’s original versions. However, it’s still a big, reclamatory move that has made waves in the entertainment industry, garnering attention from fellow stars, politicians and fans alike.
She can afford to do this because she has established a huge, loyal following over the years. As one of the biggest names in the music industry, she can do a lot more to advocate for herself than most artists who find themselves in this position. Swift’s outcry should elicit support for her as an individual, but it should also illuminate the exploitative nature of the entertainment industry and inspire consumers to demand regulations.
Swift’s legacy has bolstered other artists to follow in her footsteps — Olivia Rodrigo, Bryan Adams and Ashanti are among many who have cited Swift as the inspiration for their respective fights to own their work. Hopefully, this is a sign of industry tides shifting toward artists’ favor.
In the meantime, look out for “1989 (Taylor’s Version).”