It’s a bit ironic that both Taylor Swift and Kanye West are in public bouts over the ownership of their music. The two famed foes are tied together in part by Scooter Braun. Kanye’s former manager is a shareholder in the company that now owns Taylor’s masters. And Taylor hates that Braun–who she claims bullied her with the Kanye West drama–gets to monetize her career’s work.
Here’s a brief timeline of critical events that have happened with both artists:
- 2005 – Signs six-album deal with Big Machine Records. The label gets ownerships of her masters. In exchange, Taylor gets advance payments and career support.
- 2017 – Fulfills contractual obligation with her sixth album, Reputation. Deal expires 12 months later (Nov 2018). Swift’s forthcoming free agency peaks every major label’s interest. Big Machine wants to resign with Swift, but Swift wants ownership of her masters in return. Swift also fears that Big Machine will sell label (including her masters) to someone else.
- 2018 – Leaves Big Machine. Signs a new deal with Universal and Republic. Swift has licensed her masters to UMG/Republic for a set amount of time, but Swift retains long-term ownership moving forward.
- 2019 – Big Machine sells to Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holding company. The value of Swift catalog is the key force driving the $300 million deal. (In NBA terms, Swift on Big Machine Records was LeBron James on the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers).
- 2003 – Signs 35-year publishing contract with EMI and record deal with Roc-a-Fella
- 2018 – Reports on social media that he was prohibited from purchasing his own publishing
- 2019 – Sues EMI and Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella on claims that contract should have ended because of California’s seven-year rule. EMI objects and the lawsuit ensues.
These situations surfaces a question I often ask: Could the signed megastar have been as successful if they owned the rights to their masters and sound recordings?
Swift was 15 years old when she signed with Big Machine, which had just launched the year before. The “You Belong With Me” singer’s deal with the young label was more of a partnership. The two parties came-of-age together. Taylor might not have had the leverage to keep her masters at 15, but she likely had the leverage years later and could have renegotiated terms. Wendy Day did a great job discussing this point in a recent YouTube video she posted.
Unlike Taylor, Kanye didn’t join a new upstart company. In the early 2000s, Roc-a-Fella Records was a juggernaut. Jay had already released classic albums and cemented himself as one of hip-hop’s top dogs. At the time, Jay was reluctant to sign his producer to a record label contract. But once Ye got signed, he reaped the benefits that came with team Roc-a-Fella. Even though Kanye is immensely talented, his career might not have reached the same heights without the Roc’s backing. It’s quite common for artists without leverage–like West in 2003 or Swift in 2005 — to sign their masters or publishing away to get put on.
But the ‘solution’ isn’t necessarily to go independent. As Troy Carter recently shared in an interview at Midem, “Taylor Swift doesn’t want to be on TuneCore!” The goal is to agree to terms that give both the label and artist something to work with.
The more leverage an artist has, the easier it is to maintain ownership when partnering with distributors and publishers that want a stake in their success. It might have been easier for Taylor to achieve this than Kanye, but the opportunity was still there.