Taylor Swift re-recording her masters
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Why Taylor Swift's Plan to Re-Record Her Old Music Is Actually Going to Work

This isn't just a way for the pop star to get back at Scooter Braun—it's a shrewd power play that could earn her millions.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
December 7, 2020, 6:11pm

After acquiring the rights to Taylor Swift's first six albums in 2019, Scooter Braun recently sold them to a private equity firm called Shamrock Capital, landing a deal that—on top of netting him a reported $300 million—will likely see him continue to profit from Swift's music going forward. In response, the pop star is making good on her threat to re-record her back catalog, allowing her to release new versions of every album she put out on her old label, Big Machine Records. Swift has been publicly discussing that plan for more than a year now, with no music to show for it—but last week, she shared a snippet of her re-recorded version of "Love Story," and promised that the remainder of her re-recordings are coming "soon."

What Swift is doing might seem more like an attempt to win her longstanding battle against Braun than a calculated business move. But according to several industry veterans who spoke with VICE, if Swift pulls this off, she stands to make an unthinkable amount of money—and decimate the value of her old recordings in the process. 

You'd think Swift's contract with Big Machine might prevent her from re-recording her old music, but she can legally do so for two reasons, according to Dina LaPolt, an entertainment attorney who represents Steven Tyler, 21 Savage, and several other high-profile artists. Firstly, while Shamrock Capital owns the master rights to Swift's first six albums—or in other words, the sound recordings on those albums—Swift owns the publishing rights. (Because she wrote her own songs, she retains the rights to the lyrics, melodies, and compositions that comprise them, and she doesn't have to ask permission from or pay anyone to use them how she sees fit.) Secondly, the "re-recording restriction" in her contract with Big Machine—a standard part of any record deal, which long prohibited her from recording new versions of the songs she released through the label—has reportedly expired. When Swift releases new versions of her old songs, she'll own both their master rights and their publishing rights, earning every penny they bring in and securing unilateral control over how they're used. 

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She's almost inevitably going to yield that power to license her music to advertising agencies and film and TV studios, according to Guillermo Page, a former record label executive who's worked for BMG, EMI, Sony, and Universal, and who now teaches in the University of Miami's music business program. To license (or "synchronize") a song, you need permission from the record company who owns it and the songwriter who wrote it. Swift has always said no to licensing offers on the grounds that they would profit Braun—but now that she's cut him out of the equation, she can strike those deals herself, and take home 100 percent of the profits they reap.

"She has all the leverage, and all the control," Page said. "Even if the current owners of the old catalog want to do some type of deal for synchronization, without her approval as a songwriter, they wouldn't be able to do it. By recording the masters herself, it opens the door for her to do those deals directly."

In all likelihood, Swift's collaboration with Match.com, which used her re-recorded version of "Love Story" in its latest ad campaign, wasn't a one-off; it was the first of countless licensing deals Swift is going to make with her re-recorded music. According to LaPolt, Swift will easily be able to convince companies to come to her when they want to license her masters instead of paying Shamrock Capital for them.

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"I have some clients who have re-recorded their big hits," LaPolt said. "We have management companies that are very, very savvy in this area, and they went out to all the music supervisors at all the film and TV companies. These companies all know to come to the [new distributor] and license the re-records, because it'll be a lot cheaper, and the artist wants that."

Ad agencies and film studios interested in Swift's music will want to use her as a one-stop shop: By going to her directly, they can secure a license to both the publishing and master rights to her music in one fell swoop, as opposed to licensing the publishing rights from Swift and the master rights from Shamrock. Additionally, according to Tonya Butler, a former label executive and the current chair of Berklee's music business program, Swift will probably cut her licensees a deal.

"If she knows how much the record companies are charging, she's going to undercut them at every opportunity," Butler said. "Record companies are notoriously much more expensive than the publisher would be. It's much easier—and cheaper—to license from one party that controls both sides."

Butler raised the possibility that Shamrock may try to turn the tables on Swift: Instead of allowing her to undercut them, they could opt to license her songs at cost, making it cheaper to acquire them from the private equity firm. But because Swift controls her publishing rights, she could ostensibly revoke a company's clearance to use her music if they try to work with Shamrock. In the battle over synchronization, Swift seems guaranteed to come out on top. But Butler cautioned that Shamrock may already have a strategy in place for that.

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"Just because we don't know what's up their sleeve doesn't mean that there's nothing there," Butler said. "We've known that she's wanted to re-record since 2019. [If you're Shamrock Capital], you don't spend that kind of money without having some kind of plan."

Swift stands to rake in hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars through licensing deals—but when it comes to streaming revenues, Shamrock may have the upper hand. When the average listener wants to hear a Taylor Swift song, they'll generally opt for the old version as opposed to the new, especially if Swift's re-recordings sound significantly different than her original masters, according to Page. (It's worth noting that Swift recently said her re-recorded music will contain "plenty of surprises.") 

"One of the things that you will find when artists re-record their songs is that they want to change certain things," Page said. "When they do that, they don't realize that they are changing a masterpiece—they're changing a song that is already known in a certain way. The moment you change it, it's not the same song. And that is a risk that she's taking."

Even if Swift tries to replicate her old recordings note for note, she might not be able to do so flawlessly, Page said. She was 16 when her self-titled debut came out; at 30, her voice doesn't sound the same as it did back then. Additionally, producers have changed the way they record music, and the technology they use has evolved. 

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"She can try to drive consumption by letting her fans know that the new versions are there, but that will be applicable for only the most hardcore fans," Page said. "The reality is that she will be competing against herself on all of those platforms. And it will be very difficult, because the other songs are already out there, sitting in thousands and thousands of playlists, on all the different platforms and services."

There's a chance that Swift could try to either sweet-talk or strong-arm DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music into prioritizing her re-recorded music on their platforms. Imagine, for instance, that Swift wants Spotify to remove the original master recording of one of her songs from a popular playlist, and replace it with her re-recorded version. She could threaten to withhold her new recordings from Spotify altogether—along with all of her future releases—if they don't oblige. But according to Butler, a streaming service like Spotify would probably balk at that.

"I cannot see Spotify switching out those songs," Butler said. "Shamrock could sue. If I have a license with you and we both agree that for however many years, you are going to distribute my music on your platform, and then somebody else comes along and you replace my music with theirs, then you have breached your agreement with me. That would be a huge mess."

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Assuming DSPs like Spotify stay out of the fray, the odds are that most listeners will continue to stream Swift's original recordings instead of her new ones. Then again, her fanbase is fiercely loyal; there's a chance her re-recordings wind up dwarfing the old versions. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter: Because she's still entitled to royalty payments on her old recordings, Swift makes money either way. She can't lose.

Considering how foolproof, how lucrative, and how simple Swift's ploy to own her masters seems to be, you have to wonder if other artists might mimic it. So many musicians have spoken out about being infuriated that they don't own their masters, and have fought—almost always unsuccessfully—to reclaim them. If all it takes to win that fight is getting back in the studio and making new versions of their old songs, why can't every artist do it?

The answer, in short: because they're not Taylor Swift.

"You have to have what Taylor Swift has, which is an enormous audience and an enormous brand," Butler said. "It's working for her because she's got all the pieces of the puzzle. If you don't have that social media voice, if you don't have that brand, if you don't have her money, if you don't have all of the things that she has, it may not work for you."

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Butler said she has no doubt that other artists will try to follow in Swift's footsteps, only for many to find something standing in the way. If they didn't write their own songs—or even if they wrote part, but not all of them—they won't have the legal right to re-record them. If they're not wealthy enough, they won't be able to cover the high cost of recording, especially not in a way that produces a carbon copy of their old music. If they haven't cultivated a rabidly devoted fanbase, they won't be able to convince people to stream their re-recordings instead of the original versions. Still, Butler said, many artists are going to try to replicate what Swift is doing—and record labels know it.

"The first thing that's going to happen is label contracts are going to change," Butler said. "They're going to try to set it up to where this cannot happen to this extent."

The way major labels would do that, according to LaPolt, is by making re-recording restrictions more stringent. As it stands, an artist is typically prohibited from re-recording music they make for a label for three to seven years after it's released. Going forward, labels could try to bump up the term of that restriction to 20 or 30 years, if not extend it in perpetuity. It's almost a given that they'll try, LaPolt said. 

"Every time there is an amazing thing that an artist does to get out of their deal, or get their IP back, [record companies] come up with some dastardly, ugly thing to make sure that doesn't happen again," LaPolt said. "I can tell you right now, we would fight tooth and nail against that."

In some ways, what Swift is doing seems like a turning point for the music industry, one that could inspire an untold number of artists to take control of their master rights and irrevocably reshape the way record contracts are written. It's possible that we'll look back on this moment as a major landmark. What's more likely, however, is that it will prove to be nothing more than yet another shrewd move by a pop star who's risen to the top of her field by making so many of them, creating opportunities for herself that almost none of her peers are wealthy, successful, or cunning enough to secure.

"Is this a watershed, where everybody starts doing it—no way," Butler said. "I don't think that the majority of artists will be able to pull it off to the extent that Taylor Swift has. Is this a unicorn? No. But it's a horse with, like, five legs."

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.