Talk about your blank spaces: Taylor Swift is about to have one in the spot where her label affiliation goes. In less than three months’ time, she’ll be a free agent, as the first anniversary of the release of her sixth album, “Reputation,” marks the official expiration of her obligation to Big Machine Records and its founder/CEO, Scott Borchetta, who signed Swift when she first came to him as a country-pop teenybopper of 15.
Now 28, and among the most successful female artists in modern music history —not to mention a savvy businesswoman in her own right — Swift has already been free to negotiate with rival companies, though she couldn’t sign any new deal before November. Her reps are known to have preliminary discussions with the major label groups, along with talks about returning to Big Machine, the Nashville-based , Universal Music Group-distributed indie that became a powerhouse with Swift as its flagship artist.
She could hardly be in a better position to attract suitors: Swift still sells albums in a post-CD age (prior to the triple platinum “Reputation,” her first five albums were all RIAA-certified for selling between 6 to 10 million copies, a starting streak no other artist can claim). She’s heartily embraced paid streaming, after a standoff in which she was the face of the resistance to free. And Pollstar reports 100 percent of tickets sold in the first 18 cities on her 2018 stadium tour — grossing $5-9 million a night in venues with capacity from 47,000 to 62,000 — providing vindication after some initially suspicious press over the variable pricing model.
But key to the future business of Taylor Swift, Inc. is ownership of her master recordings. Swift will almost certainly keep the rights to her masters in her next deal, but it’s no secret that, like a lot of superstars, she’d like to negotiate to own her previous albums, which currently remain in the hands of Big Machine. Failing to reach a deal to keep her on the label would have no small impact: Big Machine has derived as much 80 percent of its revenue from Swift’s music in recent years, says a person with knowledge of the business. (The label declined comment, as did Swift’s camp.)
Potential auctions like this don’t come up every year, and the numbers could be historic. Several music business insiders note that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Swift could command $20 million per album.
“There’s no precedent to look to regarding the top-selling artist of the digital era becoming a total free agent,” says The Davis Firm’s Doug Davis, one of the music business’ top lawyers. “Taylor Swift is at an extraordinary point in her career where she can write her own ticket in regards to the commercial terms and deal structure. If she is seeking to break financial records and extend with a major, she could have the biggest artist deal of the century so far. If she wants to be creative and choose an alternative structure for capitalization, she could create her own business model. It’s very exciting.”
Variety spoke with high-ranking label insiders and industry experts about how things might shake out for the “Shake It Off” singer, and came up with these four scenarios:
The post-major-label DIY model. Does she even need a “real” record company anymore? “Really, what the labels do anymore is radio and international,” says one former major label chief, “and the rest is all bullshit, if they’re not developing an artist. She might still want the security blanket of a label. But she could do a great distribution deal anywhere, hire a few more people, and pay for some services that the streaming platforms will have soon but don’t have yet.” Breaking this ground might be hard to resist for someone who already handles most of the duties a label would — from A&R to album design to publicity to most of her videos — with her own in-house team.
Signing with a non-Universal major. Any major label group would jump at landing someone who’s inarguably one of the three or four biggest music stars in the world. The complications would only come in as various imprints are considered. A Sony source notes it’d be tricky to sign her to Columbia, where she’d have to share oxygen with a couple of those other biggest heavyweights, Beyoncé and Adele… but she’d be the undisputed champ at any of Sony’s other labels, not to mention over at the Warner Music Group. One high-ranking Sony insider would like to see a deal with his company but believes their chances really depend on what Borchetta is willing to do, saying “it’s a nonstarter for us” if Big Machine decides to give in on the masters.
Leaving Big Machine but staying within the Universal Music ecosystem. Some see this as the likeliest scenario, since there’s been some strain with Big Machine but Universal has more to lose than just bragging rights by not being in the Taylor Swift business anymore. “[Universal Music chairman] Lucian [Grainge] will do everything in his power to make sure she doesn’t go away,” says a label insider. “Bear in mind, UMG is looking to sell 50 percent of the company. If someone offers her $100 million, he’ll go to $120 million.” And the Republic label would be the obvious place to go within UMG, since they’ve had a hugely fruitful relationship ever since she went pop and needed the help of a Top 40 radio promotion department that Big Machine didn’t have. “This is the team partly responsible for making you one of the biggest stars the world,” says a UMG source. “To change that up midstream is a risk.”
Welcome (back) to the Machine. Borchetta has signaled in the past that he’s not inclined to surrender what may be the company’s biggest single asset: Swift’s masters. That there’s apparently no breakthrough in sight on that point suggests neither side wants to give in… which might leave Big Machine in the position of giving up a piece of Swift’s future in order to hold on to a bigger piece of her past. “The onus is on [Borchetta],” says a well-placed source. “Does he want to be in the Taylor Swift business going forward? If he does, he needs to do something.”
How valuable to Big Machine are the masters for Swift’s past albums if they hold onto them? “Streaming catalog is at a peak — a bubble peak perhaps, but nonetheless a peak,” says industry analyst Mark Mulligan. “So any label would perceive retaining ownership of masters of majorly successful albums as a priority.” But licensing synch rights to her older music wouldn’t be possible without Swift signing off on that usage, which would be within her rights as a songwriter, hampering Big Machine’s ability to do much with the music besides stream it.
Will Swift and Borchetta work it out? The odds on that vary depend who you talk to: One label source believes the differences are truly irreconcilable, but another close to both sides says “it’s like family” — strained family — where blood could yet prove thicker than competition.