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Rage Against the Big Machine: What’s Driving the Taylor Swift Showdown

taylor swift, scott borchetta and scooter
Rex/Shutterstock

The latest Taylor Swift-Scooter Braun-Scott Borchetta kerfuffle involves the sort of music business minutiae that doesn’t commonly interest the general public — in fact, it’s probably safe to say that untold thousands if not millions of people are suddenly familiar with the concept of re-recording old masters. But in blasting Braun on social media and bringing the matter into the open, Swift has deftly reduced a very complex legal matter into a simple issue: her right to own and control her music.

Swift said that Big Machine threatened to block her from performing her songs from the label’s catalog on the American Music Awards, and from using them in a forthcoming Netflix documentary, and Big Machine contends the opposite — that “since Taylor’s decision to leave Big Machine last fall, we have continued to honor all of her requests to license her catalog,” though it is unspecific to the American Music Awards or the doc. In the case of the latter, it stands to reason that original master recordings would be needed if she wanted to play portions of music from her first six albums.

As for the AMAs, Big Machine could conceivably make the case that such performances would be re-recordings — even on a live television show — after which a blizzard of legal documents would inevitably ensue, and the matter would almost definitely not be resolved in time for the AMAs later this month. Curiously, Swift’s lawyer is Don Passman, author of the well-regarded book, “All You Need to Know About the Music Business,” and it is his chapter on re-records that was used to evaluate the AMAs, according to an insider with knowledge of the negotiations. In the book, Passman mainly implores the reader to get a clear understanding from mutual parties about exactly what the parameters are, which is what triggered the legal question of whether such a performance, or a taped west coast broadcast of it, constitutes a re-record.

But aside from the legalities, Swift has been able to portray the situation as one of her as an artist who was betrayed by Borchetta, a mentor who nurtured her career for many years, by selling her creations to someone she accuses of “bullying” her. With that in mind, isn’t Swift’s beef more with Borchetta, the architect of her previous contracts, than with Braun? Whatever money is owed to Big Machine certainly came from a balance sheet that lived long before Braun’s arrival. Yes, he bought the company — with the help of private equity fund Carlyle, a minority stakeholder in Big Machine Label Group — but friends say he still speaks of his fandom for Swift and her music. The two only met a handful of times, and hadn’t seen each other in over three years. A common Braun refrain, according to insiders: “I barely know the girl.”

Still, Swift is conveying a powerful image that is clearly mobilizing her formidable fan base, to the extent that Big Machine’s statement of Friday morning excoriated her for placing the company’s employees in danger. And she is able to strengthen that image by depicting herself, not inaccurately, as a champion for artists and creators who for decades have been taken advantage of by draconian corporate contracts. The extent of her power in that area was made clear in 2015, when she was able to very publicly persuade Apple Music to reverse its policy of not paying royalties on music played by trial subscribers — in a day.

Many businesspeople may argue, as Braun and Borchetta have all along, that Swift had the opportunity to purchase her catalog from Big Machine — or the company itself — but she declined the terms that were offered and Braun simply won the negotiation, fair and square. She has gone into great detail about the unfair proposed deal terms — she claims they offered her the rights to one past album for each new one she delivered — Braun and Borchetta have largely denied those claims, and the situation devolved into the sort of “she said-they said” standoff that has marked this battle since it burst into the open on June 30, when news of the $300 million Big Machine sale was announced.

But there’s little question that Swift is winning the battle for public opinion here, and part of her strategy may be to mobilize her fans, other artists, and anyone she can into browbeating Braun and Borchetta so much that they simply give up and say “Just give her what she wants” — which may include many things, but is unlikely to include the asset she covets most: ownership of her masters. Only the U.S. government is willing to part with $300 million that cavalierly.

In a statement issued on Friday afternoon, the Music Artists Coalition commented that it “supports the rights of all artists to control their music.” The advocacy group continued: “Taylor Swift should be allowed to perform her songs where she wants and when she wants. And she should be allowed to use her music to tell her story through her documentary.  For a label to take positions contrary to that would be unprecedented.  We applaud Taylor for reminding all artists to be aware of their rights and to stand up for themselves.”

In their comments to the press, Big Machine’s statement read at times aggressive and condescending, which seems almost to be the exact opposite response one would counsel when facing the wrath of one of the world’s most powerful women. “You’re always gonna lose if you go after an artist,” says one industry veteran. “No doubt there are three sides to this story, but whenever you hold something over an artist’s head it’s bad for business.”