With Taylor Swift's Big Machine Contract Ending, Can the Label That Made Her a Superstar Keep Her?
As the A-list artist becomes a free agent in November, what should she look for in a new deal?
In 2006, when she was 16 years old, Taylor Swift’s self-titled debut came out on Big Machine Label Group, the Nashville-based label that Scott Borchetta had founded the previous year. Swift and Big Machine came of age together: She has sold more than 32 million albums in the U.S. alone since then and BMLG has grown into a powerhouse, with multiple top-selling artists including Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett.
But now, their time together may be drawing to a close. Swift’s most recent album, Reputation, which came out in November 2017, was her last under her current contract with Big Machine and she will be a free agent come November.
Big Machine has been negotiating hard to re-sign Swift for months, multiple sources say, but as of her big Nashville homecoming show at Nissan Stadium Saturday night (Aug. 25), no deal had been reached. While talks with BMLG have not ceased, she is now also talking with other labels to evaluate how much she is worth on the open market as one of the world’s biggest superstars. “Everyone is starting to sniff around,” says a source.
While BMLG can likely match any deal that any other label would offer her financially, at the heart of Swift’s discussions with BMLG are her gaining ownership of her masters from the label, which is the one thing that no other entity can offer her. But turning them over is not an easy decision for Big Machine.
“What’s the value of these masters going to be over the next 30 years? And you have to weigh that against, what is the value of keeping the artist for four or so more albums?” says one source. “You’re weighing out the value of the back catalog versus the value of a few new albums.”
However, the plot thickens in that Borchetta, as recently as 2015, was floating the idea of selling his company, which, three years ago, had an estimated value of between $200 million and $250 million. If he gives the multiple Grammy winner back her masters in order to keep her, the value of his company would likely drastically drop. One source estimates Swift’s masters could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars over their lifetime and simply states that Borchetta cannot return the masters if he ever plans to put BMLG back on the market and receive a significant sum.
Another source likened the situation to when Garth Brooks successfully renegotiated his contract in the early 1990s with Capitol Nashville to regain his masters. At that point, Brooks accounted for as much as 95 percent of Capitol Nashville’s sales. “They gave the store, and everything in the store, away to keep him,” the source says.
While Swift, 28, does not account for that high a percentage of BMLG’s sales and streaming numbers, she is responsible for a tremendous amount of BMLG’s revenue. Year-to-date, her sales and streaming account for 34.6 percent of BMLG’s market share. The overall figure through the years is much higher. (Even last year, it would have been substantially higher since Reputation sold more than 2 million copies in 2017 and generated more than 1 billion on-demand audio streams, according to Nielsen Music.)
Even in a streaming world with diminishing sales, Swift’s sales numbers remain daunting. Reputation sold more than 1 million copies in its first week, making Swift the only act to have four million-selling weeks, with four different albums, since Nielsen began tracking in 1991. Her biggest-selling album in the U.S. is 2008’s Fearless at 7.2 million copies.
Attorneys used to handling superstar deals say that among the points Swift should be negotiating with Universal Music Group-distributed BMLG, in addition to getting back her masters, are switching to a flat distribution rate and receiving an ownership stake in BMLG, as well as her own imprint if she wants it. “At this point she doesn’t need money, she should be looking for ownership,” says one attorney. “It’s the house that Taylor built.”
For someone of Swift’s superstar stature, the royalty rate could be as high as 25 percent to 28 percent, which means BMLG earns up to 75 percent of her sales and streaming revenue. Instead, attorneys say she should push for a deal where BMLG receives a distribution rate of around 10 percent.
Although BMLG handled various functions for Swift in her early career, over the last several years she has brought almost all duties -- including marketing and branding -- in-house. While BMLG may still work any songs to country radio, since 2012’s Red, she has increasingly moved over to pop, with Universal's Republic Records handling promotion to pop outlets. There is nothing in Swift’s current contract that would prevent her from moving to a UMG label.
As of 2015, Borchetta owned 60 percent of BMLG. Swift’s father, who invested in the company at its beginning, still has a minimal investment, but should Swift re-up, her family should aim to increase its ownership portion, attorneys say.
While money may ultimately determine whether Swift stays or goes, there is another factor: emotion. “The explosion of Taylor Swift and Big Machine were simultaneous and they’ve been linked for years,” says one industry executive. “This has been so much more than a major label signing an act and, 13 years later, the deal ends. It’s so much more emotional than that, so much more personal.”
Still, ultimately, Swift has to go where she feels the most fulfilled, both financially and creatively.
“I think she should go where she gets the deal that is most satisfying to her soul,” says a source. “If that’s with Scott Borchetta, great. If it’s someone else, great. When you’re a true creator of the songs and a true entertainer, you’ve got to have some soul satisfaction.”
Representatives for Swift and BMLG declined to comment for this story.