Conventional wisdom in the music business is that Taylor Swift’s quest to re-record her Big Machine releases — announced last week, following a war of words over Scooter Braun‘s acquisition of the label — is at least partly about generating attention for her new album. I’m sure that Swift is thrilled to be getting all of this attention just when Lover comes out. But the minute she went on Good Morning America and announced her plans, complete with a November 2020 start date, this became about something more. Now she either needs to follow through with an arduous re-recording process or find a way to save face.
The assumption that this is all about media attention is understandable, if only because Swift has been so disciplined throughout her career. Feuds may show up in her songs — the entire narrative surrounding reputation was driven by them. But this may be the rare time that they’re actually driving her business moves.
When Swift was 17, just two singles into her career, I watched her play the Billboard cafeteria for a handful of jaded journalists who had no idea what she would go on to accomplish. She played the room like it was Madison Square Garden. Years later, as editorial director, I presented Swift with Billboard’s 2011 Woman of the Year honor. I felt then, and for many years, that as a young woman, she was often underestimated on the business front in an industry that often involves rooms full of men.
Artistically, Swift has every right to re-record her songs — probably the legal right, too, although that’s more complicated. Swift’s recording contract seems to include provisions that let her re-record songs after a certain amount of time, although she can’t use the original production or artwork, according to several executives. She can begin that process in 2020. The industry standard is two years between releases, so it could be more than a decade before her later albums come out again.
This could be more complicated than it seems, though. Let’s set aside the real questions of how many people will be excited about the year 2032 re-recorded version of “Look What You Made Me Do” and the undistinguished history of re-recordings in general. (Remember the version of “1999” Prince recorded to spite Warner Music? Me neither.) It could be difficult, and expensive, for Swift to work with the same producers — many of whom also work with Braun in various ways — to re-record her old songs. But the biggest obstacle to successful re-recordings could be the specter of 31-year-old Swift, trying to sing the songs she wrote as a freshman in high school. Just try to imagine Swift, now successful and worldly, credibly singing “Our Song,” about swinging porch doors and puppy love and God, with that adorable country twang she carefully euthanized four albums ago?
There’s also the matter of Republic Records and Universal Music Group — the same two companies that just gave Swift a boatload of dollars for a new recording contract — that she was happy enough to talk about on Good Morning America. Re-recording her old albums could undercut the value of their assets, too — and the optics of her announcement aren’t great, with Tencent negotiating to buy 10 percent of the company. Would she really risk alienating her powerful new partners over what is a relatively small amount of money compared to what she already earns from new music, these contested songs, and her tours?
Maybe this is a ploy for leverage. She said she was “going to” release the re-records, which leaves open the possibility of negotiations. But for what? Artists usually want to control their catalogs because they fear schlocky reissues and best-of collections or unsuitable license deals. But the first isn’t much of a concern in the streaming age and the second isn’t relevant because Braun doesn’t own Swift’s publishing. And why would Braun pay so much for a collection of recordings, only to diminish their value? It’s also hard to believe she just wants more money — getting a few more points doesn’t seem worth the risk.
So why is Swift doing this? She wants the narrative to be that she’s a victim reclaiming her rights — and championing for other artists in doing so. But this does a disservice to the artists who have already blazed these trails. Artists have more leverage than ever, and they can leverage the followings they’ve built online into better deals with labels, or go their own way. Swift didn’t do that — she chose to rely on Big Machine’s capital and expertise. The company took a significant risk on her, and made substantial investments of time and money. Artists can own their own work, but if and when they choose to sign deals with record labels and publishers, those companies deserve a chance to reap the rewards of their risky investments.
And what, exactly, is Taylor a victim of? According to emails and texts that Big Machine released — which Swift and her team have yet to directly address — as well as her own comments, she seemed at peace with leaving Big Machine. Right up until the moment Braun bought it.
All of this leaves the possibility that this is simply personal. Swift has an unfriendly history with Justin Bieber. Maybe it’s hard to conceive how angry she is at Kanye West — perhaps because his wife Kim Kardashian West released recordings that showed Swift may not have been entirely truthful. Swift knows Braun wasn’t managing West then — but she omitted that detail in her June 30 Tumblr post on the matter.
Before Swift went after Braun on Tumblr, he had a great reputation for managing challenging artists, organizing inspiring benefit concerts and receiving awards for his charitable work. He bought a music company that was for sale, in good faith. And now, because Taylor has a large megaphone, the narrative for her tens — hundreds? — of millions of social media followers is that he’s a bad guy? Some of the biggest deals in music business history have hinged on hubris. But if that’s what it is, just say that and stop positioning Braun as a force against feminism or artist empowerment.
All of this drama distracts from what seems increasingly clear: Swift wasn’t kidding when she sang in “End Game” that she remembers where all the hatchets are buried. If Swift does actually believe that she’s fighting for artist rights, she should recognize that her particular case isn’t a great example of an artist who’s gotten a raw deal. That may not win cheers in Central Park, or on Twitter. But it would be more credible if she just called this what it actually seems to be: a vendetta.
Bill Werde is the director of the Bandier undergraduate music industry program and the graduate Audio Arts program at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. He is also the former editorial director of Billboard. Reach him on Twitter at @bwerde.