In late 2021, Taylor Swift was making a big deal about re-recording her old albums to regain control over her masters. Unfortunately, her parent label Universal Music Group had also been reworking its contracts to ensure that other artists have a more challenging time doing the same thing. As The Wall Street Journal reported, UMG has been making new agreements with artists “effectively doubling the amount of time that the contracts restrict an artist from re-recording their work.”
Previously, agreements stated that an artist could not re-record their songs until five years after they delivered their last recording under their contract or two years after the contract’s end. New contracts make that period seven and five years, respectively, and instill another seven-year period where the artist cannot re-record more than two songs.
A person with knowledge of the contracts told WSJ that the efforts predated Swift’s recent publicity campaign for her re-recordings and that the amended contracts are meant to reflect the shift that the music industry has gone through due to streaming and the ease of now digitally recording and distributing music outside of the major-label system.
In other words, since it’s easier to record and distribute music without a record label, record labels have begun to make changes to contracts to restrict artists from re-recording already released music without them. And suppose an artist wants to re-record previously released recordings without the record label. In that case, they will wait longer to have the right to make it and profit.
Swift’s experience is an unfortunately familiar example of how the music industry manipulates and profits from its megastars. When young and vulnerable artists are forced to sign away the masters to their music in entry-level contracts, they are kept tethered or tied to harsh and ever-changing management. Maybe it’s time we abolish this practice — both socially and legally — from the music industry.
When artists lose control of their masters, they lose control of their life’s work. In Swift’s case, this meant she was not allowed to perform songs from her first six albums — even though she wrote them — due to her original label fearing it constituted “re-recording” her own music. Swift would have to go on and sign a new deal with Republic Records in order to reclaim her work. Until this happened, though, Swift could not capitalize on the songs that made her famous. Most importantly, she would have to disappoint her fans due to an exploitative legal clause.
T Swift’s re-recording crusade paves the way for artists but threatens major labels “You belong with me”... Taylor Swift to her own music. This weekend, T Swift dropped “Red (Taylor’s Version),” a re-recorded album of her hit 2012 breakup anthems, plus never-released tracks. Some background: Taylor doesn’t own the “masters” (original recordings) from her first six albums. When she was 15, those were signed over to record label Big Machine, later sold to Scooter Braun (Kanye’s ex-manager).
In 2018, Taylor signed a new deal with Universal Music, which gave her ownership of her new masters. But she couldn’t buy back her first six albums.
Taylor apparently has bad blood with Scooter Braun. Even more, she’s passionate about artists owning their music. So she started re-recording.
Last year, private-equity fund Shamrock paid $300M for Taylor’s old tunes, but Braun still got a cut of the deal. Then Taylor announced she would re-record all the albums they’d bought.
So many fans are choosing Taylor’s version over the OGs, which could undercut earnings for Shamrock. Earlier this year, Taylor released a re-recorded version of her album “Fearless.” It’s racked up 3X as many streams as the 2008 original. The “Red” re-recording is also outperforming the original release and was #1 this week on Spotify and Apple.
Taylor is profiting: As the owner, Taylor is scoring lucrative licensing deals for her music (think: movies, ads, TikToks).
She’s also getting paid more streaming $$, which makes up the bulk of revenue for Universal, Warner, and Sony labels. Artists can keep more than 80% of streaming revenue for masters they own, compared to 20% if the label owns them.
Ctrl + Swift: Now Universal, the world’s largest label, is scrambling to protect its rights with other artists who might want to re-record too.
The “T Swift Clause” is a threat to labels… because it lets artists keep more control and more money. That’s why Universal is reportedly doubling the amount of time artists are restricted from re-recording. But as streaming platforms and social apps make it easier for artists to distribute music, leverage is shifting in creators’ favor. As a result, labels including Universal are also making concessions, like increasing royalty payments.
Being in the early stages of their careers, these artists didn’t have much leverage in their negotiations, but therein lies the problem: They shouldn’t need leverage to be respected and treated fairly for legal arrangements.
Perhaps contracts could see artists give more earnings to the record label in the early stages of their career or more extensive buyout clauses for artists looking to leave a specific label.
But the most imperative point is that artists never lose the rights to their own masters. An artist’s creative agency is arguably the most important tool they have to use for their careers, and stripping them of it is unethical at best and wicked at worst. But, wait, what is creative agency or creative control?
Creative control refers to the right of final approval over recording video or other artistic endeavor. Indie labels are more open to granting creative control to artists, that is, giving artists final approval of the choice and sound of the final recordings, as well as the album art and packaging.
Without control of their own music and life’s work, artists run the risk of being pawns in a larger corporate game, which completely strips them of the originality and uniqueness that draws artists to music in the first place.
Labels will look to double the period to restrict re-recording and protect their assets. To be honest, artists that understand the business of owning their masters aren’t going to sign these types of agreements. Instead, record labels will start by making amendments to the agreements of their current roster. Many of these artists won’t have a choice in signing it or face the risk of being dropped or, worse, being shelved.
Newer artists should have an idea of how they wish to handle ownership of their master recordings and the permissions or designations of those works through the contract terms. If they don’t have an understanding of what owning their masters will mean in the future, record labels will convince them that they don’t need to own them. For reasons such as the ease of use in technology for recording and distributing, they should have it for longer to generate revenue and profit from the recordings before re-recording is allowed. Bottom line: Record labels don’t want to be cut out of a big slice of the pie. They want as much of the pie as possible, and having ownership allows them to do that.
One of the concessions I read about that record labels may consider implementing is increased royalty payments. Now, what is a royalty?
The definition of a royalty is a payment made by one party to another that owns a particular asset for the right to ongoing use of that asset.
We'll have to see what happens next with artist following this blueprint as their contract restrictions on re-recording expires. Interviews from Rapper "Cam'ron" and R&B Songstress "Ashanti" (see "Ashanti re-recording her debut album "so I can collect my coins) are admissions of artists already taking full advantage of regaining control of their creations.
What are your thoughts?
What should record labels do to give the master recordings back to the artists? Or better yet, what kind of deal would you sign to get your masters back?