On Sunday, June 30, the Wall Street Journal reported that talent manager Scooter Braun had reached a deal in excess of $300 million to purchase Big Machine Records, the label best known for its long-term partnership with Taylor Swift. In the wake of the announcement, Swift posted a lengthy note to Tumblr, voicing her frustration with the deal and calling Braun’s ownership of her master recordings her “worst case scenario.” Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta followed up with a note of his own, claiming that he gave Swift the opportunity to own her masters as part of a potential deal in 2018, and she refused.
The feud has ignited controversy on social media, with artists and executives across the industry taking sides. Here’s everything you need to know.
(This story was originally published on July 1, 2019, and last updated on November 18, 2019)
Who owns Taylor Swift’s music?
In 2005, Taylor Swift signed to Big Machine Records, which has released all of her albums from 2006’s self-titled debut to 2017’s Reputation. Though Swift left the label and signed with Universal Music Group in late 2018, Big Machine still retains the exclusive rights to her entire back catalogue of master recordings.
In Swift’s June 30 Tumblr post, she lamented the terms of that 2005 deal, and she’d “pleaded” with Big Machine for a chance to own her work. “Instead,” she wrote, “I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and ‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in. I walked away because I knew once I signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label, thereby selling me and my future. I had to make the excruciating choice to leave behind my past. Music I wrote on my bedroom floor and videos I dreamed up and paid for from the money I earned playing in bars, then clubs, then arenas, then stadiums.”
Swift is referencing the terms of a potential 2018 deal with Big Machine—a deal that she ultimately chose not to sign, in favor of exploring new options with Universal. Scott Borchetta offers a different take on the 2018 negotiations between Swift and Big Machine in a letter of his own, posted to the label’s website under the title “So, It’s Time For Some Truth…”
Borchetta describes his label’s 2018 offer to Swift as follows, with a direct refutation of the idea that Taylor was asked to “earn” back her albums: “…100% of all Taylor Swift assets were to be transferred to her immediately upon signing the new agreement. We were working together on a new type of deal for our new streaming world that was not necessarily tied to ‘albums’ but more of a length of time.”
Borchetta backed up his assertions with an image of what appeared to be legal documentation. On a page dated August 15, 2018, Swift and her management team proposed that upon execution of the potential contract with Big Machine, the label would “assign to [Taylor Swift] all recordings (audio and/or audio-visual), artwork, photographs, and any other materials relating to [Taylor Swift] which [Big Machine] owns or controls.” Big Machine’s response, as recorded on this document, reads “Agreed.”
Still, Borchetta produced no evidence that Big Machine opened an avenue for Swift to own her masters without first signing a new contract with Big Machine. In announcing her partnership with UMG back in November 2018, Swift wrote on Instagram that she’ll own all her new master recordings going forward (Lover era, and beyond).
What’s Swift’s history with Scooter Braun?
In her Tumblr post, Swift said that she “knew once [she] signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label,” but that she had no idea Borchetta might sell to Scooter Braun, with whom Swift claims to have had issues in the past.
“I learned about Scooter Braun’s purchase of my masters as it was announced to the world,” wrote Swift. “All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at his hands for years. Like when Kim Kardashian orchestrated an illegally recorded snippet of a phone call to be leaked and then Scooter got his two clients together to bully me online about it. (See photo) Or when his client, Kanye West, organized a revenge porn music video which strips my body naked. Now Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy. Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”
It’s true that in 2016, Braun was managing Justin Bieber, whose career he has overseen since its inception. The timeline as it pertains to West is somewhat up for debate. It was reported on March 31, 2016, that West had hired Braun as his manager. The video for West’s “Famous”—which features lifelike nude renderings of various celebrities including Swift—was uploaded to YouTube a few months later, on July 1, 2016. The “bullying” photo referenced by Swift—which features Braun, West, and Bieber together with the caption “Taylor swift what up”—was posted by Bieber on Aug. 2, 2016.
Sources from Braun’s camp who spoke to Variety claim that Braun “was not managing West” at the time, and it’s impossible for any outsider to know to what extent that claim is true, or what the definition of “managing” might even mean in this context. It is possible that Braun had agreed to manage West’s career but hadn’t yet started doing so when the “Famous” video was released; it seems likely, at the very least, that West had planned and begun executing the video before Braun became his manager. It’s also possible, of course, that Swift’s telling of the story is true, and Braun was actively managing West’s career prior to the video. Braun’s camp also claims that he was unaware the photo of himself, Bieber, and West would be used by Bieber to tease Swift, and that part is at least probably true.
Swift continues in her Tumblr post: “When I left my masters in Scott’s hands, I made peace with the fact that eventually he would sell them. Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter. Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words ‘Scooter Braun’ escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to. He knew what he was doing; they both did. Controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity. That means forever.”
Borchetta says he didn’t know Swift felt so strongly about Braun, and refutes the claim that the two were in cahoots to “control” her forever. “As to her comments about ‘being in tears or close to it’ anytime my new partner Scooter Braun’s name was brought up, I certainly never experienced that,” wrote Borchetta. “Was I aware of some prior issues between Taylor and Justin Bieber? Yes. But there were also times where Taylor knew that I was close to Scooter and that Scooter was a very good source of information for upcoming album releases, tours, etc, and I’d reach out to him for information on our behalf.”
Though the latter portion of that statement doesn’t really counteract the former (does Borchetta’s being close to Scooter necessarily mean Swift felt OK about him?), Borchetta claims he thought Swift was only taking issue with Bieber.
Did Swift know about the sale?
Swift wrote on Tumblr that she “learned about Scooter Braun’s purchase … as it was announced to the world.” Borchetta’s note purports to provide a detailed timeline of the events leading up to the deal between Big Machine and Braun’s Ithaca Holdings, and claims it’s extremely unlikely that Swift didn’t know about the sale.
Reads Borchetta’s post: “Taylor’s dad, Scott Swift, was a shareholder in Big Machine Records, LLC. We first alerted all of the shareholders on Thursday, June 20th for an official shareholder’s call scheduled for Tuesday, June 25th. On the 6/25 call the shareholders were made aware of the pending deal with Ithaca Holdings and had 3 days to go over all of the details of the proposed transaction. We then had a final call on Friday, June 28th in which the transaction passed with a majority vote and 3 of the 5 shareholders voting ‘yes’ with 92% of the shareholder’s vote. Out of courtesy, I personally texted Taylor at 9:06pm, Saturday, June 29th to inform her prior to the story breaking on the morning of Sunday, June 30th so she could hear it directly from me.” Borchetta went on to write that Frank Bell, a Big Machine shareholder and an executive at the company that manages Taylor Swift, was on that June 25 call, and so had time to warn Swift.
Speaking with Variety, a spokesperson for Swift responded with the following: “Scott Swift is not on the board of directors and has never been. On June 25, there was a shareholder phone call that Scott Swift did not participate in, due to a very strict NDA that bound all shareholders and prohibited any discussion at all without risk of severe penalty. Her dad did not join that call because he did not want to be required to withhold any information from his own daughter. Taylor found out from the news articles when she woke up before seeing any text from Scott Borchetta, and he did not call her in advance.”
What can Swift do?
In an interview with CBS in August, Swift said she’s decided to record new version of her old tracks that she’d own in full. The New York Times’ Joe Coscarelli graciously lays out how that might work in practice, writing that, from a legal perspective, the new versions would essentially be covers. Because Swift is credited as lead writer on all her songs, she would be the one giving herself permission to rerecord them.
Taylor has said that her contract allows her to start the rerecording process for her first five albums in November 2020, though even if she does manage to rerecord every single song in her back catalog (she’s not the only artist who’s thought about pulling this off), Borchetta and Braun will still own the original versions.
Are Braun and Borchetta denying Swift’s requests to license her back catalog?
On November 14, Swift posted a new note to Tumblr, entitled “Don’t know what else to do,” in which she alleged that Borchetta and Braun are attempting to prevent her from performing her old music at the American Music Awards’ upcoming televised ceremony, where she’s due to accept the Artist of the Decade award. (Disclosure: the American Music Awards is owned by dick clark productions, which shares a parent company, MRC, with SPIN.) “Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun have now said that I’m not allowed to perform my old songs on television,” she wrote, “because they claim that would be re-recording my music before I’m allowed to next year.” The question of what constitutes rerecording appears to be somewhat up for debate.
She also wrote that Borchetta and Braun have declined to license her old songs for an upcoming Netflix documentary about her, “even though there is no mention of either of them or Big Machine Records anywhere in the film.” Swift goes on to say that Borchetta and Braun will relent only if she agrees not to rerecord her old songs, and stops talking about them publicly. She reaffirmed that she’s still planning to rerecord her back catalog next year when it becomes legal for her to do so.
In the wake of the Tumblr letter, Big Machine offered the following statement: “At no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the AMAs or block her Netflix special.” Here’s an excerpt from the statement: “The truth is, Taylor has admitted to contractually owing millions of dollars and multiple assets to our company, which is responsible for 120 hardworking employees who helped build her career. We have worked diligently to have a conversation about these matters with Taylor and her team to productively move forward. We started to see progress over the past two weeks and were optimistic as recently as yesterday that this may get resolved. However, despite our persistent efforts to find a private and mutually satisfactory solution, Taylor made a unilateral decision last night to enlist her fanbase in a calculated manner that greatly affects the safety of our employees and their families.”
With language about the “safety” of Big Machine employees, the label is framing Swift’s Tumblr note as an attempt to weaponize her stans. “Please let Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun know how you feel about this,” writes Swift, after explicitly stating that she’s asking readers for their help. An article in The New York Times points out that, after the note went up on Tumblr, Twitter was “forced to delete multiple posts that it said violated its rules by purporting to share Braun and Borchetta’s phone numbers.”
Swift’s publicist Tree Paine has since posted her own statement to Twitter, in which she appears to reproduce a message from Big Machine, complete with timestamp: “The truth is, on October 28, 2019 at 5:17 p.m. the Vice President, Rights Management and Business Affairs from Big Machine Label Group sent Taylor Swift’s team the following: ‘Please be advised that BMLG will not agree to issue licenses for existing recordings or waivers of its re-recording restrictions in connection with these two projects: The Netflix documentary and The Alibaba ‘Double Eleven’ event.'” She also wrote that Borchetta “flatly denied the request for both American Music Awards and Netflix,” and that “Big Machine owes Taylor Swift $7.9 million dollars [sic] of unpaid royalties over several years.”
On November 18, Billboard reported that they’d received a statement from Big Machine and dick clark productions saying Swift has been cleared to perform her songs at the American Music Awards: “The Big Machine Label Group and Dick Clark Productions announce that they have come to terms on a licensing agreement that approves their artists’ performances to stream post show and for re-broadcast on mutually approved platforms. This includes the upcoming American Music Awards performances.” Without mentioning Swift by name, the statement continues, “It should be noted that recording artists do not need label approval for live performances on television or any other live media. Record label approval is only needed for contracted artists’ audio and visual recordings and in determining how those works are distributed.”
However, dick clark productions denies having written the statement. “At no time did Dick Clark Productions agree to, create, authorize or distribute a statement in partnership with Big Machine Label Group regarding Taylor Swift’s performance at the 2019 American Music Awards,” said the company in a follow-up to Billboard. “Any final agreement on this matter needs to be made directly with Taylor Swift’s management team. We have no further comment.”
Billboard also published a new statement from Big Machine, with updated language: “The Big Machine Label Group informed dick clark productions today that they have agreed to grant all licenses of their artists’ performances to stream post show and for re-broadcast on mutually approved platforms. It should be noted that recording artists do not need label approval for live performances on television or any other live media. Record label approval is only needed for contracted artists’ audio and visual recordings and in determining how those works are distributed.”
Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, former Oprah Winfrey Network president Erik Logan, and Scooter’s wife Yael Cohen Braun have stepped up to defend the merger and to question Swift’s intentions. Bieber posted the following note, in which he takes full blame for the “bullying” photo and asks Swift to not “hate” on Braun.
Lovato said of Braun, “I have dealt with bad people in the industry and Scooter is not one of them. He’s a good man.”
Braun has managed Bieber since the beginning of his career, and was integral to his rise in 2008 and 2009. And Lovato announced this past May that she’d hired Braun as her manager.
Erik Logan, who stepped down as OWN president last year and currently sits on the board of Big Machine, voiced his firm support for Scott Borchetta in an open letter to Swift. “… As someone who has been by Scott’s side from before you were born, I’m not going to sit on the sidelines and allow you to re-write history and bend the truth to justify your lack of understanding of a business deal,” he wrote, before labeling Swift “the real bully.” “Your [sic] lying. Stop it. Take responsibility for your own actions.”
Braun’s wife, Yael, meanwhile, posted a lengthy Notes app note to Instagram defending her husband and similarly rebutting the basis of Swift’s argument. The post was liked by celebs including Kacey Musgraves.
Sky Ferreira wrote a lengthy statement about her own difficulties with the music industry, which comments obliquely on Swift’s situation. Per Ferreira’s Instagram story: “Don’t allow yourself to be bled dry. Don’t let anyone convince you that you aren’t supposed to own or control your own work or not get paid properly. You don’t have to give the blind eye because others choose to. Respect yourself.”
While the note doesn’t explicitly mention Taylor Swift or Ithaca Holdings’ purchase of Big Machine, it’s a clear message of support for all artists who feel exploited by their labels. Halsey also came out in support of Swift, though without really dipping into the particular details of this issue.
In a tweet, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came to Swift’s defense: “Private equity groups’ predatory practices actively hurt millions of Americans. Their leveraged buyouts have destroyed the lives of retail workers across the country, scrapping 1+ million jobs. Now they’re holding @taylorswift13’s own music hostage. They need to be reigned in.”
Elizabeth Warren took a similar tack: “Unfortunately, @TaylorSwift13 is one of many whose work has been threatened by a private equity firm. They’re gobbling up more and more of our economy, costing jobs and crushing entire industries. It’s time to rein in private equity firms—and I’ve got a plan for that.”