Explaining the Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun Feud
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.
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.”
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 who currently sits on the board of Big Machine, was 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.