Giving fans a nostalgic first glimpse into the rerecorded world of “Fearless,” Taylor Swift released “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” on Feb. 11. As expected, Swift sounds older, as the earnest quality in her voice has been replaced by a strength that shows how much she has changed in a decade.
Swift has explained her decision to rerecord her first six albums many times since the master recordings were sold to notorious music manager and industry powerhouse Scooter Braun in 2019. In a viral Tumblr post, Swift wrote, “ … hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation. You deserve to own the art you make.”
The sentiment is nice, but owning master recordings is less about what an artist deserves and more about what they are able to realistically attain. A master recording is the first, original recording of a song. The owner of a master has substantial control over how the song is used, since all uses must be licensed through the owner. In most cases, record labels own master recordings in exchange for advances, or pre-payments of royalties they expect the artist to earn from their future material.
Young artists normally have a fraction of the bargaining power Swift does, meaning they are even more likely to have to swallow the trade-off of losing control over master recordings in exchange for advances from a label because that may be the only way they can get their career off the ground. Additionally, if they are new to the music business they may not have the legal knowledge or resources to avoid label exploitation, and they may be wooed by large lump sums.
Swift’s manufactured position as an advocate for the “little guy” is weakened by her chosen remedy for the situation. Organizing a full reproduction of the soundscape of a pop song can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars to record, mix and master, meaning the decision to rerecord six albums is a drastic financial initiative — one only an artist of Swift’s size would be able to undertake.
Nonetheless, she doubled down on her commitment to rerecord all six albums, writing “This process has been more fulfilling and emotional than I could’ve imagined and has made me even more determined to rerecord all of my music.”
Swift’s rerecord-or-bust stance seems even more extreme when considering the pandemic-related surge in master sales by artists. Music is now overwhelmingly streamed rather than bought and artists only make between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream on Spotify, meaning touring must make up a large share of an artist’s income. But concerts have been put on hold for a year now, leaving many artists with limited avenues for income. As a result, many struggling artists have been forced to leverage their back catalogs for a quick payout to stay solvent.
Swift is clearly not hurting for money, which makes the stakes feel purely symbolic. Only an artist of Swift’s magnitude and wealth — and there aren’t many — would have the resources to turn her mass rerecording into a statement about artists owning their art. The privilege that makes her uniquely equipped to handle this situation prevents her from being able to relate to the vast majority of artists. Her actions cannot inform any tangible changes to the current artist-label system.
There are no real risks involved for Swift; her safety net is too strong for this move to have truly disastrous consequences for her, the way it could for smaller artists attempting to take ownership of their masters. She may position herself as a martyr for the cause, but she is an unconvincing one.
Even if Swift isn’t providing smaller artists with meaningful tools to prevent themselves from losing control of their masters, she deserves some credit for dragging this issue into the spotlight. Shady business dealings thrive in darkness, and Swift broadcasting her situation has encouraged many music fans to gain a better understanding of the technicalities that govern their favorite artists. An understanding of the label side of things can inform fans about the artists they love, and can contextualize erratic releases, delayed albums or songs used in commercials that do not fit the artist’s brand.
In a perfect world, an artist’s master recordings would belong to them and they would have complete control over their use and their legacy. Swift has done something important by sparking a conversation about artist ownership and abusive label practices.
However, her situation cannot be a moment of reckoning that pushes the industry toward better treatment of musicians because she is so far removed from the average artist. Her position of privilege prevents her from being able to spark widespread change that enables more artists to own their masters; she is simply too wealthy for any other artists to follow in her footsteps, even if she is advocating for something that would be beneficial to them.
If nothing else, at least fans can look forward to the opportunity to tap into their inner childhood Swiftie, belt “Love Story” 13 years later and remember how we forced our sixth grade English teachers to show the music video in class because it referenced “Romeo and Juliet” and was therefore educational. Or was that just me?
Mirabella Miller SC ’23 is TSL’s music columnist and an english major from Portland, Oregon. She shows up to most events drinking a Yerba Mate.