Taylor Swift Big Machine Records Spat Highlights Copyright in Music

Taylor Swift and her label, Big Machine Records, have been involved in an argument. The spat is highlighting a longstanding issue with copyright.

Over the weekend, a major argument erupted over old Taylor Swift songs. The argument popped up last Friday when Taylor Swift took to social media about an issue she alleges happened. According to Swift’s tweet, the American Music Awards (AMA) wanted to honour Swift in an up and coming show. Swift gladly accepted and said that she’d be performing her music live. Unfortunately, an old record label, Big Machine Records, didn’t want to let her perform her music. In response, Swift said that she would perform a medley of her old music instead. Swift alleged that the label considers the music a re-recording even in that case and barred her from performing her old music.

So, she turned to social media and asked her fan base for help in the matter. Within hours, #IStandWithTaylor began trending on the platform.

By Saturday, Big Machine Records responded to the allegations, saying that they were false. That only seemed to escalate the matter. From The Guardian:

On 15 November, BMLG issued a statement describing Swift’s allegations as being based on “false information” and issued new allegations that Swift “has admitted to contractually owing millions of dollars and multiple assets to our company”.

They said that “progress” had recently been made on the matter of Swift’s alleged debts, to which they had hoped to find a “private and mutually satisfactory solution” until the singer “[enlisted] her fanbase in a calculated manner that greatly affects the safety of our employees and their families”.

Representatives for Swift responded with a statement accusing the label of “trying to deflect and make this about money by saying she owes them”. They claimed that “an independent, professional auditor has determined that Big Machine owes Taylor $7.9m of unpaid royalties over several years.”

The singer’s representatives reiterated Swift’s claims that she had been prevented from performing material from her first six albums, which are the property of BMLG, at the AMAs and in her Netflix documentary, stating that Borchetta had yesterday “flatly denied the request”.

By Sunday, reports surfaced saying that Big Machine would grant Swift permission to perform her old music. From Forbes:

Here’s Big Machine’s full statement:

“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.”

We then checked on the #IStandWithTaylor trend and found posts about how people are taking out billboard advertising in support of Swift. Examples include tweets from Dallas_Dante, and HeyHeather.

A lot of this highlights how much control major record labels have over artists. Some labels are able to shelve music on artists and bar those artists from selling the music. In other instances, labels can take a percentage of royalties, revenue from music sales, and performed music. A great example of that is the notorious 360 “deal”.

Ultimately, it really depends on what kind of deal artists sign when they agree to join a label in the first place that determines what rights the artist has in the first place. Not all record deals are bad, but there are some pretty bad ones out there. Artists, in turn, when they seek deals, some can be quite desperate and will sign anything. Sometimes, artists sign a deal and see a massive influx of cash. For an artist, that sounds like the best thing ever. Unfortunately, those artists sometimes find out that this burst in cash is actually a loan that they eventually have to repay to the label. How they are able to repay can also be affected by the deal they sign.

A major caveat to this story is the fact that Swift has a major platform to voice her opinion. If she feels like she is being ripped off, she has the ability to raise hell over it. Not all artists, however, have that privilege of being in that position. Many can wind up suffering in silence over their situation and they just don’t have that platform to use as leverage.

We have no basis on who is telling the truth in the instance with Swift and the label. So, it’s difficult to really pick a side. Still, it is a good opportunity to be reminded of what some artists do, in fact, go through when they do sign on the dotted line – often a decision they would later regret.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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