Ed. note: Please welcome Michelle Banayan to the pages of Above the Law, where she’ll be writing about media and entertainment law.
Taylor Swift has been dominating the market with her wildly successful “Eras Tour,” the “Eras Tour” movie, and “Taylor’s Version” — releases of re-recordings of her prior albums. On October 27, Swift released “1989 (Taylor’s Version),” which sent her to the top of the charts (again). Meanwhile, major record companies are focusing their efforts on making sure artists cannot put out re-recordings of their catalogs ever again. So, what is “Taylor’s Version,” why has it been so successful, and why are major record labels committed to preventing artists from pulling this move in the future?
What Is ‘Taylor’s Version’?
Typically, record companies own the master recordings of the music they produce. In standard recording contracts, artists often sign away the rights to their master recordings to the record label. This was the case for Swift when, in 2019, her original record label, Big Machine Label Group, was sold to Scooter Braun’s company, Ithaca Holdings. Braun eventually sold the rights to the masters to a private equity company for $300 million. By that point, Swift had already recorded six albums with Big Machine: “Taylor Swift” (2006), “Fearless” (2008), “Speak Now” (2010), “Red” (2012), “1989” (2014) and “Reputation” (2017). Ultimately, the rights to Swift’s master recordings from these albums went to Braun, whom she had previously accused of “incessant, manipulative bullying.”
Displeased with the sale and Braun’s ownership of the masters, Swift decided to re-record her earlier works from her first six albums to regain control over the master recordings. Listeners can determine which songs and albums comprise the re-records because they say “(Taylor’s Version).” Swift encouraged her loyal fanbase, radio programmers, playlist curators, and the like to exclusively play Taylor’s Version of songs from her previous albums, rather than the originals that she does not own.
Swift has since released “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” “Red (Taylor’s Version),” “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” and, most recently, “1989 (Taylor’s Version).” To put the success of her latest re-recorded album — and Swift’s strategy — into perspective, the October 27 release of “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” topped the Billboard 200 with 1.653 million equivalent album units. “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” performed even better in its first week than the original “1989” album recorded with Big Machine in 2014 did — when it boasted 1.297 million equivalent album units in its first week. Indeed, this is Swift’s best first week tally for an album so far. Spotify shared that “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” was the platform’s most-streamed album in a single day in 2023, and that Swift broke the record for the artist with the most streams in a single day in Spotify’s history.
Why Are Record Labels Concerned?
In re-recording her albums, Swift has accomplished a level of success that has record label executives doing all they can to make sure no artist pulls this strategy in the future.
One primary concern that Swift’s strategy raises for labels is that of revenue control. Owning master recordings provides a record label with significant control and potential revenue streams. For instance, it allows a record label to control how the music is exploited commercially, including licensing the music for use in films, TV shows, commercials, video games and more. Additionally, when labels own master recordings, they can control and profit from revenue streams surrounding special editions, reissues, or anniversary editions of songs and albums. Now that Swift has released a “Taylor’s Version” of most of her albums, she has full control over how those re-recordings will be licensed and reissued … and, ultimately, she profits financially. While the original master recordings are still out there for commercial use, parties sympathetic to Swift’s efforts may opt to use Taylor’s Version instead of the original recordings.
“It’s not as simple as calling Spotify or Apple or iHeart and saying, ‘Play our re-records.’ You have to have enormous power to do that — which Taylor Swift certainly does,” Bill Diggins, longtime manager of TLC, said in an interview with Billboard. In 2005, TLC entered into a separation agreement with its label, Sony Music, and thereafter re-recorded its 1990s hits, “Creep,” “Waterfalls,” and “No Scrubs.” “The minute you do that, the record label that owns the copyright is going to put pressure on the streaming service to play their version, because they want to collect the royalties.”
Another concern is that of streaming and sales revenue. Labels make money from the ongoing sales and streaming of music. Owning the master recordings ensures that the label continues to receive a share of the revenue generated from these sources over the long term. By re-recording her albums and encouraging her loyal and massive fanbase to consume “Taylor’s Version” instead of the originals, Swift is depriving those who own her original master recordings (either now or in the future) from profiting off streaming and sales. Instead, as the owner of her master recordings, she will receive those profits. This is a result record labels understandably want to prevent.
Additionally, re-recording albums hurts catalog value. A strong catalog of master recordings is a valuable asset for a record label. A catalog’s value may appreciate over time, particularly if an artist becomes more successful, and the record label that owns the artist’s master recordings would directly benefit from that. In some cases, record labels may sell or license their catalog of master recordings to other companies, which would also generate a significant amount of money for the label. That is indeed what initially happened when Big Machine sold Swift’s catalog to Braun. However, by re-recording her albums, Swift is ensuring her music will not be exploited for financial profit without her say. And because the Taylor Swift market is now saturated with multiple versions of her songs, the value of her original catalog is ultimately less exclusive and worth less to its current owner. On top of that, now that popularity of the “Taylor’s Version” albums has surpassed that of the originals, the value of the original catalog is likely to be worth even less.
What Are Labels Doing About This?
The success of “Taylor’s Version” albums reflects not only the commercial viability of re-recorded material but also the significance of artist autonomy and the strong connection between Swift and her fan base.
According to a piece published by Billboard, the major record labels of Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group have recently implemented new restrictions in their recording contracts with new signees. Some of these contracts demand artists wait 10, 15, or even 30 years to re-record their catalog after departing the respective labels. Whether these new terms were developed directly in response to Swift’s re-recordings or were in the works beforehand is unclear. Either way, they signify a new trend in the industry that arose in the wake of Swift’s strategic success and is bound to impact artists.
These restrictions are unprecedented in the industry and are incredibly label-friendly. For context, the prior longstanding standard for recording contracts had artists waiting for the latter of two periods to expire before they could release re-recorded versions of their catalog: (1) Five to seven years from the release date of the original, or (2) two years after the recording contract expired. However, in the post-“Taylor’s Version” era, this deal term is another point of negotiation, much to the disappointment of musician-side music attorneys. Though recording contracts have gotten increasingly artist-friendly over the years, this is one point the labels will not budge on.
“Re-recording restrictions have gotten tougher in recent years for reasons you can probably figure out,” music attorney Don Passman said in an interview with Billboard. “[The labels] don’t want you to duplicate your recordings — like ever — and then they will limit the other types of recordings you can do. So, it’s gotten tougher as the labels get more concerned about artists re-recording their catalog.”
When considering the impact of the re-recording restrictions, it should be noted that re-recording a catalog was not a move pioneered by Swift … and therefore not only the Swifts of the industry will be affected. For instance, Def Leppard re-recorded their classic hits in 2012 amid a dispute over compensation with their record label Universal Music Group. Frank Sinatra did the same in 2013 when he started his own label, Reprise Records. Going back to the 1960s, musicians have had various reasons to re-record their songs and albums, often because of disputes such as Swift’s, and ultimately to have control over their work and the resulting profits.
One thing is for sure, though: while Taylor Swift was not the first to use this strategy to assert her artistic independence, the labels are committed to making sure she is the last.
Michelle Banayan is an attorney with a passion for media and entertainment and a background in journalism. A graduate of UCLA School of Law, Michelle brings a unique understanding of the legal nuances that shape the industry. Now, as a columnist for Above The Law, she aims to shed light on the ever-evolving legal challenges and triumphs in the media and entertainment sector. Outside of being a lawyer, Michelle enjoys photography, matcha lattes, and long walks on the beach with her Goldendoodle, Simba.