“I don’t know what else to do,” declared Taylor Swift in a lengthy Twitter post last week. “I just want to be able to perform my own music.”
The star was distressed and upset. She wanted to play a medley of her hits at Sunday’s American Music Awards but her old record label had forbidden it.
Or so she claimed. The label hit back with a statement of its own, saying it hadn’t tried to stop the show and that Swift’s narrative “does not exist”.
Insults were traded, politicians weighed in and, eventually, a settlement was reached.
Big Machine Records issued a statement on Monday night saying it had agreed “to grant all licences of their artists’ performances” for “the upcoming American Music Awards”.
It didn’t mention Swift by name but the implication was clear: Her performance could go ahead.
But the second half of the statement was the really interesting part.
“It should be noted,” said the label, “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.”
In other words, Swift never needed permission to play hits like Shake It Off, Love Story or I Knew You Were Trouble at the AMAs. What she couldn’t do was put them online afterwards.
And that matters.
Last year, 6.5 million viewers tuned in watch the AMAs on television, down from 9.15 million a year earlier, but clips from the show went viral online. Cardi B’s carnivalesque performance of I Like It has racked up 28m views on YouTube alone, for example.
But there’s a difference between playing We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together in concert and making that performance available permanently online.
If Swift plays one of her old hits in a club or at a festival, or even sitting on a park bench, that counts as a public performance and cannot be restricted by a record label.
But if the performance is recorded and distributed for a streaming service, DVD or live album, it needs approval.
“Is it standard? Absolutely,” Jason Boyarski an attorney for the Prince Estate told Billboard magazine. “It’s to prevent the artist from taking the exact same song, recording it again and delivering it to another label.”
A bit of crucial background to this story: Swift’s dispute with Big Machine initially arose in June this year, when the label was bought by Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande’s manager Scooter Braun for $300 million.
Swift made no secret of her dismay. One of Braun’s on-and-off clients is Kanye West, who has tormented Swift for more than a decade, interrupting her at award shows, disparaging her in his songs and putting a waxwork of her naked body into a music video.
As the deal was announced, Swift issued an impassioned statement in which she described feeling “sad and grossed out” by Braun taking control of her back catalogue, including every album she released up to 2017’s Reputation.
She called the agreement “my worst case scenario” and a massive betrayal; but later announced plans to re-record all of her old music to undercut the value of the master tapes held by Braun and his investment company Ithaca Holdings.
Speaking to Good Morning America over the summer, she revealed the process would begin next year.
“My contract says that starting November 2020, I can record albums one through five all over again,” she said.
“I think it’s important for artists to own their work,” she continued. “I’m gonna be busy, I’m very excited.”
Coincidentally, she played Shake It Off during the same TV appearance, apparently without any restrictions from Big Machine.
Swift wouldn’t be the first artist to regain control over their back catalogue by recording “forgeries” of their biggest hits: TLC, Prince and Def Leppard all used the tactic to regain control of their music.
“Now, if anyone wants to license any of those songs, they can come to us, instead of going somewhere else,” TLC’s Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas told the BBC last week.
Swift’s plans apparently spurred the latest controversy. Making her AMA performances available on demand would classify them as “new recordings”, putting her in breach of contract.
But Big Machine’s original stance was weirdly counter-productive: If millions of people see Swift play on Sunday, the logical consequence is that they’ll go out and stream her back catalogue, boosting the label’s profits. The decision to halt the performance seems misguided at best; vindictive at worst.
It’s an ugly story, and one that’s as old as the music industry itself: A young artist signs a restrictive contract at the start of their career, and only becomes aware of the consequences when it’s too late.
In this case, Swift was able to mobilise her fans, who paid to erect #IStandWithTaylor billboards outside Big Machine’s offices in Nashville; and the media, who covered the fall-out in blow-by-blow detail, until her she got the outcome she wanted (although a planned Netflix documentary is still in dispute).
As an added bonus, a lot more people now know that Swift is performing at the American Music Awards this weekend, where she is due to receive the Artist Of The Decade award.
As Van Morrison once put it: “Music is spiritual. The music business is not.”