The issue with Taylor Swift not being allowed to play any of the songs from her past discography from over the last decade at the American Music Awards next week when she will be honored as the Artist of the Decade may seem like a silly spat to some. Certain elements in the media, and millions of individuals (predominantly men) angrily chastise her and those standing up for her with comments like “But she sold the rights!” “They’re not her songs anymore!” and similar logical, rational, legal and legitimate reasons. They are right (to a degree – I’ll get into that). But that doesn’t make the situation right. Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta could just as easily say: “Cool, Taylor, you earned this award. Your talent created these songs. It’s your night. Get on that stage and have the best time celebrating your legacy, talent, and success.” It would cost them nothing. Instead, they have reacted with pettiness and are being punitive. They’re bullies acting like bullies. And while within their legal rights, this doesn’t make their actions morally or ethically acceptable.
- Taylor Swift attends the iHeart Radio Music Awards in Los Angeles in March 2019. Editorial credit: Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com
But this is just a symptom of the issue that Taylor has brought to the world’s attention and has been fighting and challenging ever since her former record label, Big Machine, and all of her music was bought by Scooter Braun (apparently with funding from the Carlyle Group – do a little Google search on that benevolent organization). The issue is ownership of music rights, and how, as music has become more of an industry than an art form; more of a commodity or product than an artistic piece; so lecherous opportunists have taken control of the industry and structured it in a way that enables them to exploit desperate young talent.
But… But The Contract!
The most common defense of Scott and Scooter is that 15-year old Taylor (and her parents) signed the contracts that essentially ceded her future music rights to Big Machine. Yes. She did. They did. And that was a mistake that only came to fruition earlier this year. Certain people criticise Taylor’s view that she was wronged by saying “What did you expect?” Well, a young naive, 15-year old girl who was playing to crowds of 20 people probably expected the kind, energetic music producer with a brand new label and the promises of fame and fortune to change their lives, and he did. I have sat in countless pitches and I understand salespeople and the way they use their words to manipulate their prospective clients into signing up. Many are honest and treat the deals as a partnership. Others are ruthless and unethical at best, conmen at worst. And some of the good ones become ruthless and unethical as they get wealthier and more powerful.
Taylor and her parents bought into Scott and his promises, and it worked out amazingly for all of them. Would Scott and Big Machine have become who/what they are without Taylor? Highly unlikely. Would Taylor have become Taylor without Scott and Big Machine? Probably. In fact, quite probably given her talent. Would she find herself in the same predicament today – owning none of her music and being denied the right to play the songs she has written and recorded over the past thirteen years as she is honored as Artist of the Decade? YES, ALMOST DEFINITELY.
It’s About So Much More Than What’s On Paper
And this is the issue at hand. This is what Taylor is fighting. And because it threatens the established kabal in the music industry, key people are coming out and using the usual sexist and gas-lighting slurs and attacks to deflect from the issue at hand. By attacking Taylor’s character and calling her over-dramatic, vengeful, emotional, irrational and more; and by falling back on legal arguments of “She signed the contracts” or “The rights aren’t hers – and she agreed to that when she first signed”; the agents of the industry are simply deflecting from the true issue at hand.
And that issue is that music execs are able to take advantage of desperate, ambitious, hungry and talented young artists, by promising them fame and fortune, but at an unpalatable cost – signing over the rights of all of their work in perpetuity. And of course, in those long, long contracts, those clauses are invariably buried somewhere like Section 14, point 7.3(b). And certainly, it is not overtly pointed out and explained by the label… It would be like an art gallery owner saying to a young Pablo Picasso – “Yes, I will put on your first exhibition, and I will fund all of your future exhibitions. I will make sure millions of people see your artwork and marvel at your talent. I will even buy you your canvases and paints! Just sign this contract and I will represent you and make you rich and famous!” But there, in the contract, somewhere buried in Section 14, is a clause that says: In exchange for services rendered, I will cede ownership of every painting I produce from this day forward in perpetuity to seniõr Gallery Owner.
Ok, not a perfect example with many tenuous connections, but I hope it lands the point.
The Industry vs Taylor Swift
The issue is that we live in a world where pop music is churned out as a commodity by people with average talent. They can sing – to a degree – but are highly marketable. So the labels create a brand for these people whose future would probably be flipping burgers or bartending in a club; get songs written for them; record, overproduce, autotune and release these songs. Through their networks, they get the songs played ad nauseum across radio stations until the general public like them and buy them. And then people buy the merch, and attend the concerts, and follow the celebs on social media, attracting endorsements and more money. The artists get their cut and many become staggeringly wealthy, but they don’t own their songs. Most don’t care, because, “Hey, I’m in my private jet and not flipping burgers, and I didn’t write the songs anyway. I just sung them a few times in the recording studio and then toured the planet in luxury.” This is commercial music and how it works. (Yes, yes, I know how hard these stars work, but the point is more about who writes/owns the songs and the trade-off on a life of burger-flipping vs opulence). I’m not dissing people who flip burgers here either. Please.
This is where Taylor differs. She is one of those rare and gifted people who comes along every few years with a remarkable music and songwriting talent, and the ability to play multiple instruments and sing. Her talent is immeasurable and, if anything, finding herself in the pop genre has probably been the worst thing for an artist of her talent. She is at her best standing in front of a mic with her guitar, or sitting at her piano. Had she (or more likely Scott) chosen a different path, she could have become our generation’s Bob Dylan or Elton John. (Personally, I think she still can, given the way her music is evolving towards addressing issues).
Before We Leave Out Sexism…
To make it worse, Taylor is beautiful. Movie star beautiful. Supermodel beautiful. This is her curse. She is a pop producer’s dream because pop stars are infinitely more marketable with much higher earning potential in this era of commercialised music. It allows the label to focus on her beauty and sexuality rather than her talent, songwriting, and music. As a result, her songs have been commercialised, over-produced and commoditised. But when you read her lyrics, you begin to understand the level of genius. Most of her diehard fans are more blown away by her acoustic and cutdown versions than the pop versions played on the radio. Her nuance for inflections in her voice when performing that convey the emotions she was feeling when writing each song. Her use of imagery and symbolism and metaphors. Strip out the pop beats and production, and appreciate true artistry, and you will begin to understand the true Taylor Swift.
What I am trying to say, is that Taylor is a genius, no doubt. But in our misogynistic, sexualised, commercial world, the drop-dead gorgeous, young blonde pop singer can not be that. Geniuses are old men with crazy hair. Geniuses don’t make pop music. Geniuses don’t laugh and smile and say kind things. Geniuses lock themselves in rooms and battle existential angst. So Taylor is dismissed as another dumb blonde who got lucky because some man discovered her and made her career. And now she is throwing a tantrum in her massive mansion because that same man did a deal and sold the music she signed over to him to someone else?! “What a brat!” they cry. “Typical irrational, emotional dramatic woman. You signed the contract, lady… What did you think would happen?!”
Um. No. She didn’t sign the contract. Her 15-year old, hungry, ambitious, starstruck self did… And she signed it with a man promising her the world. A man she thought she could trust. A man who she then made staggeringly wealthy. A man who then, instead of looking back and saying, “Wow, I owe this dynamic woman everything!” said, “Sweet, how can I, within my legal rights, make myself even wealthier, despite the obvious betrayal of the person who made this all possible?” And once that was done, he said, “In what petty ways can I further fuck with this person? Artist of the Decade? And you wanna play the songs you wrote over that decade? Not a fuck! Read the contract…”
And this whole situation has brought to the fore the biggest issue in the music industry: lecherous agents, producers, label owners and more finding talent and taking advantage of their desperation, their naivety, their youth, their lack of business experience, their ambition; and promising them fame and fortune. “Just sign right here.” And the newly-discovered do, because what other options do they have? Back to bartending, or working a cash register, or waiting tables, or laying bricks, all while playing gigs in smelly bars to 27 people who are only there for the happy hour deal…
This is the poison in the industry that Taylor is bringing to the fore, and that she is trying to combat. Not just for herself, but for the entire industry and for all future Taylors, Biebers, Beatles, Iggys, Princes, and more. She is challenging how the labels take advantage of young and desperate artists by getting them to sign deals that cede all rights to the labels, and that, in years to come, will no doubt be regretted by the artist. As 29-year old Taylor does now.
As a society, we are conditioned to blame the victim. “She should have known better. She signed the deal…” And somehow that process overrides the fact that a devious man crafted the deal in such a way and used his position of power to manipulate her into signing it. Somehow, people side with the perpetrator for being clever, for getting one up on someone, for being a smart businessman. Because invariably he’s a man. Taking advantage of a woman. All is right with the universe. Oh, God, and now she is getting shrill and emotional looking for sympathy…
It’s Time For Change
What needs to happen is for a legal precedent to be set to protect all artists – current and future. Prince famously played his gigs with the word SLAVE written on his cheek until Warner gave him his masters. The Beatles similarly never owned the rights to their music and were appalled at the way their music was used commercially over the years… I think that if enough influential artists got together and filed a class-action suit against all the major producers/labels, they could bring about a change that set a precedent to protect future artists by mandating that no recording contract can cede music rights to anyone but the artist in perpetuity. At best it should be treated/structured like a company, where shares in the rights can be allocated, with the artist owning 51% and having first right to purchase the remaining 49% should the label/producer wish to sell their share. Of course, the artist can also sell their 51% at any time, with the label being granted first right to refusal.
A legal precedent like this would protect all future artists while giving them the freedom to sell their music as and when they wish, while still allocating a fair share of ownership to the label for their services and support.
In this instance, sadly, Taylor Swift does not have a legal leg to stand on against Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun. 15-year old Taylor made the mistake of signing the contracts. 15-year old Taylor made the mistake of trusting a man promising her the world. 15-year old Taylor was wide-eyed and excited about her dream future. Now 29-year old Taylor is paying the price.
Perhaps the law and legal precedent should have been in place to protect 15-year old Taylor from 29-year old Taylor’s plight.