Since 2021, Taylor Swift has been releasing re-recorded versions of her albums. Here's what you need to know about the behind-the-scenes battle that led to this years-long effort:
Why is Taylor Swift re-recording her old songs?
Swift is re-recording her earlier albums because this will allow her to own their masters — that is, the songs' original recordings.
Owning her masters means Swift can control the way those particular versions of the songs are used, like granting permission for the music to appear in advertising. Swift owns the rights to the compositions themselves, however, allowing her to re-record the songs. Without ownership of her masters, though, Swift claimed in 2019 her record label was trying to prevent her from performing a medley of her songs at the American Music Awards or from using her older music in a Netflix documentary.
"The reason I'm re-recording my music next year is because I do want my music to live on," she told Billboard in 2019. "I do want it to be in movies, I do want it to be in commercials. But I only want that if I own it."
Why doesn't Swift own her masters?
The majority of Swift's work was released under a deal she signed with Big Machine Records when she was 15, which gave the record label ownership of her masters.
By 2019, Swift said she "pleaded" with the label to let her buy her masters and was offered a deal where, if she re-signed with Big Machine, she could "'earn' one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in." Swift turned this down, signing a new deal with Republic Records that would allow her to own her masters going forward. This, however, wouldn't apply to her past work. Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta said Swift was given "every chance in the world" to own her masters.
Who is Scooter Braun, and how is he involved?
Music manager Scooter Braun purchased Big Machine in 2019, gaining ownership of Swift's master recordings. Swift expressed dismay over Braun owning her masters, accusing him of "incessant, manipulative bullying." Kanye West was a former client of Braun's, and in 2016, the rapper released a controversial song in which he calls Swift a "b---h" and a music video depicting her naked body.
"Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it," Swift said.
Braun has criticized Swift for "weaponizing a fanbase" against him.
Does Braun still own Swift's masters?
Not as of 2020, when Bruan sold Swift's masters to a private equity firm, Shamrock Holdings.
Swift said she tried to negotiate for the rights to the masters but was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement "stating I would never say another word about Scooter Braun unless it was positive," which she declined to do. She also said she hoped to work with Shamrock Holdings, but the fact that Braun would still profit off her catalog under the new deal was "a non-starter."
At this point, Swift announced she had started re-recording her older music.
How many albums does Swift not own the masters for?
Swift's Big Machine deal covers her first six albums released from 2006 through 2017: Taylor Swift, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, and Reputation. She owns the masters for her three albums released since the Republic Records deal: Lover, Folklore, and Evermore.
In April 2021, Swift released her first re-recorded album, Fearless (Taylor's Version), and the second, Red (Taylor's Version), debuted in November 2021. These albums are effectively covers of the originals, and they fall under her Republic Records deal. This means that while Swift still doesn't own the masters to the original Fearless or Red recordings, she owns the new remade ones. That's why it's the new versions of her songs that have recently appeared in commercials and trailers, most recently for an Amazon show.
Swift has tried to make the release of these re-recorded albums into events on par with the debut of an entirely new album, such as by including previously unreleased or extended songs. The idea is also that re-recording the songs will make the original masters less valuable.
Why is Swift legally allowed to re-record these songs?
Swift's contract with Big Machine gave her the right to re-record her older songs beginning in November 2020. But another key factor is that Swift writes her own songs and owns the publishing rights to them, meaning the rights to actual compositions as opposed to just the recordings. This allows her to "essentially give herself permission" to cover the songs "without having to touch the masters," The New York Times explains. And because she owns the publishing rights, if someone wanted to license Swift's music for a movie or a commercial, she could "deny the request unless they used her re-recorded version," according to The Wall Street Journal.
Do musicians typically own their masters?
Not usually. The deal Swift signed that gave Big Machine control of her masters is "nothing out of the ordinary" in the music industry, and its terms were the kind that "you would expect for somebody who was an unknown artist when she signed," music attorney Susan H. Hilderley told The Washington Post. Indeed, Larry Miller, director of New York University's music business program, explained to The New York Times that when record labels "make investments in unproven talent," the "trade is that, traditionally, the masters stay with the record company."
But Swift is far from the first artist to get into a similar dispute. Prince once battled with Warner Bros. for the same reason and similarly said he would re-record all of his songs, though he was able to gain control of his masters before doing so, The New York Times notes. "If you don't own your masters," Prince told Rolling Stone in 1996, "your master owns you." Swift says she hopes to teach young artists "how to better protect themselves in a negotiation."
How long will this take, and what's next?
Swift has four albums left to re-record — Taylor Swift, Speak Now, 1989, and Reputation — so there's still a ways to go. Fans have theorized 1989 may be next after Swift recently released a re-recorded version of one of that album's songs, "This Love," though others believe Speak Now will be re-recorded first.
But music attorney Rachel Stilwell explained to Rolling Stone that many contracts prohibit re-recordings until "the later of two years following the expiration of the agreement or five years after the commercial release," in which case Swift might not be allowed to re-record the final album she released under Big Machine, Reputation, until November 2022.