Since 2021, Taylor Swift has been taking fans on a stroll down memory lane by re-releasing a so-called "Taylor's Version" of all of her past albums. The reason involves a contentious feud with a music manager, but it's more broadly about the singer's desire to have control over her catalog of songs.
After a long wait, Swift recently revealed when the latest "Taylor's Version" will debut, though she still has a long way to go before the re-recording effort is complete.
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 Braun 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 four albums released since the Republic Records deal: Lover, Folklore, Evermore, and Midnights.
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 of 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 appeared in commercials and trailers over the past year or so, including 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 revealed during a Nashville concert in May 2023 that a re-recording of Speak Now, which includes tracks like "Dear John" and "Back to December," is up next. Speak Now (Taylor's Version) is set to be released on July 7, 2023.
"I first made Speak Now, completely self-written, between the ages of 18 and 20," Swift tweeted. "The songs that came from this time in my life were marked by their brutal honesty, unfiltered diaristic confessions and wild wistfulness. I love this album because it tells a tale of growing up, flailing, flying and crashing … and living to speak about it." Speak Now (Taylor's Version) will also include six previously unreleased songs "from the vault."
This means Swift still has three albums left to record: Taylor Swift, 1989, and Reputation. Given there was a gap of more than a year-and-a-half between the re-recordings of Red and Speak Now, it seems she's taking her time, and the re-recording effort likely won't be completed until at least 2024. But Swift has also continued making new albums, as she dropped Midnights, which consisted entirely of new material, in between the new versions of Red and Speak Now.
One potential reason for extending the process somewhat is that when Swift began re-recording her work, one of the albums was seemingly off limits to re-record. 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," suggesting she might not have been allowed to record the final album she released under Big Machine, Reputation, until November 2022. Now, however, they are seemingly all fair game.
Because she isn't going in order, it's anyone's guess what re-recording will follow Speak Now. Fans have theorized 1989 (Taylor's Version) could be coming, though, given she has already released re-recordings of that album's tracks "Wildest Dreams" and "This Love." She also re-recorded "Bad Blood" from 1989 for use in the 2022 film DC League of Super-Pets. There was speculation that Swift might hold off on re-recording 1989 until the end of a copyright dispute over the song "Shake It Off," but that was resolved in December 2022.
As is always the case with Swift, keep an eye out for Easter eggs about the next re-recording in the coming months. She previously dropped a major clue that Speak Now (Taylor's Version) was coming in her music video for "Bejeweled" when she entered an elevator and pressed a purple button for the third floor, hinting at a re-release of her third album where she wears a purple dress on the cover. Mastermind is right.
Update May 9, 2023: This article has been updated to reflect new developments