A cloud of controversy looms over the 2019 American Music Awards. Taylor Swift announced that she’s engaged in a tug of war with Big Machine Label Group’s Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun, who acquired the label earlier this year in a $300 million deal. Braun’s acquisition means that he owns her music, which she’s decided to re-record, but she was initially blocked from performing her own songs at the AMAs—where she’s slated to be honored as Artist Of the Decade. The ongoing scrum has thrown the future of both her planned re-recordings of her early hits and an upcoming documentary into question, and Swift took to social media to make her fans aware of what is going on.
“I feel very strongly that sharing what is happening to me could change the awareness level for other artists and potentially help them avoid a similar fate,” Swift wrote. “The message being sent to me is very clear. Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you’ll be punished.”
“This is WRONG,” she added. “Neither of these men had a hand in the writing of those songs. They did nothing to create the relationship I have with my fans. So this is where I’m asking for your help.”
Swift’s battle has echoes of what major (and not-so-major) artists have had to endure for decades. It’s a damning indictment of the music industry as a whole that so many of its biggest acts have had so many highly-publicized battles with gatekeepers, label bigwigs, managers and money men over who controls and profits off of their music.
Little Richard sued Specialty Records in 1984 for $112 million for royalties he’d never been paid for his 1950s hits. “It’s been a long time, and I’m not the only person owed money like that,” Richard told the Washington Post at the time. “A lot of black people have been exploited—white people too, but more black people in the entertainment world as far as record royalties. Esther Phillips and Jackie Wilson and Joe Tex and Big Mama Thornton—some of those people couldn’t be buried, they didn’t have no money, couldn’t even be buried in a $200 casket and they’ve sold millions of dollars worth of records and didn’t get no money.”
Sam Cooke famously started his own publishing company and record label, named Tracey Ltd., after Cooke’s daughter, with the help of Cooke’s manager, Allen Klein. Klein handled negotiations between Cooke and his label RCA and got Cooke a new record deal with RCA, but upon the launch of Tracey, Klein became controlling stakeholder in the label Cooke ran, and after Cooke’s murder in 1964, Klein assumed control of Cooke’s catalog. But Klein’s maneuvering to fashion Cooke’s record deal made him a star among music managers, and he would be famously hired by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles by the end of the 1960s to help oversee their careers. The Beatles would fall out with the manager amidst their famous breakup, but The Stones would sign a deal with Klein that inadvertently gave him control of their catalog. As such, Klein’s ABKCO owns the rights to all of the Stones’ music released prior to the founding of Rolling Stones Records—that is, everything they recorded prior to 1971.
The Beatles themselves famously don’t own their own songs. The Lennon-McCartney catalog was owned by music publisher Dick James in the 1960s, who sold them to Sir Lew Grade and his company, ATV. After negotiations (quarterbacked by Klein) for John Lennon and Paul McCartney to repurchase their Beatles’ classics broke down in 1969, the songs became the sole property of ATV—which would subsequently be purchased by Michael Jackson in 1984.
Famed Boston R&B band New Edition has become known for how badly they had to fight to get away from horrible contracts throughout their heyday. Signing to a production deal with tiny Jump ‘n Shoot, the quintet learned that label owned their music through a deal with MCA. In 1984, the members of the group would each take out a loan to buy out their contract with Jump ‘n Shoot, a move that would keep them indebted to MCA for the better part of 15 years.
Prince famously went to battle against his label Warner Brothers in 1993 over control of his music. With his label stifling the prolific artist’s output, and also owning the rights to his catalog, Prince wanted out. He famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol to work around recording under a brand Warner Bros. owned, and scrawled “SLAVE” on his face as a public display of disgust at what he was going through. “He really wanted to release the music in a way that was inconsistent with the contract,” Gary Stiffelman, Prince's attorney from 1988 to 1994, recalled in 2016. “He wanted to put out an album whenever the urge struck him, and it could be a three-song album or a 70-song album.”
“The music, for me, doesn’t come on a schedule,” Prince told The New York Times in 1996. “The main idea is not supposed to be, ‘How many different ways can we sell it?’ That’s so far away from the true spirit of what music is.”
Taylor Swift’s fight for ownership and control of her music reminds everyone that this industry is capable of crippling even the biggest stars when it comes to who makes money and who has final say over the popular songs that we hear. If these megastars and legends have had to wrestle with the machinations of the music business, it’s obvious that lesser-knowns and up-and-comers are likely in far worse situations. Even in an age when the entrepreneurial and enterprising pop star is a mainstay, these wars still have to be won. For the record, the Big Machine Label Group responded to Swift’s post about their situation.
“At no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the AMAs or block her Netflix special,” read a statement. “In fact, we do not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere. Since Taylor’s decision to leave Big Machine last fall, we have continued to honor all of her requests to license her catalog to third parties as she promotes her current record in which we do not financially participate.”
Swift’s fans inundated Scooter Braun’s offices with calls, and Braun has reportedly attempted to reach the pop superstar, to no avail.
The back-and-forth likely won’t end anytime soon, as will the business of stars being hamstrung by contracts. As the AMAs look to become an unforeseen battleground for artists’ rights, and as the industry scrambles for more inventive ways to make money off of a handful of peoples’ talents, things will continue to move as they currently move. The music business is a business that is often rife with exploitation, and in 1996, Prince summed things up as succinctly as anyone ever has with a sentiment that crackles with relevance almost a decade-and-a-half later:
“If you don’t own your masters, the masters own you.”