What the Release of “Fearless – Taylor’s Version” Means for the Music Industry

Opinions and input from Ryan Griffin, SAE Institute Nashville Director of Education, about the latest news in music.

Perhaps one of the hottest things to happen last week in the music business was Taylor Swift’s release of “Fearless – Taylor’s Version.” We let our judgment, the album, and the concept sink in over the weekend before sharing our thoughts on this important milestone. The odd part is after all that, this whole idea seems completely awesome and amazingly horrible at the same time.

Don’t let all the rock and metal bands I work with know this, but I think Taylor Swift is a pretty exceptional artist. Ok, it’s out, there goes my cred. Moving on. By the time I was coming up on my own in the music industry, record labels were starting to decline in popularity but still held a pretty tight grip as gatekeepers to the mainstream music industry. I love the fact that Swift has made a power play that completely takes the label out of the money picture. At the same time, this whole thing smashes what I hold dear about making music—creating something original and beautiful for the sake of art, not profits.

What you should know about copyrights in recorded music

Let’s start with a very basic explanation about copyright(s) involved in recorded music. In a work of recorded music there are two distinct copyrights. We often call these “circle-P” and “circle-R” rights when we’re teaching this to students. The song or musical composition itself has a copyright that is owned by the songwriter(s) and sometimes publishers. The actual sound recording is a completely separate copyright. In traditional label contracts the label pays for the recordings and therefore is the “owner” of the underlying copyright in the sound recording. The songwriter(s) maintain the copyright on the song itself. Therefore it is possible for an artist that doesn’t write their own songs to not flat out “own” a copyright on anything on their record. Usually this is not the case, but it’s helpful to understand this when considering each of these distinct copyrights.

How it got to this point—why Taylor Swift decided to re-record

Scooter Braun’s company (yes, Justin Bieber’s manager), Ithaca Holdings, purchased the Big Machine label group, and all their recorded music assets (including Swift’s first six albums), in 2019. About 17 months later, Braun sold the master rights to Swift’s albums, allegedly to an investment fund. Master recordings and the inherent copyright attached to them are intellectual property and it is completely legal and normal to sell them as assets by the person/people/companies that own them. So, let’s break this down:

Swift signs to Big Machine and they own the rights to her master sound recordings
Later, they are sold to Scooter Braun as part of the company buyout
Finally, they are sold to an investment firm all without having to pay Swift anything.

Now, she still earns the royalties for performances and the rights she has as a songwriter, BUT her master recordings were essentially passed around and she could do nothing about it, despite being willing to purchase the rights herself at the time. However, most recording contracts have a term that prohibits an artist from re-recording their songs for a certain period of time, for Swift, that limit expired in 2020. With this in mind, she stated publicly that she was going to re-record Fearless, in turn undermining the value and wealth the master recordings can generate for other people.

Why the re-recording of “Fearless – Taylor’s Version” is a monumental moment for the industry

Essentially Taylor Swift is “sticking it to the man” on the scale of billions of dollars. I love this part of the “Taylor’s Version” concept. She has cut out the “middleman” by owning the rights as a songwriter and now owning the master sound recording rights to the re-recorded version. As her fans dive into the new version of the album, the old version doesn’t get played as much, and generates less money for the current owners. In the digital based economy we are in, this opens doors for artists to own their rights and get their music directly to their fans. It doesn’t cost millions of dollars or require a massive marketing team to put your music in the ears of potential fans. This evens the playing field.

There is another side to this, however. The entire goal of a record label is to exploit master recordings and generate revenue from them. Swift was signed to a record deal, the label put up the money and essentially invested in her. They assumed all the financial risks and it paid off, in this case. Those of us in the industry all have friends or clients that get dropped from labels because they didn’t pay off. The label spent money on an asset, the sound recording, and then spent more money to market it and it generated value. In turn, in Big Machine’s case, they sold them to another company. Depending on what side on the conference table you sit on, you might favor the artist’s or record company’s approach.

Why this might not be “good news” for the industry

As awesome as I think sticking it to investment firms is, there is a dark side to this. While not every artist has the platform and ability to re-record or re-release their albums successfully, Swift has opened the eyes of many other artists (and labels) to the possibility of this action. While we hope this will result in more equitable contract terms between labels and artists, the flip side of the coin is a trend that we worry takes the magic out of the music we love most.

Music, and capturing music, is a very special thing to most of us reading this. No one walks into a recording studio as a pure business decision. Music is art, art is powerful, music should have some danger to it. Capturing lightning in a jar for that one magical take is what makes the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. The silence in a control room when the last note is still ringing but no one wants to say a word because what just happened was a once in a lifetime moment that will never happen again. We were there in a moment, everyone involved was a part of something special; it’s not meant to happen again.

In the case of a re-recorded album, it seems some of this magic is missing. It doesn’t have the anxiety or angst that the original had. It sounds like a matured artist singing old songs. Teenagers latched on to the original Fearless because it felt like they did. Now? It’s cleaned up, modernized and “improved” for a modern era. Of course, this isn’t all-bad, but it removes an essential element from music that makes us tick. I worry about the precedent this sets for future albums that may be re-recorded and altered forever.

I wish that I could wrap this up neatly and tie a bow on it, but it’s too new to see where this trend will take us. If you own a big record label this might scare you. If you’re a big fan of Swift’s music this excites you. What is more important moving forward? Which is better for the music business? Which is better for music as art? What do we risk in the process?