This past Friday, pop icon Taylor Swift released an album onto all streaming services titled “Fearless: Taylor’s Version.” After a lengthy and tiring battle with managers and labels, Swift has set off a rippling movement throughout the music industry of owning one’s masters.
“Masters,” which refers to a master recording, is the final recording of a song. If an artist is signed to a major record label, then the executives of that label control all of the shots regarding where the music is distributed and used. Continually, they also collect a large portion of the earnings from each song or album.
Other artists like Taylor Swift have had enough of the greedy nature of these large labels. Her first label that she signed to, Big Machine, was sold in 2019 to Ithaca Holdings, led by none other than Scooter Braun, the manager of some of the world’s biggest artists like Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Kanye West.
In 2019, Swift became upset that her first six studio albums, under the former ownership of Big Machine Records, would now be in the control of Braun, who controls what music from her own catalog that she can perform and use in new projects. This transaction was done without Swift’s knowledge.
With all these emotions in mind, Swift ventured out into relatively uncharted territory in the music industry: re-recording and re-releasing her previous work outside of the clutches of her former label. That way, she “owns her masters” or gains every single penny from her re-recorded workstreams and sales.
Although this drew major controversy, it makes perfect sense for many smaller artists who do not exactly know what they are getting themselves into with a large label contract. Due to this, Swift is urging these artists to release music independently or without a label.
This may be very tough for some artists since most music labels have notoriously grand budgets and can spend ludicrous sums of money on advertising for a new single or album. This presents new artists with a very tough choice; stay bound to a contract for a certain amount of time with the luxury of a large budget, or stick to one’s own budget and make all profits.
Although, as Taylor’s music is now fully re-released by herself, she gains all the profits from streams and sales and can choose to drop music whenever she pleases. Her time with Big Machine included six album releases, all of which Swift plans to re-release: “Taylor Swift,” “Fearless,” “Speak Now,” “Red,” and “1989.” Her “Fearless” album was merely the first step on the long road ahead to freedom from her label.
Other artists like Frank Ocean have found clever ways to dodge their labels, as well. This may include purposefully dropping a quick or lazily-made album in order to satisfy the contract’s requirements. Christopher Edwin Breaux, otherwise known as Frank Ocean, needed to release one more album in order to get out of his contract with Def Jam Recordings. So, he elected to release a seemingly rushed album titled “Endless.”
Only a day later, after his contract with Def Jam Recordings expired, he surprised his fans by releasing his most critically acclaimed album “Blonde” under his own record label called “Boys Don’t Cry.” He successfully found a loophole in the system, which is very similar to what Taylor Swift is in the midst of right now.