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How Taylor Swift has had to fight for control of her own work

The fact that the most famous, extremely wealthy, straight white woman can’t even retain full control of her material speaks to where power lies, writes Hannah Westwater
Taylor Swift has had to fight to regain control of her music. Image credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Few of us could say we created much of note as teenagers. Art, songs, stories – overly earnest stepping stones on the way to figuring out who we are, at bestCertainly nothing we’d be keen to not just revisit but recreate and release to the masses, frontal lobes fully formed.

That’s not an issue for Taylor Swift, who apparently has time to spare after surprise-releasing two of the most critically acclaimed albums of the past year, Folklore and Evermore.

The world’s biggest pop star, now 31, has pledged to re-record her first six albums right back to her 2006 self-titled debut, released when Swift was 16. 

It’s the result of an ownership dispute, a tangle of multimillion-dollar recording contracts and copyright claims. 

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Swift released that run of albums, up to and including 2017’s shadowy Reputation, under label Big Machine.

That contract ran out in 2019 and she moved label, signing with Universal/Republic (on the condition she would retain the rights to any future recordings). Seven months later, Big Machine Label Group – and all the recordings under its ownership – were bought over by Ithaca Holdings, Scooter Braun’s media company. 

Braun is one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes figures in pop, managing the likes of Justin Bieber and Kanye West, the latter of whom has been part of a well-documented on-off feud with Swift herself. She blames Braun for much of this, and previously accused him of “incessant, manipulative bullying”.

Swift will be relying on the loyalty of her fans, asking them to do what no fanbase has willingly done before.

It meant the master recordings of almost all of Swift’s work were under the control of, to be frank, one of her least favourite men in the world. The star retained some veto power over how her masters were used but still feared her work being exploited.

That’s why she is, in essence, making copies. Swift is adamant that she will re-record all six albums and release them on her own terms. She certainly doesn’t need the cash, but says the principle of owning one’s own work is that important to her – perhaps with a side of getting one back on the man who played a part in transforming her from sweetheart to snake.

Love Story (Taylor’s Version) from 2008’s Fearless album is already out there. In sound it doesn’t diverge much from the original Swiftie classic, and she stays true to the wide-eyed romance of the original. But the later in her back catalogue she gets, the less scope there will be to present something new. The production value and pop sensibilities of big-hitters 1989 and Reputation wouldn’t sound out of place on a 2021 radio playlist. Or streaming service.

Taylor Swift's 2008 album Fearless.
Taylor_Swift_-_Fearless
Taylor Swift's 2008 album Fearless.

Why, then, should anyone go out of their way to seek out the “Taylor’s Version” of songs which have been at their fingertips for years? Swift will be relying on the loyalty of her fans, asking them to do what no fanbase has willingly done before – abandoning nostalgia and the songs they love, precious moments in time, for shinier copies.

But Swift knows as well as anyone that if any fanbase would do so, it’s hers. Beyond skilful songwriting, the star has cultivated the world’s most successful girl-next-door brand. The way she communicates, typing press releases-disguised-as-diary-entries to her 148 million Instagram followers, allows fans to see her as a friend.

That the most famous extremely wealthy, white and straight woman can’t even retain full control of her material speaks to where power lies.

That’s no slight – her career has been a masterclass in protecting oneself while giving the illusion of candour, and making a fair chunk of cash in the process. It’s a manner which complements her seemingly confessional music perfectly. And it has set her up to command the loyalty of millions who may well feel they’re doing a favour for someone good, or pitching in to overpower shrewd industry giants – when, to her credit, that’s exactly what Swift is.

The truth is that it’s business. There are certainly questions to ask about how frequently men get the final say on work built off the backs of women, how all women learn to pick their battles if they want to get ahead. And that the most famous extremely wealthy, white and straight woman can’t even retain full control of her material speaks to where power lies. But then again, we can’t all hit the studio to start from scratch when we’ve had to compromise at work. 

Swift’s career is built on a remarkable talent for storytelling. If you took her material at face value you’d believe nothing was off-limits, simultaneously building vivid, fantastical narratives and absorbing the latest media scandals into the worlds she builds, leaving fans to follow the threads. Her re-recording adventure will, hopefully, be successful. But either way, it’s another plot twist in the extraordinary public life of someone who knows just how to keep the world hooked.