Taylor Swift's outrage over Scooter Braun: Will it change the music industry?
Now that Taylor Swift has had her say, and now that the blowback is settling on her, what happens next in the music industry? And will anything change as a result?
Thus far, the answer from industry lawyers, observers and veterans is: Probably not .
"There's no potential this will change anything," says David Chidekel, a longtime New York music and entertainment attorney at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae.
He says this wrangling is less about the business and more about Swift's reaction to events she could not control. "It's going to blow over; it means nothing," he predicts.
A mere "kerfuffle," adds Bob Lefsetz, a music writer, attorney, consultant and author of The Lefsetz Letter blog.
"Nothing is going to happen," he says. "If Taylor Swift were smart, she'd shut up and let this kerfuffle pass, as they all do. And in time no one will remember it."
Right now, the whole world knows that Swift set off more than 24 hours of sound and fury on social media Sunday as she and her army of Swifties trashed her latest bête noire: Scooter Braun is now the owner of her music catalog – to her shock and horror, according to her Tumblr account.
Big Machine Records, her longtime label that holds her existing six albums of music, was gobbled up by Braun, 38, a man she considers a "bully." And, she claimed, she had no idea it was happening until she woke up and read the news.
"This is my worst case scenario," Swift wrote in her Tumblr post lashing out at label founder Scott Borchetta. "This is what happens when you sign a deal at fifteen to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept. And when that man says ‘Music has value,’ he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it."
Late Tuesday, Donald Passman, Swift's lawyer, issued a statement that denied a key assertion made by Big Machine and Borchetta:
"Scott Borchetta never gave Taylor Swift an opportunity to purchase her masters, or the label, outright with a check in the way he is now apparently doing for others,” the statement said.
Whether Swift knew or should have known her masters would be sold is in dispute – hence the blow-back. One thing is crystal clear: Swift really, really, really is not a fan of Scooter.
He was not undefended on Monday, as his supporters pushed back against her supporters in a volley of tit-for-tat tweets and posts.
But besides Braun, Swift also attacked some longstanding business practices of the male-dominated music industry in which they both toil. How can men who had no part in creating the music get to own it instead of the creators? Be warned, she exhorted young artists: Learn how to negotiate so you can "own the art you make."
Artists complaining about how they were cheated by their record deals is nothing new; it's as old as the recording industry itself. Think of Prince and his contract donnybrook with Warner Bros. (Prince became so frustrated he changed his stage name to a unpronounceable symbol as a somewhat baffling protest.)
Or think how stunned Paul McCartney was when he was outbid by his pal Michael Jackson for the Beatles catalog in 1985, a move that permanently ruptured their friendship. (McCartney only secured the rights to his own music in 2017 in a private settlement with Sony, after Jackson died in 2009 and his estate sold the catalog to Sony in 2016.)
"This is another brick in the wall of a very long story" about alleged exploitation, says Lefsetz. "Evolution happens very slowly in the music business."
True, this particular dispute is taking place in the age of the internet (which is rapidly transforming that industry, including in favor of artists); in the age of social media (which can harness a global audience to give artists more leverage than in the past); and in the age of #MeToo (which has emboldened more women to push back against what they consider patronizing and manipulative men).
So will anything actually change about the way the music biz operates as a result of Swift's fury? Will the nonartists, mostly men, who run the industry become kinder and gentler toward artists, especially the young, female artists, just starting out? Will making art become more important than making bucks in music?
"I am not sure this changes anything," concludes Lisa Alter, a New York lawyer (Alter Kendrick & Baron) who specializes in the music industry and copyright law. She says the power dynamics in the industry remain the same for emerging artists with no money or hits: They have less leverage when seeking a deal than the record company.
"Starting artists, if they want a label deal, are still going to end up signing less favorable deals than they might later in their careers," says Alter. "It's sort of a devil's bargain."
Still, she says, Swift called attention to the undeniable: Women are scarce in the executive suites of record labels. Alter knows, she says, because she is often the only woman in the room.
"It looks bad," Alter says. Swift's lament "underscores the fact that label executives feel like they made the artist, when in most cases the artist is fundamental to the final product. The label can make them more accessible, but it can't make them any better (as artists)."
Chidekel says the industry is changing, but that has more to do with technology.
In the preinternet era, Lefsetz says, a major record label was the only way for an artist to reach the marketplace.
"Now they can release their music themselves – the paradigm shifted," Lefsetz says. "The record company always wants to make an advantageous deal for themselves, but the landscape has changed so the artists have more leverage."
Moreover, Chidekel says, young artists already know all this; they don't need Swift to tell them. Besides, her charges against Borchetta and Braun were mostly about her personal pique, he says, not about the economics of the music business, so they don't necessarily translate to other artists.
"The thing that got under her skin is she woke up and found that Braun, who she doesn’t like, owns her masters now – it's an emotional reaction. She feels blindsided," he says.
Ralph Sutton, a music radio veteran who now runs GaS Digital, a podcast network, says Swift may one day own her music thanks to the federal Copyright Act of 1976, which allows artists to reclaim the rights to their post-1978 master recordings after some 35 years.
In the meantime, Lefsetz, who says Swift wrote a song ("Mean") about him, advises her to stop bleating. He says she should have thought better about going public to begin with, and now that she's taken a "negative hit" from this latest of her feuds, she should go quiet.
"She can recover, the damage is not terminal," he says. "But it's another demonstration of her being out of touch with her identity and with the public. She's a geeky, nerdy girl who built her career on that and now she's being attacked. The cool people are ganging up on her.
"The tide has turned against her; only her true fans follow her into the wilderness. Everybody else shrugs."
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