Music superstar Taylor Swift announced in 2019 that she planned to re-record all six of her first albums, in an attempt to reclaim her music catalog. So far, she has released two of these records, Fearless (Taylor’s Version), and RED (Taylor’s Version). In doing so, she’s broken both records and the limits of the music industry, changing the creative landscape by giving musicians more power and control over the masters she believes all artists should rightfully own.
Why is Swift focusing her energy on creating nearly identical versions of old tracks that have already been played time and time again? This all began after her first six albums were sold to Scooter Braun and his company in June 2019. When she began as a teen country star, Swift signed a deal with Big Machine Records, founded by Scott Borchetta, and she recently made a new contract with Universal’s Republic Records. Big Machine was later acquired by Braun for a reported $300 million, giving him ownership of Swift’s master recordings, which are the original versions of all her tracks.
Braun has a history of managing some of the top music acts, including Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and most infamously, Kanye West, whom Swift became involved with in a messy dispute over a crude reference to her in his track Famous. This sale combines both the professional and the personal; Braun reaps profits whenever Swift's songs are streamed or bought, and of all the people to have that ability, Swift claims he's one of the worst.
It was a reminder to all that even the most powerful musicians can still be rendered powerless by the ever-changing industry. However, unlike newer artists, Swift had the ability to speak up and, in doing so, invoke a meaningful conversation and a call for change. She posted on Tumblr, calling Braun’s buyout her “worst-case scenario,” and summed up the situation by saying “Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.” Not for long, it turned out.
Swift’s first five albums, Taylor Swift, Fearless, Speak Now, RED, 1989, and reputation, have all been planned to be rerecorded as soon as her contracts allow it. Almost indistinguishable from the originals, new tracks are branded as “ethical” streaming, under the hope that audiences and loyal fans would support the concept that artists should own their master recordings, as opposed to labels.
She began with Fearless, released in April 2021, which included all of the original tracks such as Love Story and You Belong With Me, alongside new tracks written during the same time period that didn’t make the original cut. The album became the biggest country debut in six years, and at the time, the biggest female debut of the year. This record was later surpassed by Swift’s rerecorded RED, released on November 12, which sold over 600,000 copies in its first week and became the most-streamed album in a week of all time on Spotify. Her re-recorded songs, now titled their original name with an added (Taylor’s Version) next to it, are outperforming their originals on streaming services, as well as Tiktok, where Swift put out a new version of her 2015 hit Wildest Dreams after it went viral. “Make it Taylor’s Version pls,” she captioned her video announcement.
By making the decision to rerecord her albums, she will drop the value of the records owned by Big Machine and Braun. Dedicated fans have pledged to wipe all evidence of the original songs from their playlists, and Swift can now license her re-recorded tracks for film and ad use. Her plan appears to be working: both Fearless (Taylor's Version) and RED (Taylor's Version) have been consistently outperforming their older counterparts in sales and streaming figures.
Making these big decisions isn’t new to Swift, who famously pulled her catalog from Spotify from 2014 to 2017 over concerns about artist royalties. When she signed her 2018 contract with Universal, she required the label to make a promise: if they sold off their Spotify shares, they would share that profit with all the artists on their roster.
In recent agreements, Universal has doubled the amount of time that contracts restrict an artist from rerecording their work, showing the impact of Swift’s new releases already. Susan Genco, co-president of the Azoff Company, said “What Taylor did is a game-changer, not just for her fans, but for other artists. She is inspiring artists to re-record their songs and control their music.”
In negotiations, many artists are now seeking control of their master recordings, which allows them to have a greater split of revenue and to decide how that music is used. New star Olivia Rodrigo has already declared she ensured she owned her masters, after seeing Swift’s struggles.
Swift is one of few artists with power and a profile large enough to create real change in the music world. By reclaiming her records, she has made a bold statement about the need for artists to own their work. In a tweet, Swift said, “Hopefully [...] kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation [...] You deserve to own the art you make.”