So you’ve probably heard the biggest news that broke over last weekend: Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings acquired Big Machine Records. The home of catalogs from artists like Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw, Florida Georgia Line, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Rascal Flatts and many more.
But it was Taylor Swift who immediately took to her social media sharing an open letter claiming she was blindsided by the news, disgusted by this acquisition, and hadn’t even been given the chance to buy back her own work. Since then, Scott Borchetta, Scooter Braun and even Scooter’s wife have responded.
If you need to catch up, here are the main articles:
- Taylor’s letter on Tumblr
- Billboard: Scooter acquires Big Machine from Scott Borchetta
- Scott Borchetta, Big Machine’s former President/CEO’s perspective (and contract details)
It goes without saying why this is such an important conversation right now. As we move into a new phase of the music industry, where the topics of content ownership and artist rights are high priority, this recent event perfectly sets the stage to assess the industry’s divide of Labels vs. Artists.
Feelings towards Taylor Swift aside, I really feel for her loss in ownership of 6 albums of work and other intellectual properties – as I do for any musician who has faced the same fate in their career (The Beatles, Prince, Michael Jackson, and countless others). But we can’t respond to this injustice by pointing fingers and continuing to feed into a corrupt system. The time is now to be the smart artist that takes back ownership of their career, and creates the change that is well overdue.
As long as we as artists, continue to agree to arrangements that bind us to unfair contracts, we continue to relinquish ownership and diminish our rights. If we stand by, and let our voices and creativity be exploited at our expense — in exchange for exposure and fame, we can’t expect things to change.
The only way to change is to do it differently. To reimagine, rethink a new arrangement. And to stumble through the painful beginnings of forging a new path without knowing the outcome for sure. The willingness to be in the interim time when the future is uncertain, but being brave enough to take a risk.
The first thing to leave behind is our unwillingness to invest in our own careers. Invest in yourself — take the risk. As long as someone else is taking the risk, you are a pawn. And you have to accept responsibility and consequences. It continues the victim narrative set up to keep artists down and in the dark, not looking at reality.
Unless you are a hobbyist, your music is your business. Businesses require the investment of time, money, and resources to obtain any level of success. The less share you have in these investments, the less power you have over the results and ownership of your product.
Without ownership, an artist doesn’t get to decide where their music lives. In the recent case of Taylor Swift, she may or may not have realized all of the ramifications of leaving her catalog behind at the time when she left Big Machine in Oct of 2018. Or she knew and still wanted to get out. But either way, she made that decision when she signed the dotted line in 2006, definitely before she understood the music industry. That was 12 years ago when she was 14. Another example of young talent being taken advantage of. The music business is a very complex place and not easy to understand. Hindsight is 20-20. Most of us learn the hard way.
I remember when I got signed being taken aback that I had to buy my record to sell at my shows at the price of $7 each. That seemed outrageous to me at the time. But they had ownership of the master. That’s the deal when you sign on the dotted line.
One of the most tragic consequences of labels owning a musician’s work is that they can associate that music to whatever they want in perpetuity. For example, a vegan artist might see their song played over a KFC commercial. And there’s nothing they can do to stop it if they don’t own the master or have no say over licensing deals.
Stopping this toxic cycle and taking our power back starts with knowing our worth and not making deals blindly. We can’t be too quick to sign away our rights because we’re afraid to manage and invest in ourselves. At the end of the day, labels are trying to profit from your craft, and should, but not at your expense. Labels should be partners, not gatekeepers. This isn’t a new problem in the music industry, Taylor is just the latest example. And I’m glad she’s speaking out – but there are many pieces to this that need exposing.
This is my open love letter to our community. I urge all of you to open your eyes and understand that you can do things right from the start. But you’ve got to know (and learn) how the business works so your choices are informed ones. And you’ve absolutely got to have a good lawyer and a good team who have your back, even when you don’t like what they’re saying, who know the business and can help you fight.
Study examples of other artists like Chance The Rapper, Aloe Blacc, Radiohead and other pioneers who have paved their way by investing in themselves, building their own brand and thereby maintaining ownership of their art.
Not every artist is ready to take ownership, there are a lot of things that need to come first. In this DIY mentality era, it’s easy to have your eye on the prize and skip the crucial work that artists like John Mayer and Lady Gaga tout: perfecting your craft, developing your skills, becoming the best artist you can, building a team of experts that share your best interest. It’s all doable. But only with a plan and your eyes wide open.
This rush to “promote” or be an instant Youtube star is why artists rashly sign away their lives: in a shameless (and often foolish) quest for fame.
It’s not enough to run Facebook ads or Instagram campaigns and expect people to react, but lately, that’s all I’m hearing: the conversation is centered on promoting music. Is it even good music? Do people want to hear it? Is it saying something? Music is a legacy.
I say to my artists all the time, and I think it resonates because they know it’s true: “You can market until you’re blue in the face, but unless you have what people want, you have nothing”. It really is all about the music. That’s the good news.
But craft is important. Discipline is important. Building the right team is important. These crucial pieces are completely underrated and it’s ruining artists careers. DIY these days sounds more like DIA: Do-It-Alone. This new era demands a DIT mentality: Do It Together. And do it smart. No more sticking your head in the sand and expecting ownership. This is something you have to fight for.
Our company (and new label) is pro artist. We are artists, that had to learn the hard way. We educate, empower and inspire artists to push their boundaries and to be informed. We aim to create a new generation of artists by giving them the tools and services they need to make smart decisions and not lose their entire legacy by rushing into bad deals like we’re witnessing this week.
We insist that artists, songwriters, and producers get paid. No more profiting off of the backs of these creative geniuses. We pay them more than other companies pay because we value talent and hard work. It’s hard work to be an artist. To push boundaries, to be vulnerable, and share your guts with the world. That’s worth a price far greater than our current system offers. And streaming services – and labels – and everyone who profits at the expense of musicians should take a hard look at themselves in the mirror to be on the right side of the change that is inevitably coming.
The best way we can react to Taylor Swift’s story, and to other artists who have or will discover the same fate, is by waking up to the truth that we are not victims, but empowered creators who can choose our future. It’s not going to happen overnight. It happens day by day in the small decisions and interactions you make. By opening your eyes, and fearlessly insisting on disrupting the music industry until the power is shifted back into the hands where it belongs. Ours.
I look forward to our future, together.