Taylor-made deals: how artists are following Swift’s rights example

From The Guardian:

A revolution is brewing in the music business as a new generation of female acts, following the example of Taylor Swift, are seizing ownership of their music rights and refusing to sign deals that cede complete control to music companies.

Swift is nearing the end of her project to re-record her first six albums – the ones originally made for Big Machine Records – as a putsch to highlight her claim that the originals had been sold out from under her: creative and commercial revenge served up album by album. Her public fight for ownership carried over to her 2018 deal with Republic Records, part of Universal Music Group (UMG), where an immovable condition was her owning her future master recordings and licensing them to the label.

It is a power-play template for younger acts who are now rising up – especially female pop stars, historically among the most exploited figures in music – alert to the fact that owning their recordings and songwriting is everything. Olivia Rodrigo made ownership of her own masters a precondition of signing with Geffen Records (also part of UMG) in 2020, citing Swift as a direct inspiration. In 2022, Zara Larsson bought back her recorded music catalogue and set up her own label, Sommer House. And in November 2023, Dua Lipa acquired her publishing from TaP Music Publishing, a division of the management company she left in early 2022.

At Glastonbury last summer, Rina Sawayama made a veiled jibe at the 1975’s Matty Healy for laughing at racist comments on a podcast and for the fact that he “owns my masters”, due to his directorship at Dirty Hit Limited (although his directorship was in fact terminated in April 2023). This claim about ownership skips over the complexities of contract law – Sawayama presumably having signed over the rights to her recordings in exchange for the label’s financial investment – but emotionally it plays to a fanbase who increasingly see “the industry” as the inherent enemy of art and creative autonomy. “The artists were creating those works, so really they should be owning them from an emotional point of view,” says Brian Message, a partner at Courtyard Management.

Artists today are more industry-literate and aware of the pitfalls and bear traps of the past, simply because they have to be. A multitude of older acts – perhaps most notably George Michael and Prince – had to take legal action over, in their eyes, being ripped off or badly exploited, while others such as Radiohead have made ownership of their rights in renegotiations an economic and moral mission. Some acts had prescient management on their side, with Bono recounting in his Surrender memoirs in 2022 that band manager Paul McGuinness negotiated with Island Records for U2 to take a lower advance and lower royalties as “it meant that at the end of a period of time we’d get back our rights and regain ownership of our recordings”.

Prince and George Michael are bleak warnings from history, but the moves by Swift, Rodrigo and others can stand as roadmaps for the future. It also means the music industry has had to adapt away from contracts based on ownership. There are two kinds of rights at stake here: the rights to the master recordings of an artist’s work, and songwriting rights, known as publishing. One senior music publishing executive says their part of the business was ahead of the curve, explaining that publishing deals tend to work on exclusive licensing terms or retention periods. “Publishers pivoted from a rights-ownership business to the servicing of rights,” they say. Those retention periods are getting shorter, they add, down from about 25 years three decades ago to between 12 and 15 years today.

David Martin, CEO of the Featured Artists Coalition, says there is “a propensity towards owning rights” for artists, but some acts are still prepared to sign away ownership for what they think might be their only shot at the big time. “We have members who are still signing major label deals,” he says. “Some of the terms in some of those deals are terms that we’d expect artists to be thinking very carefully about.”

Message says he steers acts away from ownership-based contracts. “We have a default position that we won’t advise our artists to do life-of-copyright deals,” he says. “It’s not that we wouldn’t do them, but our strong advice would always be to come up with a licence arrangement of some description.”

This is the ideological underpinning of BMG and AWAL (Artists Without a Label), which is now under the ownership of Sony Music Entertainment. “The philosophy is flipping the relationship,” says Alistair Norbury, president of repertoire and marketing at BMG UK. “There had to be a fairer and more transparent way to work with the creative community.”

Acts on BMG’s roster – notably Kylie Minogue, Suede, Sigur Rós and Louis Tomlinson – are on licensing or assignment deals, so ownership of the recordings eventually reverts to them. “They want to be with a record label where they have creative control and ownership coming back to them at some point,” says Norbury.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to C. for the tip.

PG says three cheers for musical artists who don’t give up rights forever.

5 thoughts on “Taylor-made deals: how artists are following Swift’s rights example”

  1. How nice to see more artists paying attention to the business side! And bothering to understand the importance of rights. Last month I was trying to convince a group of writers that contracts are legal documents, and they should have the relevant lawyers look at them. But no, they were convinced that agents are the way to go. Even though I showed them that literally any idiot can be an agent, and no, seriously: contracts are legal documents! Ordinary words mean different things in legal contexts. Copyright is all of your life plus 75 years post-death! You should care!

    But they thought that all of that was just crazy talk. Sigh. You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think. Good for the musicians, though, for being smart enough to learn from other people’s experience.

  2. Too bad the implied praise-and-reasonable-actor description of BMG’s music contracts are utterly inapplicable to the publishing contracts offered by the Bertelsmann group… for about another dozen years or so.

      • Historically (since the rise of individual-consumer-purchased audio recordings a century ago), that’s been the gap — even all the way through the early 2010s — between when a business practice became the commercial norm in recorded music and when the same (or as close to the same as possible) became the commercial norm in commercial publishing. It’s a pretty uniform pattern, +/- two years or so; and until I see it definitively broken, I’ll base my expectations on it.

        • Does that apply to Germany, too?

          Bertelsmann might adopt the Harlequin strategy of signing the Dreamers to “industry standard” contracts with HQ and then licensing the IP to their NYC drones. And thst’s only if the Agents don’t squash any attempt at sane contracts.

          To date Dreamers haven’t shown half the savvy of musicians and we’re well past the 12 year of Indie, Inc. My expectation is life of copyright contracts will not go away any time soon, not in 12, not in 24, not in 120 years.

          Dreamers gotta dream and predatory deals are a price they’ll happily pay long after the last B&M store goes away.

          That’s just me, though.
          We’ll see soon enough…

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