From the Beatles to Taylor Swift: Why It's So Hard for Musicians to Own Their Music
Taylor Swift's battle with Scooter Braun for ownership of her music is just the latest in a string of similar scenarios with other artists through the decades
Swift, 29, accused Braun on Sunday of “incessant and manipulative bullying,” and said that her master recordings landing in his hands was her “worst case scenario.”
Before Braun even entered the picture, though, the “ME!” singer said she’d tried unsuccessfully to get her former label, Big Machine Label Group, to allow her the opportunity to own her own music.
Instead, she was offered a new contract that would give her ownership of one of her old albums for every new one she completed. Swift declined, and moved to Universal last year.
However, Big Machine Label founder Scott Borchetta posted a letter to the company’s web site on Sunday, claiming the label offered the star “100 percent of all Taylor Swift assets … to be transferred to her immediately upon signing the new agreement.”
For Swift, not owning her music also means control of how and where her songs are used is out of her hands, much like the famous instance of Michael Jackson buying The Beatles’ music in the ‘80s.
Jackson purchased the Fab Four’s catalog in 1985 as part of a $47.5 million deal with ATV, which later merged with Sony.
Two years later, “Revolution,” a classic track off of 1968’s The Beatles (aka The White Album), appeared in a Nike commercial for Air Revolution – much to the chagrin of the surviving Beatles.
George Harrison reportedly took issue with the apparent selling out of his band’s music, saying that using the song in a Nike ad would open the floodgates for the Beatles’ music to be used to sell everything from “women’s underwear” to “sausages.”
“We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent,” he said. “Otherwise it’s going to be a free-for-all. It’s one thing when you’re dead, but we’re still around! They don’t have any respect for the fact that we wrote and recorded those songs, and it was our lives.”
McCartney, too, was miffed by the idea of using his music to sell products, reportedly saying that while he hadn’t yet made up his mind on how he felt about it, he “generally [didn’t] like it.”
The Nike ad even inspired a $15 million lawsuit from the Beatles’ record label Apple Records, with a lawyer claiming the band hadn’t given “authorization or permission,” according to Rolling Stone. The parties reportedly settled the case out of court for undisclosed terms.
Just as Swift explained that she’d essentially signed her life away to Big Machine when she was just 15, McCartney – who eventually reached a confidential settlement with Sony/ATV in 2017 in a fight to reclaim the song’s copyrights – has told a similar story as to how his songs escaped his grasp.
The “Band on the Run” singer said in 1995 that when he and John Lennon were first starting out in Liverpool, they knew nothing about song publishing and didn’t think twice before signing with a publisher – only to learn the hard way years later what they’d actually agreed to.
“We literally thought that songs were in the air and everyone owned them. That’s how we met our first publisher, Dick James. He said, ‘Come in, sit down. Is that what you think? Sit over here.’ And that was the deal he did. To this day I’m virtually on that deal,” McCartney said in Beatles Anthology. “So that meant we were pretty much sewn up from the word go. Then, in March 1969, when I was on my honeymoon and John was doing his bed-in, Dick James sold the songs – while we were out of town. When we got back we said, ‘Dick, you can’t do that!’ He said, ‘You wanna bet?’ And he was quite right.”
McCartney continued, “It’s just the way these things go. So it was sold, and it became merchandise then. It was then bought by Lew Grade, who used to control ATV [later bought by Jackson]. So that was how John and I lost ownership of so many of our songs.”
Such tales are, unfortuantely, fairly common in the music industry. However, Prince famously took a stand to keep control over his life’s work.
“If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you,” he told Rolling Stone in 1996.
The “Purple Rain” singer also famously rebelled against his Warner Bros. contract by repeatedly writing the word “slave” on his cheek in public, including during the 1995 BRIT Awards.
He eventually got his masters back from Warner Bros. in 2014 as part of a new deal that required him to release two new albums through the label, according to Billboard.