Taylor Swift's TV Drama: Pop Star Claims Former Label Won't Let Her Perform Hits

Nov 15, 2019
Originally published on November 17, 2019 7:52 am

Updated Friday at 3:30 p.m. ET

Back in August, it seemed as if the pop megastar Taylor Swift had found an end run around an acrimonious battle for control of her recorded catalog. She announced that beginning in November 2020, she would re-record the six albums made under contract for Big Machine Label Group, which owns those master recordings.

But Swift now says that things won't be that simple. On Thursday night, Swift made public the newest chapter in her battle for artistic, financial and intellectual control of her material. She claimed that Big Machine, which was founded by Scott Borchetta and is now owned by music impresario Scooter Braun, has blocked her from performing a medley of her hits later this month at the made-for-television American Music Awards, and that the company will not give permission for her Big Machine-era hits to be included in a scheduled Netflix biographical documentary. She claims that Borchetta said that she can only use her old songs if she doesn't proceed with her plans to make copycat versions.

In a lengthy social media post, Swift addressed her fans directly and asked them to take action on her behalf, writing in part: "Please let Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun know how you feel about this. Scooter also manages several artists who I really believe care about other artists and their work."

Genderizing the fight, Swift continued: "Please ask them for help with this — I'm hoping that maybe they can talk some sense into the men who are exercising tyrannical control over someone who just wants to play the music she wrote. I'm especially asking for help from The Carlyle Group, who put up money for the sale of my music to these two men."

The Carlyle Group is a private equity firm and a major investor in Scooter Braun's company.

In a statement released Friday morning, Big Machine emphatically denied Swift's assertions, saying that it was "shocked" by her statements. The company added: "At no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the AMAs or block her Netflix special. In fact, we do not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere. Since Taylor's decision to leave Big Machine last fall, we have continued to honor all of her requests to license her catalog to third parties as she promotes her current record in which we do not financially participate."

Later Friday morning, Swift's spokeswoman, Tree Paine, issued a statement that in turn repudiated Big Machine's denial. Paine included what Swift's team says is a direct quote from an email dated Oct. 28, 2019, in which Big Machine's vice president of rights management and business affairs specifically declines to issue licenses or waivers in connection to the Netflix documentary and to an event held Nov. 11 by the Chinese e-commerce titan Alibaba at which Swift performed.

The statement continued: "In addition, yesterday Scott Borchetta, CEO and founder of Big Machine Label Group, flatly denied the request for both American Music Awards and Netflix. Please notice in Big Machine's statement, they never actually deny either claim Taylor said last night in her post."

"Lastly, Big Machine is trying to deflect and make this about money by saying she owes them but, an independent, professional auditor has determined that Big Machine owes Taylor $7.9 million dollars of unpaid royalties over several years."

Back in July, Big Machine Label Group was sold to Ithaca Holdings, an umbrella company owned by Braun, who manages artists including Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. Under Borchetta, Big Machine signed Swift as a teenager in 2006, and released all of her albums until this year's Lover. The following month, Swift announced her plans to re-record her catalog under a new deal with the world's largest record company, Universal Music, and its subsidiary Republic Records.

Swift continues to be one of the most powerful and popular artists in the music business. In this chapter of the ongoing saga with Big Machine, however, she has called upon her phalanxes of impassioned, everyday fans to enter this business fray, writing that she doesn't "know what else to do" at this juncture. The planned Netflix documentary was not public information until Swift made her anger known on Thursday.

Swift has performed at least one of her old hits for a video recording of late: In her NPR Music Tiny Desk appearance last month, she sang "All Too Well" from 2012's Red album, which is part of the Big Machine-era catalog.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Taylor Swift has issued an unprecedented plea to her fans to get involved in a business fight over early hits like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BLOOD")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) 'Cause, baby, now we got bad blood. You know it used to be mad love. So take a look what you've done 'cause, baby, now we got bad blood. Hey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A company bought her early music catalog, and she's now fighting to be able to perform those songs on TV. The battle involves a lot of big names in the music business and private equity.

Here to help me untangle this is NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas. Welcome.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we're talking about music from Taylor Swift's first several albums, like "1989," the big breakout hit, which is where that song comes from. Tell us what brought this disagreement out into the open.

TSIOULCAS: Right. Well, on Thursday night, Swift posted a note on social media saying that her former label, Big Machine, is refusing to give her permission to perform a medley of her old hits on the made-for-TV American Music Awards later this month during a tribute to her. And she also said in her post that Big Machine was refusing to give permission for her old recordings to be used in an upcoming Netflix biographical documentary. And she claimed that the label's founder and head, Scott Borchetta, said she can only use that old material if she gives up those plans to make copycat recordings of her old albums.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the record label issued its own statement Friday disputing that, right?

TSIOULCAS: It's pretty ambiguous. Big Machine said it doesn't have any right to keep her from performing live anywhere, but it didn't say that she could specifically sing that music it owns on television.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how did all this bad blood come about?

TSIOULCAS: Nice quote of the lyrics there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

TSIOULCAS: Back in July, Big Machine was sold to a company called Ithaca Holdings. That's owned by a guy named Scooter Braun, who is a very big impresario in the music industry. He manages Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, among others. And he also used to manage Kanye West, who got into a pretty famous snarl with Taylor Swift just as her career started heating up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. He interrupted her acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards years ago.

TSIOULCAS: Yes, and it has been very rocky ever since. And Swift's claimed that Braun had a hand in those feuds personally.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it seems that this goes way back. But in her social media post, Swift called upon her fans to get involved in this current business feud.

TSIOULCAS: Yes. She mustered up her Swifties, as they're known. And as of Saturday, over a hundred thousand people have signed a change.org petition, and they've absolutely swamped the social media accounts of Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta. So she's leveraging a very particular kind of power she has as an artist and the real love that her fans have for her. I cannot say that music executives inspire that kind of love and devotion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I shouldn't think so. And she's also called out others who have a different kind of power.

TSIOULCAS: Right. Swift name-checked the Carlyle Group in her post, and that's a private equity firm that's a major investor in Scooter Braun's company. So she's also calling on those who hold some serious purse strings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it seems like this is a lot of money facing off against a lot of fame. Where would it all be heading?

TSIOULCAS: It's honestly not so clear right now, Lulu. It appears the tribute to her on the AMAs will go on, and it also appears that she still plans to re-record her back catalogs during next year. Big Machine said at the end of its statement that it's open to negotiating with her. But you know, conference-room negotiations aren't exactly the stuff of social media.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the one thing we do know about Taylor Swift is that she uses her real-life experiences to, you know, inform her art. So I'm assuming there might be some new songs, at least, to come out of this conflict.

TSIOULCAS: I think that is a pretty good bet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you so much. That's NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.