In years past, the first days of July have brought us a decadent display of Taylor Swift’s opulence through her extravagant Independence Day parties. Each Instagram-filtered glimpse of her sprawling Rhode Island estate (one of her eight properties), in which her bevy of celebrity friends takes their turn on a mansion-sized TAYMERICA waterslide, reminds us not only of Swift’s love for flag-themed merch, but also the enormous personal fortune she’s accumulated over her prolific 13-year career. After all, Swift a.k.a.Taymerica is big business; she’s “a rich man,” a self-assessment she borrows from Cher in the music video for “You Need to Calm Down.”
This year, however, Swift kicked off a hot July by publicly calling out the music industry for making it impossible for her to acquire one huge asset: her own catalogue. Mogul Scooter Braun acquired her master recordings when he bought her previous label, Big Machine, from Scott Borchetta. (Swift left her masters at Big Machine when she signed with Republic in November 2018.) Swift, a powerful and influential figure in the music industry, asserts that Big Machine and Braun are compromising her artistic legacy because her music is now “beholden to men who had no part in creating it.”
In an impassioned June 30 Tumblr post, Swift highlighted her personal issues with Braun, including his alleged involvement in her reignited 2016 feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, which, in Swift’s words amounted to “incessant, manipulative bullying,” and, more insidiously, his promotion of West’s misogynistic 2016 music video for “Famous.” She also wrote that Braun and other men who’ve tried to purchase her masters are “controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them.” Throughout her career, Swift has been accused of relying on a narrative of self-victimhood to sell records, and this latest debacle could be viewed as yet another tome in that epic. But when it comes to industry power, Swift has consistently and publicly flexed her own business acumen and industry resilience.
When she previously spoke about the ironclad contract she signed with Big Machine as a teenager, it was offered as evidence of her keen foresight and negotiation power, with the ambitious self-fortitude to hold out on signing a contract until she found a label that would allow her to flourish as an artist. Indeed, speaking just last year at an event at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, Swift recalled Borchetta promising her that she’d only have to write and record her own songs at Big Machine instead of being pitched work from other producers and songwriters. “And so, that was the most amazing offer someone could give to an eighth grader at Hendersonville High School,” Swift said. Signing to Big Machine and having artistic control over the music she recorded helped color her image as an authentic young musician whose songs were practically ripped from her diary. Relatability helped sell her music, subsequently earning her and Big Machine unfathomable amounts of money.
Yet, many musicians like Swift are unable to own their masters because record labels maintain control over original recordings in exchange for investing in the artist. “The record business historically runs the same business model as sharecropping,” music and advertising executive Steve Stoute recently told the New York Times. “You build it; we make you think that you own it; you act like you own it; but at the end of the day, we own it.” In other words, Swift’s diary-entry songs were just an asset that could be bought and sold by the men who run Big Machine. Borchetta’s decision to sell Swift’s masters to an undesirable buyer makes her apart a broader conversation that lives outside of her own privileges and industry standing: men in creative industries controlling and taking from women who have little legal standing to combat them.
As political scientist Debora Halbert notes in her 2006 Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law article “Feminist Interpretations of Intellectual Property,” a feminist analysis of culture must include “how women have been excluded from creative work or have had their work appropriated by men,” since women have historically created “fuel” for culture while men retained ownership. Indeed, the power in the music industry lies overwhelmingly in the hands of men: Only one of the 13 major American labels is headed by a woman, and female artists have long spoken out about exploitative labels, contracts, and songwriters, producers, and managers dictating their careers.
Kesha, who fought in court to sever contractual ties with producer Dr. Luke, alleged that she was subjected to abuse that left her “broken, damaged and traumatized, including being plied with date-rape drugs” after signing a contract with Dr. Luke when she was 18, A judge in New York dismissed her suit against Sony Music and Dr. Luke in 2018, though Sony split from Dr. Luke in 2017. Girl group Fifth Harmony have disparaged the contract they signed as teenagers, with their newly hired lawyer Dina Lepolt telling Billboard in 2017 that she, “Educated them on trademarks, copyrights and rights of publicity…(and) about every agreement they signed, which (were) the worst I’ve ever seen in the music business.”
Female artists who sign to major record labels risk having their power siphoned by domineering men. When Mariah Carey married Sony Music Entertainment President Tommy Mottola in 1993, he began controlling “who Carey worked with, what songs she sang, and when she worked, which was always.” Aaliyah’s music has been kept off streaming services by her uncle Barry Hankerson, who co-founded the label she was signed to, executive-produced all of her albums, and managed her publishing deals. Since Aaliyah’s 2003 death, Hankerson has refused to negotiate with streaming services about the singer’s catalogue, and he’s also tried to keep Toni Braxton and JoJo’s music from being streamed. A February 2019 New York Times investigation alleged that singer, songwriter, and producer Ryan Adams exploited the female artists he mentored, pursuing them sexually and at times turning “domineering and vengeful.” As ex-wife Mandy Moore alleged, “Music was a point of control for him.”
The law is neither gender- nor race-neutral when it comes to protecting an artist’s intellectual property. Yet, race compounds a female artist’s vulnerability to manipulation and exploitation. In his 2008 Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law article, “Intellectual Property at the Intersection of Race and Gender: Lady Sings the Blues,” music and entertainment law professor K.J. Greene writes that Black artistry, in particular, has been historically viewed as easily imitable and an inherent part of “public domain”—conveniently outside legal protection against plagiarism. Black female Blues pioneers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey “were swindled out of copyrights to compositions and subject to disparate treatment,” writes Greene and “virtually disappeared from sight” in the post-Blues era. Greene argues that intellectual property should be viewed through the lens of human rights because “a focus on the least advantaged segments of society…shifts the debate to focus on the empowerment of artists who create, and not on empowerment of large conglomerates.”
As Greene reminds us, the law and who it protects is constructed by people who already have power. But because it is a construct, an idea, it can therefore be reimagined from alternate perspectives. Of course, not everyone has the cultural capital to be handed the microphone in order to do so. Ultimately, the key to Swift’s currency lies in not in her accusations of bullying or references to Kim Kardashian, but rather in her assertion that this was “music I wrote on my bedroom floor.” It harkens back to that original image of Swift as an everyday girl pouring her real life and heartbreaks onto the page. (Who else but Swift could write about Jake Gyllenhaal keeping her autumnal scarf?) At times the notion that she sells out men who date her and that she’s always the victim have driven the backlash against her. But beneath both the praise and ire thrown at her is an assumption of authenticity, and in that sense, she can construct her art as inimitable, made outside of the clutches of the conglomerate— and therefore only hers to own.