What is Taylor Swift’s endgame in the Big Machine battle?
One thing is clear from both the lead-up and the aftermath of the firestorm that has followed Scooter Braun’s acquisition of Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records and Taylor Swift’s back catalog: None of those people do anything without a motive — and usually several motives.
Several agendas were revealed in the wake of Sunday morning’s blockbuster announcement that Braun, whom Swift considers an enemy who “bullied” her and tried to “dismantle … my musical legacy,” acquired Big Machine — and, with it, the rights to Swift’s first six albums, all of which are multiplatinum and will almost definitely generate millions of dollars for years to come, and which she clearly covets.
But amid the furious spin campaigns from all three camps in this unusually personal and public dispute, Swift’s endgame remains unclear — although clearly some very high-profile posturing and/or negotiating is going on.
In legal terms, Swift doesn’t have a leg to stand on, as the defeated tone of her deeply emotional Sunday morning Tumblr post acknowledges. Braun purchased Big Machine fair and square, and while Swift claims in her post that she was not offered the opportunity to buy her catalog, she recounts an offer that she was allegedly made (whereby she would receive the rights to one past album each time she turned in a new album), so presumably she means she was not offered an acceptable opportunity.
Her objectives in writing the blog seem to be to give her take on the situation and her deep unhappiness with it; to project the narrative — which Braun and Borchetta have contested — that she wasn’t offered a viable opportunity to purchase her catalog; and to say to other artists, “This is what happens when you sign a deal at fifteen to someone [Borchetta] for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept. … Hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation. You deserve to own the art you make.”
That moral high ground — that artists, not record labels, deserve to own their creations — is at the center of Swift’s argument, and it’s the aspect for which she has received the most support, from Camila Cabello, Halsey, Sky Ferreira and countless fans. And while anyone who doesn’t own a major label may agree with that sentiment at face value, it’s not the way the record industry’s business model — whereby a label’s initial investment in an artist entitles it to own the artist’s creative work, often in perpetuity — has ever worked (albeit with rare exceptions).
“Taylor’s really good at playing the victim,” says one insider, referring to her Tumblr post. “And she’s doing it right now.”
But the question remains: To what end? Is she trying to upend the major-label business model, or just get a better deal for herself? And if so, how can she do that if she has no legal standing?
“She apparently had the opportunity to buy her masters and she chose not to, for whatever reasons,” says Jeff Rabhan, chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University and an artist manager. Her emotional post “might be a move to have public sentiment on her side if she does decide to make a play” for a better deal with Big Machine, he adds. (Reps for Swift, Braun and Borchetta either declined or did not immediately respond to Variety‘s requests for comment.)
The most fitting precedent for this situation is actually quite far in the past — Michael Jackson’s mid-1980s purchase of ATV Music, which held the bulk of the Beatles’ publishing catalog, after his close friend Paul McCartney had schooled him on the value of music publishing. Like Swift, McCartney had no legal standing to complain — Jackson acquired the catalog fair and square, McCartney surely could have summoned the resources to outbid him. Yet his impassioned statements that Jackson had tricked him certainly won a moral victory — and, decades later, he won a business victory via a confidential 2017 settlement with the merged Sony/ATV Music Publishing that presumably took some of the sting out of it.
Obviously, a better deal for Swift would involve coming to terms with her currently avowed enemies, Braun and Borchetta, who have already consummated their deal (although how long the bromance between these two notoriously strong and strong-headed personalities will last is an open question). Their job now is to change the narrative and stem the tsunami of Swift’s moral outrage, which is making them look like bad guys taking advantage of a young female artist, no matter what the reality of the situation may be.
What will they need to do that? Some sort of public cease-fire with Swift. And the only way they’re likely to get that is to offer improved terms for her catalog.
“Maybe she’s looking to litigate public sympathy, trying to shame the other side into doing the right thing,” said one high-ranking executive not connected to either camp. “But I don’t know if that’s going to work. People in [Braun and Borchetta’s] position usually don’t care about being hated.”
While that may be true, Braun loves to look like a hero, and to position himself as the voice of reason. He and his client Ariana Grande split up bitterly for several months, and then came back together — and both triumphed in the face of unprecedented tragedy by staging the 2018 One Love Manchester concert a mere two weeks after a terrorist attack killed 19 people outside one of her concerts. He also saw his anchor client, Bieber, fall into destructive behavior for several months, and then oversaw the reinvention of the singer’s career via his career-relaunching “Purpose” album and collaborations with dance-music artists Diplo and Skrillex and jumping on the global smash “Despacito.” Braun has a reputation for rolling up his sleeves and cleaning up messy or complicated situations.
Thus, with relations between the two sides at such a low that they’re fighting by proxy — Sia and Brendon Urie were the latest of several artists to weigh in — the end result will likely be all three coming to the negotiating table and hammering out a deal that potentially, given Swift’s past history, could have broader ramifications for the business. (Sources tell Variety that Braun has reached out to Swift through various channels, but as of Monday had not received a response.)
Swift has used her formidable industry clout in one-for-all moves before. In 2015, when the then-new Apple Music streaming service was not paying royalties on trial subscriptions, she shamed them into changing that policy within a single day. And a key element of her new deal with Republic Records and Universal Music Group is that the company will share the profits from any sale of its Spotify equity (which reaped millions in profits for the other two majors and the independent-label collective Merlin) with its artists and distributed labels. So as much as some might sneer at Swift’s seeming self-aggrandizement in these and other moves, she does walk it like she talks it when it comes to the end goal.
However, the opportunity for such a one-for-all move seems much smaller here. She already has a new record deal, and although Braun has significant reach across the industry, he’s nowhere near the scale of a Universal Music Group or Apple Music. And despite her apparently heartfelt belief that artists should own their own work, short of a nine-figure renegotiation of her Big Machine deal, it’s hard to imagine what that might look like.
“I don’t see the opportunity for a Robin Hood situation here,” says Rabhan. Swift’s endgame “may be completely self-serving,” he continues. “She may just be putting so much stink on the deal that they have to come to terms — and [the parties] have to be talking now, whether or not they’ll admit it publicly. All things being equal, it’s a strong play to get a better royalty rate and a bigger check.
“If nothing else,” he concludes, “it is a smart renegotiation tactic.”