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Taylor Swift’s Rerecordings: Why is she doing them?

By Aarav Kumar

It’s a typical Tuesday night, and you’re finally back home, tired from a long, hard day of endless homework and assignments. You put on a Taylor Swift playlist to unwind, humming along to an old hit like ‘22’, until you realise it doesn’t really sound old at all. As you glance at your phone, the words Taylor’s Version glare back at you, and you realise you’re merely listening to a remake of one of your favourite songs. You cannot help but wonder, why in the world is Taylor Swift rerecording her music? And what is anyone gaining out of this process?

The short answer? To own her masters. Master recordings are the original recordings of a particular song or album, and “master” rights essentially allow this music to be distributed to streaming platforms and physical stores through various licenses. When a label has ownership over these master rights, they are in control of determining certain royalties the artist receives. Additionally, they may demand a percentage of money earned from the master recording being played on televised performances, video commercials or film soundtracks, and are within their legal boundaries to deny such usage of the recording entirely. Swift claims that her old label, Big Machine Records, denied her the right to purchase these masters, prompting her to sign into a new label with an agreement to re-record her first six albums to retain control over them.

Her decision to do so, however, may have a deeper intention than simply owning her own work. Unfortunately, for most artists like Swift, typical contracts signing them into a record label demand full control of master recordings, from anywhere between 10 to 35 years, and often even longer. As with what happened to Swift, these recordings can then be sold to any label or independent investor, regardless of whether or not they had any hand in the creation of the music themselves. Essentially, what this means is that the individuals in ownership of these recordings can earn an entire paycheck without having to lift a finger of their own. So, through rerecording her old music, Swift is participating in an act of retaliation against the systemic problems within the industry, which for decades, has allowed businesses to exploit and capitalize on artists’ creativity.

And it has paid off, too. Inevitably, loyal fans have been supporting Swift’s updated versions of her older albums, significantly diminishing the value of the original recordings. Just recently, her new version of the 2012 classic Red broke the all-time Spotify streaming debut for any album by a female artist (half of the streams were probably mine). Being in ownership of these masters, she is now under full control to independently license and distribute the album without exploitation.

Swift is not nearly the first artist to rerecord her music — In the past, artists such as the Everly brothers and Frank Sinatra have gone through a similar process during battles against recording labels. However, the impact of her decision has been unprecedented, with the success of her projects sending already worried recording labels into a frenzy, while prompting a whole new generation of up-and-coming artists to negotiate the rights to what should have always been theirs. In her struggle for her masters, Swift has made it clear; when it comes to artists’ ownership, she will not shake it off.