If you pay close attention, you can hear it: there’s a new lushness in the opening banjo twangs, and an extra beat when she sings the lyric “Just say yes.” But the difference between the 2008 version of Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” which helped propel Swift to pop stardom, and the 2021 rerelease of that same song is pretty subtle. Called “Taylor’s Version” on streaming platforms, the new mix will soon be followed by rerecordings of Swift’s back catalog, beginning with the rest of her album Fearless, which arrives April 9.
In these rerecordings, the lyrics and production haven’t changed that much: it’s Swift’s business that’s shifted. Now 31, Swift has gone full indie-pop—as shown by her Grammy-winning turn on her recent album Folklore. But beneath those dreamy soundscapes is an artist who’s been fighting for years now to manage the means, method of production, and distribution of her work. Art makes us feel things, a craft at which Swift is a master. Art also makes money, and Swift is equally adept at that. Her goal now: make sure it stays within her control. It’s a pipe dream for artists of any kind. But Swift has power that most don’t, and her very personal fight to reshape the way wealth is distributed from creative work is a potential model for wrestling compensation back from industry forces.
Swift signed to Big Machine Records in 2005, a fresh-faced Nashville singer with a guitar and long blond hair. The contract expired in 2018 but not before she rocketed to radio-play heights with hits like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and crossed into the pop stratosphere with sold-out stadium tours over the course of six albums. When her deal was up, she switched labels to Universal’s Republic Records. Big Machine owns the masters, or original recordings, of her first six albums, as is typical with many recording deals. In her new contract, Swift made sure to secure ownership of her future masters. Changing labels, carving out more agency, updating contract terms—these steps are par for the course for a successful artist. People change, and so do the contracts that govern them.
What is Taylor Swift’s dispute with her old label?
But Swift’s behind-the-scenes moves became front-page news when Big Machine sold to private-equity group Ithaca Holdings, an entity owned by powerhouse music manager Scooter Braun. He then sold her masters to another company, Shamrock Holdings, for a reported $300 million in 2019. On a business level, Braun’s move was smart: Swift’s master recordings reap profits whenever the songs are streamed or bought. On the personal front, it was contentious: Swift claims Braun, who manages stars like Kanye West and Justin Bieber, has repeatedly bullied her, and so she slammed the sale publicly and promised to rerecord those original six albums, this time with the masters under her own control. Anyone who hits play on an old version of Swift’s early songs right now will still pay into the bank of Braun.
Why is Taylor Swift re-recording her albums?
Her hope, it seems, is to override those archival works with these new versions. “Artists should own their own work for so many reasons,” she wrote in a March 2021 Instagram post. “But the most screamingly obvious one is that the artist is the only one who really knows that body of work.” Her choice stirred up responses across the music world, and forced the public to take a long look at the music industry’s quiet corporate machinations.
Artists regularly chafe against their record label contracts; see Kanye West, who very publicly vented against his own contractual obligations just last year. But rarely do they go through the hassle of re-recording and re-releasing old work. Swift, though, is not the usual artist. She had time—a whole year of it, while the pandemic put her touring schedule on pause. And she is meticulous about how her work is consumed and perceived, from the aesthetics of her album covers to the comments she makes on Tumblr fan blogs. Given her unique position, platforms like Spotify have everything to gain by supporting her new versions. Meanwhile, the fans who are the most active streamers of her old music have become well aware of her intentions—and will abide by her wishes. Swift is in the rare position to want to upend the system and actually have the power to do so.
What’s different about Taylor Swift’s new work?
Not much; her re-recordings are, so far, faithful to their original versions—with some subtle production updates, and the newfound maturity in her voice that an extra decade has provided. Swift is also sharing a number of new tracks from what she calls her “vault,” starting with “You All Over Me” with Maren Morris, out March 25.
What’s truly different about Swift’s “new” work is the intention behind it, and developments that have brought her to the place to own it. Every musician is a business, a startup with limited equity to portion out to labels, publishers and other stakeholders. As the business grows, the musician is left with a smaller and smaller piece of that pie. Greater equity was the central consideration of Swift’s label change—along with greater certainty that all who contributed to making the art itself would benefit from their work. “There was one condition that meant more to me than any other deal point,” she wrote at the time: ensuring that profits from the future sale of Spotify shares would be returned to artists. That this financial nitty-gritty is what excited Swift most might seem at odds with her image as a singer-songwriter who performs on sets that look like a cottage in a fairy-tale forest. But that persona hides Swift’s savvy: she’s long understood that artists, even those with brands as powerful as hers, are vulnerable to exploitation. After building an empire writing deeply personal songs, should selling her story really come so cheap?