What Taylor Swift has shown us about ownership in music

By Grace Mundy

On April 9, Taylor Swift released a re-recorded version of her album “Fearless,” which was originally released in 2008. The new version is a result of conflicts over the ownership of Swift’s masters, and was aptly named “Fearless (Taylor’s Version).” Swift first announced her plan to re-record all of her old music in 2019, after her old record label sold her masters, allegedly without Swift’s consent. Because of this, Swift does not have a say in how her old music is licensed and does not receive licensing fees from it.

However, by re-recording her music, Swift would be able to once again have control over how her music is used, as it is likely licensers would prefer to work directly with Swift than through a third party. “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” was the first step in this process.

“Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” stays very true to Swift’s original sound, which was her main goal in re-recording. However, her voice has audibly matured and is accompanied by much smoother production. Additionally, this version contains previously unreleased songs “from the vault” of that era. 

All in all, “Taylor’s version” preserves much of the original charm of “Fearless,” while still managing to improve the overall sound.

Swift is not the first person in the music industry to face complicated legal battles regarding who owns the masters of recorded work. Prince famously feuded with his record label over ownership of his work for much of his career, and only a few years before his death was he able to regain full ownership of his music rights. He was a longtime advocate for artists to receive fair pay and to have ownership of their music. 

Historically, the main purpose of record labels have been to own and license an artist’s music. But, in recent years, more and more singers and bands, such as Beyoncé and Frank Ocean, have been taking ownership of their own music. Ocean even cited Prince as one of the reasons he was inspired to purchase his masters.

Though it is encouraging to see more artists rightfully taking ownership of what they have created, we are also forgetting about the less-established artists who have much less power over their work. Many smaller artists face issues not only with their record labels or contracts, but also with the newer platforms that many of us use everyday–music streaming services.

Streaming services, such as Spotify and Apple Music, are notorious for their lack of transparency regarding deals with record labels and unfair payment to artists. It is nearly impossible to even find data about how much money artists receive per stream. Revenue for streaming companies has been increasing at an incredibly quick rate in recent years. But artists, especially less-established ones, are still making very little money for their work.

With streaming, the Taylor Swifts of the music industry will prosper, but smaller artists feel the impact from these situations. 

Additionally, streaming services create a false narrative that anyone can create music for a living. Though someone may be able to upload songs to Spotify, they would likely make very little money from this endeavor. And though some may argue that streaming services distribute music and create algorithms that boost certain musicians, these algorithms will always come down to luck and privilege. We have seen many biases regarding gender and race in algorithms, and oftentimes, they will only boost a handful of songs, rather than giving every artist an equal chance to be advertised to users.

It is also essential to point out the value that music has. It is art. With the huge numbers of subscribers to streaming services, it is clear that many people enjoy listening to music and see it as a beneficial experience. Art, and the artists who create it, are important to our world, despite the fact that they do not always receive reasonable compensation or recognition for their work.

Despite this, there are only so many things listeners can do, such as buying merchandise or physical copies of music, to support their favorite artists. More importantly, though, it is essential that huge streaming companies make changes with how they pay artists. These companies exist because of musicians. And these musicians must get their fair share of pay.

There is no one right answer about how to ensure better payment for artists. However, it is essential that we find solutions to this problem, and allow artists to profit off of the music that is rightfully theirs.