Let’s assume it can be done, even though we don’t know. Let’s take Taylor Swift’s word for it when she says she is going to rerecord the six albums she recorded for the Big Machine label before signing to Republic/Universal last autumn. Let’s presume her contract with Big Machine did not contain clauses preventing soundalike re-recordings, or prevent her from taking new runs at old tracks until a certain time period had elapsed.
The news came in a preview for her interview on Good Morning America, scheduled to air this Sunday, in which Tracy Smith asked if she was planning to make new versions of all her masters. “Oh yeah,” Swift replied. “That’s a plan?” Smith asked. “Yeah, absolutely.” She has said recording will commence in November 2020. “I’m going to be busy,” she told Smith.
Why would she do it? It’s a response to the sale of Big Machine by her former mentor Scott Borchetta to Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun. Braun is also in effect Kanye West’s manager (West supposedly dislikes the term “manager”). Swift, writing about the sale on her Tumblr site in late June, said Braun was responsible for “incessant, manipulative bullying”, citing an incident when West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, leaked a recording of a phone call between Swift and West, and West putting a naked likeness of Swift in a video (reappraise yourself of the whole saga, if needs be).
Big Machine now owns the master recordings of Swift’s first six albums – which she has said she was never given the opportunity to own, nor to buy the label herself. This means someone Swift despises can now do exactly what he wants with her recordings: if he wanted to license them to porn films or adverts for weapons of mass destruction, he probably could. Swift’s new deal with Republic gives her ownership of her master recordings, so anything she records for them, she has ownership of (and a much greater share of the revenue from).
Still, while the terms of Swift’s deal with Republic weren’t made public – Universal announced only that it was “a multi-album agreement” – it would be surprising if the label would allow its marquee artist to devote her time with them to rerecording old music rather than giving them new albums. But, still, let’s assume it’s going to happen anyway.
Artists have rerecorded their music before, for similar reasons – when they were unhappy with whichever label owned their masters. As part of a long-running dispute with Universal over digital royalty rates, in 2012 Def Leppard forbade the company from using its own music for anything other than physical product, and began recording “forgeries” of their old hits – from which they would take 70% of the revenue – for use on download and streaming services.
Two years before that, Squeeze also released re-recordings of their old songs as the album Spot the Difference, hoping these new versions would be used in adverts and films, rather than the originals, which were owned by – you guessed it – Universal. “The fact we do not (and never will) own the recordings of some of our best work is simply not fair,” Glenn Tilbrook wrote at the time. At a lesser level, Greg Kihn recorded new versions of old hits in 2000, again to gain the financial benefits when they were licensed for other uses, and again to stop Universal reaping all the rewards.
Swift’s case seems to be closest to that of Def Leppard. Both are superstar acts who were financial mainstays for their respective labels. And in both cases, one might detect a certain spirit of vengeance. Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott also took the view that his band had built their label in the first place, and deserved more respect. “We bought that building in the 80s, and they treat us like shit,” he said. “We’ve become irrelevant to the label, so we’re putting on the battle armour.”
While Swift almost certainly does not need the money from licensing new versions of Shake It Off or I Knew You Were Trouble, her dislike of Braun appears to be so great that she would do almost anything to prevent him benefitting from the originals. And she has an unusual degree of power within the music industry.
She’s also counting on her loyal fans to follow her. And, doubtless, some will. But will everyone? Because a song is more than just a collection of notes and words; it is also a moment captured in time. And new versions of old songs, however perfect they might be in their re-creation, are different moments. An old song is like a favourite pair of jeans; you know how the song fits you. Much as I like Def Leppard, for example, I didn’t bother going to their “forgeries” when they were the only official versions online. If I wanted to hear them on a computer, I just went over to YouTube. Swift released her debut album when she was 16, and she sounds like a 16-year-old on those songs; if a 29-year-old Swift were to re-record it note-for-note, she couldn’t recapture the girlish quality that gave her debut its charm.
Maybe that’s not what she’s planning. Perhaps she’s going to shun like-for-like re-creations and reinvent those old albums. That would be interesting, though likely still just a curio. But I don’t think so. It wouldn’t have any great impact on Braun for one thing. In fact, I suspect this project will never reach completion. Swift may well be driven by a supreme sense of self and desire to control her destiny, but those very characteristics will surely prevent her dedicating so much time to something that will only hold her back. Her last few years have been dedicated to progress; why start moving backwards?