Artists hate it when they lose control. Never mind that they lose it from the moment they sign their first record deal, it continues to gnaw at them as they become more successful when their career progresses. Some of that control might return if an artist reaches superstar level, but that usually applies to their career going forward, but not what’s behind them.
Such is the extreme case of Taylor Swift, who lost control of her catalog of hits and now wants to regain it by re-recording everything again.
To catch you up, Swift’s record label Big Machine, which owns the rights to all 6 of her hugely successful albums, was acquired about 18 months ago by Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings. Swift contends that she was never consulted on the deal, and therefore never given the chance to buy back her catalog, which caused a contentious relationship with Braun. To further complicate the situation, Ithaca Holdings has now sold the rights to Shamrock Capitol for what seems to be the same amount of money as it acquired it for.
One of the reasons why Ithaca might have sold what could be a lucrative catalog so soon is the fact that Swift has actively prevented the company from exploiting the copyrights by declining any sync right offers for the songs to be placed in television shows or in movies. This is where everyone makes the big bucks, especially with a popular artist with big hits like Taylor Swift.
Swift is going ahead with plans to re-record and independently release all of her hit albums (she’s been legally able to begin to do so since November of last year), but with that comes some risks.
Lightning In A Bottle
Ask anyone who’s made a living in a recording studio and they’ll tell you that a hit record is like capturing lightning in a bottle. It’s unpredictable and sometimes even unrecognizable in that many hits are initially disliked or disregarded by their artists. You get one chance to capture this genius, because after that it’s like chasing the dragon. You get close but never do catch it.
The reason why is that every artist, producer, engineer, songwriter and creative always thinks they should have and could have done their hit project better. Given the second chance to create it, the final product might please the team, but most likely will not capture the essence of the original. The imperfections and innocence of that initial place in time is lost, and it’s not coming back.
We can see this in Swift’s first re-release “Love Story.” Listen to it and then the original side by side and you can hear that the production gets a bit modernized, but all that does it make it a recreation, and not the real deal.
But The Fans Know
The problem here is that most artists don’t listen to their own records after they’ve recorded them. Fans listen over and over, however, and can identify every single nuance as well as every small yet beloved mistake. There’s even some disappointment if these are not reproduced during a live performance even though the artist might not even be aware that’s what the audience is keenly listening for.
Recreating your recordings is a time-consuming process, and one might think that Swift would be better off concentrating on new music instead of repackaging history. New music is the lifeblood of an artist these days, and recycled songs are no substitute, so any forward career momentum is stunted as a result. Not only that, the re-records diminish the value of her catalog since the original songs won’t/can’t be licensed and the updated versions might not be as attractive. This feels like a no-win situation except for the ego of the artist.
Just to be fair, artists have been doing this for decades. Bands from the 60s, 70s and 80s have been re-recording their hits in order to finally make some of the money that they’ve been missing due to egregious record and publishing deals of the time. It’s all understandable from a business perspective, but a real fan knows the difference, and will never accept it.
After working many years in the music business as a producer, engineer and musician, I decided that writing about it is just as much fun and the hours are more regular. I’m now the author of 24 books on recording, music, the music business and social media that are staples in college and university programs around the world (including the best selling “Music 4.1: A Survival Guide For Making Music In The Internet Age),” as well as hundreds of articles in a variety of industry magazines and blogs, and even the occasional television appearance (CNN, ABC News’ “20/20”). When not writing or in the studio, I also keep a busy schedule of keynote addresses, master classes and workshops at various schools and conferences. I also post daily on my popular music production blog and Music 3.0 music industry blog. Find out more at bobbyowsinski.com.