Record Labels Keen To Prevent Artists From Doing Taylor Swift-Esque Re-Recordings

31 October 2023 | 4:33 pm | Ellie Robinson

Warner, Sony and Universal have all been accused of overhauling contracts to restrict artists’ rights.

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift (Supplied)

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Taylor Swift has made some pretty major waves with her re-recorded versions of earlier albums – the most recent being a new take on 1989, which arrived just last week. But according to a new report, record labels are keen to prevent other artists from heading down similar paths.

Swift began re-recording her records to fight back against controversial entrepreneur Scooter Braun after he bought the artist’s former label, Big Machine – and thus the masters to Swift’s first six albums – in 2018. She’s unable to release those albums as they originally existed, but thanks to a loophole in her old contract with Big Machine, she’s well within her rights to release new versions of the songs on them (as well as archival tracks that weren’t released the first time around). So far she’s released four Taylor’s Version re-do albums: Fearless and Red in 2021, then Speak Now and 1989 this year.

As reported by Billboard, all three of the global majors – Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group – have all taken measures to restrict artists on their rosters from making the same move as Swift. According to veteran industry attorney Josh Karp, who saw the restrictions detailed in a contract from Universal, these measures involve overhauling contracts for new signees to state they must wait up between 10 and 30 years (depending on the artist) before being permitted to re-record releases they don’t own the masters to.

“The first time I saw it [on an artist’s contract],” Karp said, “I tried to get rid of it entirely. I was just like, ‘What is this? This is strange. Why would we agree to further restrictions than we’ve agreed to in the past with the same label?’... It becomes one of a multitude of items you’re fighting.”

Also vouching for the report was fellow attorney Gandhar Savur, who works with the likes of Cigarettes After Sex, Built To Spill and Jeff Rosenstock. He told Billboard: “I recently did a deal with a very big indie that had a 30-year re-record restriction in it. Which obviously is much longer than I’m used to seeing. I think the majors are also trying to expand their re-record restrictions but in a more measured way – they are generally not yet able to get away with making such extreme changes.”

Until recently, it was standard practice for artists to have re-recording rights either two years after their contract expires, or five to seven years after the original recording is released. Swift-esque re-recordings are not hugely common in modern pop, but as Savur noted, her Taylor’s Version efforts may cause that to change: “Obviously, this is a big headline topic – the Taylor Swift thing. Labels, of course, are going to want to do whatever they can to address that and to prevent it. But there’s only so much they can do. Artist representatives are going to push back against that, and a certain standard is ingrained in our industry that is not easy to move away from.”

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According to Dina LaPolt, another music business attorney, the restrictions are causing problems in the negotiation stages for new signees: “Now, because of all this Taylor Swift stuff, we have an even new negotiation. It’s awful. We’re seeing a lot of ‘perpetuity.’ When we were negotiating deals with lawyers, before we would get the proposal, we’d get the phone call from the head of business affairs. We literally would say, ‘If you send that to me, it will be on Twitter in 10 minutes.’ It never showed up.”

On the other hand, Josh Binder – an attorney who represents artists including SZA, Gunna, Doechii and Marshmello – said the new restrictions are unlikely to cause artists significant problems, since re-recording projects are as rare as they are. “It doesn’t offend me so much,” he told Billboard. “Rarely does it come into play where the re-record treatment is even used. [The labels’] position is, ‘Hey, if we’re going to spend a bunch of money creating this brand with you, then you should not try and create records to compete with us.’ We try and fight it. We try and make it as short as possible. But I don’t find it to be the most compelling issue to fight.”