Taylor Swift has released not one, but two new albums in 2020, but she’s also returning to some of her older work. Swift has decided to re-record her early albums, from her 2006 self-titled debut to 2017’s “Reputation,” creating new master recordings. In doing so, she joins the ranks of artists who, for matters of pride, ownership or money, have taken the step to recut their material.
Swift’s early albums were originally released on Big Machine, a label owned by Swift and her family, Toby Keith, and Scott Borchetta. Last year, Borchetta decided to cash out and sell Big Machine. Entertainment investor Scooter Braun bought the company, which included Swift’s original masters, for $300 million. At the time, she vocally criticized the acquisition and publicly declared her intent to re-record her masters. Then, last month, Braun sold Swift’s masters to an investment firm. According to a note posted by Swift on social media, she was given the opportunity to become a partner in that deal. She declined that offer.
Normally, an artist’s contract would restrict them from recutting material for a period of years, but Swift’s contract apparently gave her the right to re-record those songs without having to wait years and years to do so, which she is starting to do now.
While it may seem like an unusual step, rerecording masters is by no means unprecedented. Sixty years ago, the Everly Brothers were superstars in the early days of the pop record business. At the time, no one gave much thought to artists rerecording their music, but after the Everly Brothers joined Warner Brothers in 1960, one of the first things they did for the label was reissue a greatest hits album featuring re-recordings from their hits recorded on the label Cadence just a few years prior. Warner Brothers made money using the newly created masters, while Cadence went out of business.
After the Everly Brothers re-recording incident, labels wanted to make sure that the artist couldn’t re-record their work quickly, so they built that restriction into their contracts. Generally speaking, artists are prohibited from re-recording their tracks for five years from the delivery of the master recordings or three years from the end of the artists’ contract term, whichever is longer.
Def Leppard’s re-recording saga exemplifies how a band can wait out their contractual obligations. The band debuted in 1983 with “Pyromania” and followed up with “Hysteria” in 1987, and most of their best-heard songs were on those two albums. Their contracts stipulated that they would have a say in the use of their master recordings “in the future.” In 1983, no one was thinking about a future with the ability to play almost any music on earth at any time and anywhere. Fast-forward to the advent of streaming: Def Leppard did not like how little they were being compensated and demanded their record company withdraw all their songs from streaming services. Then, Def Leppard rerecorded all their best-known songs, creating new masters and substituted those versions on all the streaming services until their old record company agreed to better terms. When they did that, they took the new versions down and put the originals back up.
In the case of Taylor Swift, her desire to maintain autonomy over her creative work has led to her declaration that she will rerecord her entire catalog from her 2006 self-titled debut to 2017’s “Reputation.” She has already managed to license the 2020 re-recorded version of “Love Story,” orignally released in 2008, for a match.com advertisement, evidence that her re-recordings will continue to generate millions of dollars in licensing fees.