Bullying, child labour, and the tale of Taylor Swift’s masters [op-ed]
On New Year’s Eve, Taylor Swift attended a party where all the guests dressed as their childhood heroes. There was Gigi Hadid as Mary Poppins and Blake Lively as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Taylor went as Ariel from The Little Mermaid.
The logistics of negotiating a NYE bash while wearing a mermaid’s tail aside (Taylor clearly hadn’t seen the Season 2 Halloween episode of 90210, or Tori Spelling’s own struggles with a mermaid costume would have served as a cautionary tale), this was a very telling costume; a harbinger of future doom.
In Little Mermaid, a young girl falls in love with a dashing Prince named Eric, despite the fact that she is a fish and his name is Eric. When a violent storm throws him off a boat, she rescues him, and brings him to shore, soothing him with her lovely singing voice. She swims away as he regains consciousness in order to keep her scaly secret, but that voice enchants his waking hours, and he vows to track her down and have interspecies relations. Meanwhile, in her own attempts to make him fall in love with her, she makes a Faustian pact in which she is turned into a leggy human for three days.
In exchange, she agrees to give away her voice to a powerful villain.
Taylor Swift gave away her voice when she was just 15. With her father Scott Swift acting as her guardian, she signed a deal with the fledgling Big Machine Records, in which she would record six albums for them, recordings which the label would own the masters to. For a 15-year-old this seemed like a fairy tale situation, being able to release records that she wrote and sang, but as Swift explained over the weekend, the way she sees it is that her life’s work was stolen from her. Following her understanding of what this theft actually entailed, she was then denied the chance to buy her own creations back, as they were instead sold to the highest bidder – a man who she claims has been a constant bully to her.
By now, you’re probably all well versed in this thorny saga, but for those playing catch-up, here is how things went down. A word of warning though – you probably haven’t experienced shit this petty since Gabi told Dani you didn’t really wanna go to your year ten formal with Robbie – or something. Strap in.
Now, because the record industry is based around commercial enterprise, Big Machine Records, the label that released and owns the rights to the first six Taylor Swift albums (everything, bar her forthcoming album), was last week sold to Scooter Braun, the superstar manager to the likes of Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and his former charge Kanye “I can’t be managed” West. Scooter is the aforementioned bully in this tale.
The deal was announced on Sunday morning, after which Taylor Swift fired off an angry Tumblr post where she accused Braun and Big Machine head Scott Borchetta of conspiring against her, the reasoning being spite – because she wouldn’t re-sign with Big Machine, Borchetta wanted to exert control over her legacy by handing it off to a man with nefarious motives.
“Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words ‘Scooter Braun’ escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to,” she wrote. “He knew what he was doing; they both did. Controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity. That means forever.”
She referred to the deal as “my worst case scenario”, adding “essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”
Swift claimed she only found out about the sale “as it was announced to the world”, saying: “All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at [Braun’s] hands for years,” listing of a litany of past bullying associated with but not actually carried out by Scooter: a jeering Justin Bieber Instagram post featuring Bieber, Braun and Kanye; Kim Kardashian’s leaking of a phone call in which Taylor happily agreed to Kanye referencing her in ‘Famous’, a call she’d previously denied ever happened; and Kanye’s subsequent “revenge porn music video [for ‘Famous’] which strips my body naked.”
Swift stated that for years she “pleaded” to buy back her masters, and instead she was “given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and ‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in.” She didn’t end up re-signing to the label because she figured that Borchetta would leverage her contract just to shore up the label’s value before selling it, “thereby selling me and my future.
“I had to make the excruciating choice to leave behind my past. Music I wrote on my bedroom floor and videos I dreamed up and paid for from the money I earned playing in bars, then clubs, then arenas, then stadiums.”
She signed off her missive with, “Sad and grossed out” – and then the internet exploded.
Bieber quickly offered up a non-apology for his original “distasteful and insensitive” post, in which he first claimed Braun and he were both vehement supporters of hers, before admonishing her for trying to both garner sympathy and incite her fans to “bully” Scooter. He then provided a cautionary tale of what happens when a child is dragged out of school at age 13, ending his post with the jazz run: “I usually don’t rebuttal things like this but when you try and deface someone i loves character thats crossing a line..” [fully sic].
So that’s Bieber’s two Canadian cents. The most searing response came from Scooter Braun’s wife, Yael who pointed out a number of factual gulfs in Swift’s version of the tale, with her most pointed barb regarding the idea of ‘bullying’, which, you may have gleamed, is a big theme in this embarrassingly public spat.
“And girl, who are you to talk about bullying?” she asked. “The world has watched you collect and drop friends like wilted flowers. My husband is anything but a bully, he’s spent his life standing up for people and causes he believes in…
“Beyond that, it’s easy to see the point of putting this out was to get people to bully him. You are supposed to be a role model but continue to model bullying.”
That’s the second charge of bullying levelled against Taylor so far.
Yael then rightly points out that her husband cannot actually control his clients, especially when said clients have histories of pissing in mop buckets, and raising the ire of two separate presidents, while courting a third who many firmly believe may destroy the world. (Spoiler: He won’t.)
“Don’t blame him because Kim caught you in a lie,” Yael continues, “it’s embarrassing, I know—but adults own up to their mistakes. We learn and grow from them, we don’t divert blame and blur the lines of reality to suit our needs.
“Scott (Scooter) was so excited to work and build with you. How embarrassing this temper tantrum is because you didn’t get your own way.”
Hours later, Big Machine head Borchetta pulled receipts on her claims, which we’ll get to shortly.
First a note regarding the number of Scotts in Taylor’s life: her former label boss, her father, her aggressor. It’s too many Scotts for any person and certainly for any story, so from this point forward Scooter Braun will be Scott 1, Taylor’s dad will be Scott 2 and Big Machine Borchetta will be Scott 3. It’s a wonder Scott Disick hasn’t been dragged into the fray, drunk on scotch, wearing a kilt and holding a copy of Gatsby for good measure. Great Scott!
By Sunday evening, it was time for Borchetta (Scott 3) to “rebuttal things like this,” as Bieber would say. The label head wrote a long post on the Big Machine website, a rather nasty shot at the woman around whose talent he built his fortune, a woman that he discovered as a 15-year-old girl and shepherded into super stardom, whose father (Scott 2) he claims was still a shareholder in his company at the time of the sale, a sale in which her masters were the sole reason he was able to command such a high price for.
Make no mistake, this is a personal fight, and Scott 3 (great album) brought a little bit of emotion, and a whole lot of cold, hard proof.
Under the headline, “So, It’s Time For Some Truth,” which sounds like something Bob Dylan would snarl on stage before kicking into ‘Hurricane’, he laid out his version of events.
Firstly, like Scott 1’s wife, he refuted the claim that Taylor simply, innocently woke up to discover the sale with the rest of the world, explaining how Scott 2 was actually a shareholder in Big Machine. Although he wasn’t personally on the shareholder’s phone call five days before the announcement, during which the sale was discussed and voted upon, both Taylor’s manager and management lawyer were.
It is inconceivable that her manager, her lawyer, and her father (Scott 2) would have all kept her in the dark regarding this major decision. Scott 3 also claims he messaged her at 9:06pm (cos precision is important) on Saturday evening to give her a heads up that it would be announced the next morning.
He also posted the document with deal points regarding the transfer of her masters and the new recording contract between Taylor and Big Machine that would have facilitated this transfer. Here it is, a deal that Taylor’s management team and attorney looked over “in great detail” and that she and Scott 3 talked through afterwards.
Skip over this if you like, as both me and Scott 3 will summarise it for you shortly.
“As you will read, 100% of all Taylor Swift assets were to be transferred to her immediately upon signing the new agreement. We were working together on a new type of deal for our new streaming world that was not necessarily tied to ‘albums’ but more of a length of time.”
Basically, Taylor wanted to sign for seven years under this “new type of deal”, Big Machine wanted ten. Standard negotiation stuff. Back to you, Scott 3.
“We are an independent record company. We do not have tens of thousands of artists and recordings. My offer to Taylor, for the size of our company, was extraordinary. But it was also all I could offer as I am responsible for dozens of artists’ careers and over 120 executives and their families.
“Taylor and I remained on very good terms when she told me she wanted to speak with other record companies and see what was out there for her. I never got in her way and wished her well.”
The negotiations broke down, as is often the case when two massive corporations attempt to come to terms.
This may seem like a personal squabble in light of all this tumblring, and gramming and Biebering, but it’s mostly just the airing of the boring mechanics of a major business deal worth many millions of dollars, potentially spanning decades. Soon afterwards, Taylor signed to UMG, after rejecting Big Machine’s terms. “As we both posted on our socials, we saluted each other and cheered each other on,” Scott 3 continues. “Taylor had every chance in the world to own not just her master recordings, but every video, photograph, everything associated to her career. She chose to leave.”
Scott 3 then flatly denied witnessing Taylor being upset due to Scooter (sorry, I mean Scott 1) at any time, adding a number of pointed shots about Braun offering her slots on the Manchester and Parklands charity concerts which she declined.
The most telling part of his post is, if verified, a text Taylor sent him last November, which reads in part: “Since communication ran dry on our negotiations, I’ve done what I told you I would do and gone out exploring other options. Owning my masters was very important to me, but I’ve since realised that there are things that mean even more to me in the bigger picture. I had a choice whether to bet on my past or to bet on the future and I think knowing me, you can guess which one I chose.”
The text ended with: “What we accomplished together will be a lasting legacy and a case study on excellent partnerships, and may it continue. I still view you as a partner and friend and I hope you feel the same. Sending you a hug and my most sincere gratitude. And SO much love, Taylor”.
Taylor bet on her future, while Braun and Borchetti bet on her past. If this was a podcast, this is when we would slam-cut into audio of ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’.
That this latest drama has been made so public is no surprise. Taylor’s entire career has been built around dragging her private life into her music. Taylor as a person and the music of Taylor are inextricably linked. It is the most vital aspect to her lasting success, more than her songwriting skills, her voice, anything. When she was a talented teen and twenty-something this took the form of heartbroken kiss offs and giddy love letters; the thrill for fans was knowing (or debating) which of the not-so-veiled references pertained to which of her celebrity boyfriends. There was the literal and metaphorical ‘Dear John’ letter to John Mayer, a ‘Last Kiss’ for Joe Jonas, she went ‘Back To December’ pining over Taylor Lautner, and aimed ‘The Last Time’ squarely at Jake Gyllenhaal. More recently she knew Harry Styles was trouble, and was thankful to be ‘Out Of The Woods’ after seeing the pants he wore on the Graham Norton show.
But as she shifted from country star to pop artist to iconic one-name legend, it became less about romance and more about any perceived slight aimed at her. She no longer needed the music. She picked fights in public, acting as the injured party every time. It was grating, but it remained fun to watch. And her music stayed good, aside from when it was lifted from ‘Right Said Fred.’
She fought with Kim Kardashian, who proved too savvy to be toyed with, winning their tussle by simply recording Taylor and letting her lies do all the work. She fought with Katy Perry over a goddamn backing dancer. She continued to fight with Kanye, who will clearly say or do anything on the merest whim without regard for public perception – always a terrible type of nemesis to choose.
She also rallied against Spotify and Apple Music, keeping her music off these platforms for a while under the guise of being a public protest against unfair royalty rates. While she may have been correct that such services undervalue music, it is more correct that this was less a general statement about artistic value and more a specific one based on her own singular leveraging power and ability to command full price music purchases from each of her many loyal fans.
Such is the case with this latest public palaver. Swift affixed a greater-good framework to her argument, writing that “hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation” while elsewhere in her post making it bleedingly obvious that this is a personal matter fought on personal grounds, with bullying and revenge and loyalty and excruciating choices, and all the heightened language of a lover scorned.
One argument that seems to have been largely overlooked, however, during all these barbs and all these Scotts is: why are 15-year-olds, legally and morally speaking, allowed to sign contracts that will keep them in servitude for over a decade, signing over the rights to their life’s work in the process?
The way in which child labour laws seem not to apply in the entertainment world is baffling to begin with, but think about it: a 15-year-old can’t even buy a ticket to see Superbad in the cinema. (In this scenario, it’s one of those ‘retro’ cinemas that plays old films.) They cannot legally have sex. In a lot of places, they cannot drive a vehicle unsupervised, nor drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or relate to ‘Office Space’.
Yet, Taylor Swift was allowed to sign a contract that locked her in for most of her teens and her entire 20s. Everything she created, from that point forward, belonged to someone else. To ‘exploit’ however they choose. That’s the wording in most standard recording contracts – they literally tell you that your work will be exploited.
Then, when she wanted to buy back the masters to her songs, something she probably didn’t fully understand the legalities or technicalities of when signing them away forever, the only way she could do so was to sign another decade of her life to this same company, with no recourse if, as she suspected and as has proven to be the case, Scott 3 sold the company out under her.
This is a personal battle. Taylor has every right to be very pissed off at the situation she found herself in on Sunday. Most of her anger was aimed at the wrong Scotts however, and should instead be directed at her father, who could have protected her from the type of deal that Scott 1 offered up in 2003. Now, Taylor benefitted enormously from this deal, as did everyone involved. There is no argument to be made that suggests otherwise.
But make no mistake, she gave away her voice.
Now, Taylor has signed to a bigger company, with even less stability, but under far more favourable conditions. Moving forward, she will at least own her masters. Which is a victory. A happy ending to this fairytale. Unless, of course, the unforeseen occurs, and they happen to burn…