The row between Taylor Swift, Scott Borchetta, founder of her old record label Big Machine, and Scooter Braun, who purchased Big Machine this summer and acquired the masters to the singer’s earliest studio albums in the process, is ugly and getting uglier. Last we heard from the two camps, they were accusing each other of shady business practices. Swift says Braun’s holding company Ithaca Ventures secured the rights to her old recordings without offering her a crack at ownership or an advanced warning about the sale, and has gone as far as to suggest that Scooter has used his sway with artists like Justin Bieber and Kanye West, both of whom Braun has managed in the past, to dirty her reputation. Borchetta says it’s impossible for her to have had no knowledge of the sale, since her father Scott Swift, who remains a Big Machine shareholder, was made aware of the deal days prior, and participated in a vote on it.
As if the case isn’t confusing enough, Swift released a statement across her social media on Thursday night claiming that Braun and Borchetta are complicating plans for a performance at the American Music Awards, where she is to be named the artist of the decade, and a forthcoming Netflix documentary about her life by threatening to prevent her from playing her own music, on the condition that she’ll agree to stop speaking about Braun and cancel plans to rerecord her back catalogue, a shrewd move she intends to make as the author of her songs and the owner of the publishing who lacks a stake in the control of the original recordings. Swift asked her fans to make their frustrations known to Braun, Borchetta, and the artists affiliated with them, hoping they can “talk some sense into the men who are exercising tyrannical control over someone who just wants to play the music she wrote.” Big Machine categorically denies barring the singer from the use of her music. They say they’ve honored every request to do so, and they’re surprised she’s upset.
A few hours after Swift’s post, a groundswell of fan support sent the hashtag #IStandWithTaylor to the top of Twitter’s United States trending topics. By nightfall, Verge reported attempts at doxxing Scooter and Scott’s private phone numbers and home addresses. In 2019, hell hath no fury like a fandom scorned. Nicki Minaj declares war on an adversary on her Beats 1 show Queen Radio, and her Barbz run defense like an army. Tyler, the Creator got a poignant reminder of how feisty the Odd Future fandom gets at his Flog Gnaw festival last weekend, when he brought out Drake as a surprise performer, and a section of the crowd booed until he left. You can catch hell even if you mean well; Lana del Rey’s displeasure with music journalist Ann Powers’s mostly favorable review of Norman Fucking Rockwell kicked up a loud fuss this summer. (These fandoms’ organized worker-bee tendencies were never on better display than the week where fans tried to stop Tool’s Fear Inoculum from edging out Norman and Lover on the charts.)
It’s possible that we’ll never know the complete story of the animus over who owns Taylor Swift’s back catalogue. Big Machine denies every allegation of foul play and seems to want people thinking that if Swift fudged facts in her spat with Kanye West, she could do it again. Taylor won’t budge. To hear her tell it, this is all just industry men who can’t write songs leeching off the art of the singers and songwriters who can. There are historical precedents. Prince advocated powerfully for artists owning their masters, waging a nearly 20-year battle with Warner Bros. for control of his own, a fight he only won in the last years of his life. More recently, Iggy Azalea closed out years of career turmoil when she walked away from Island Records an independent artist with her own imprint and a measure of control over her vault.
Taylor Swift is crafty enough to make it out of this current tight spot and still gifted and in enough demand to stay busy while the kinks are sorted out. Last night’s release of her new song “Beautiful Ghosts,” an original written with the legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber for the coming Cats remake, showcases her musical theater chops. It’s melodramatic and a bit convoluted, because Cats is crazy as shit — to quote a popular response to the film’s haunted trailer, “Why do the cats have titties?” Swift’s British accent isn’t up to snuff (after all these years), but “Ghosts” wisely avoids the hard details of Webber’s feline rapture story, leaning instead on scene-setting mysticism, windswept intensity, and raw emotion. Did her voice crack at the end of the bridge because she got lost in the feeling, or was it just a very convincing performance of said feeling? The greatest showmen never tell.