A major moment in music got underway this week, as Taylor Swift’s re-recording of her 2008 album Fearless made its debut. It’s now Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and it’s off to a promising start.
The complete album will be released in April, but the first single, Love Story, has been downloaded more than 10,000 times since its Friday bow, according to MRC Data. Just three songs sold more this week.
The release is the first volley in an ongoing war between Swift, who wants to get back her master recordings of the old material, and the current rights holders, Shamrock Capital. They acquired the rights from Ithaca Holdings, owned by artist manager and Swift’s arch-enemy, Scooter Braun.
Although olive branches have been extended by the rights holders, Swift is determined to control her material’s destiny.
Others have tried this trick via re-recording, including Def Leppard and Squeeze, all with middling success. And who can forget Prince’s ill-fated Crystal Ball in the late ’90s. The logistical nightmare of fulfilling direct mail orders for physical copies in the low bandwidth era sunk that project, although Prince claimed financial success from it.
But Swift is arguably the world’s top pop star. That’s hefty ammunition in an experiment that can blaze a trail for herself and potentially others.
“This process has been more fulfilling and emotional than I could’ve imagined and has made me ever more determined to re-record all of my music,” said the singer, 31, in a statement on social media. She added that the rollout on the song “Love Story” — now called “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” — her first Billboard Top 10 single, would arrive just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) will be released April 9 and feature 26 songs total, including hits like You Belong With Me and Fifteen, along with six unreleased tracks written when Swift was a teenager.
Now, the interesting ethical dilemmas emerge. Does the consumer buy the same music again? More importantly, if you’re a television or film producer that wants to use some Taylor Swift’s music, which version do you use?
What’s interesting is the value being lost by the rights holders. If new versions become the chosen medium for use, then what they’re holding loses major value. Swift has the contractual rights to control her publishing, which is managed by Universal Music Publishing Group. As such, she can veto any use in TV, films, commercials, video games and any and all media.
Streaming services could be prohibited from using the original masters. TikTok, Peloton and other outlets that have no label licensing at the moment will have to cross that bridge.
“She can deny the use outright on the publishing side unless they use the master she wants,” says Mara Kuge, president/founder of Superior Music Corporation. “So she can put something into the publishing license saying: “This usage is contingent upon using the 2021 master.”
There’s also a dilemma facing Universal. They continue to distribute the old recordings, which means they are essentially competing against themselves in any licensing. That could have legal ramifications down the road from one disgruntled side or the other.
Everyone will be watching how future singles and the entire album perform in the market, not the least of them the current rights holders on the old material. It could be yet another triumph for Swift, whose business and marketing savvy is the equal of her music talent.