Per her original Big Machine contract, Swift can re-record all her old masters as of early this month. Promising “plenty of surprises in store,” Swift says she recently began this process. But, assuming she follows through, what can we expect? Never mind that the 30-year-old megastar will no longer sound like the hungry and empathetic teenager she was when she first sang “15.” (Although today’s Taylor Swift may do a better job of imitating, say, 1989-era Taylor Swift.) How will she drive listeners to stream the new versions of her songs when classics like 2014’s “Blank Space” have drawn nearly 2.7 billion YouTube views and more than 436 million Spotify plays? While her passionate fans have pledged to support her here (“We all will be deleting all of her old music from our playlists and apps and will only be streaming Taylor’s art owned by Taylor,” tweeted one fan earlier this month), the answer, as always, really comes down to money.
Swift will need her powerful label, Universal Music Group-owned Republic Records, to aggressively market her new recordings through advertising, social media and search-engine optimization. When a Spotify user, or even one of Spotify’s own curators, adds a Swift hit to a playlist, she’ll want them to choose the new recording, not one owned by Shamrock; when a music fan googles “Fearless,” she’ll want the new recording to lead the results, not the 12-year-old original; when somebody asks Alexa to play “Speak Now,” she’ll want the new version to come up, not the 2010 original.
The people at Republic are skilled at doing all these things. But there’s a catch. A different Universal division continues to distribute Big Machine’s recordings, even under the new Shamrock ownership, and those include Swift’s early catalog. That creates competition within the same company: One side potentially working to ensure the 2010 “Speak Now” is Alexa’s choice and another trying to change the default to the new re-recording. Who will win? The short answer: Universal. The label will continue to profit from just about everything involving Taylor Swift, including publishing. The more nuanced answer is that Republic’s CEO, Monte Lipman, and his boss, UMG’s CEO Lucian Grainge, are likely to go along with anything their biggest-selling star wants to do.
Still, if all this comes to pass, the result will be… confusing. Artists including Def Leppard, Squeeze, Blue Oyster Cult and JoJo have re-recorded their originals over the years, and while some of JoJo’s newer material has generated big streaming numbers, none of these re-recordings are major hits. Then again, none of these acts are the world’s biggest pop stars, and they haven’t come close to matching Swift’s ability to generate sales, streams and attention.
The new owners of Swift’s master recordings seem unfazed by the singer’s long-stated goal to undercut her early catalog with new material they don’t own. They know she despises the guy who continues to have some kind of stake in them: Braun, who manages Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande and once represented her nemesis, Kanye West. Braun’s company bought Swift’s first label, Big Machine, in June last year and took over ownership of those early recordings. This week, Braun sold them to Shamrock, which offered Swift a partnership. But because “under their terms [Braun] will continue to profit off my old musical catalog for many years,” the idea was a “non-starter,” she tweeted.
“While we hoped to formally partner,” Shamrock said in a statement, “we also knew this was a possible outcome that we considered.”
In the end, Shamrock is betting Swift’s original recordings will always be more valuable than any re-recordings. They may be right. No matter how formidable 2020 Taylor Swift and her team may be, no matter how righteous her cause, no matter how lovingly and authentically she recreates her original songs in the studio, it’ll be hard to overcome the power of clicking on the original “You Belong With Me” by 2008 Taylor Swift. But then again, if Swift can cause a big enough headache or drive down the value of those early masters enough, she could wind up in a better position to make the kind of deal she’s been looking for all along.