Taylor Swift's Big Machine Battle is Part of a Bigger Problem

It was late on Thursday evening. I was writing the article that would be released on Friday, as I would be busy and would not have time to write it on the day. After I finished it, I checked Twitter - only to discover a story that was absolutely screaming to be written about. Taylor Swift, the AMAs 'Artist of the Decade', had released a plea to her fans to fight her old record label, who were refusing to give her permission to perform some of her earlier songs live at the AMAs.

Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun, the men behind the Big Machine label, had told her that she was not allowed to perform these songs, as this would be a breach of her contract which stated that she wasn't allowed to re-record these songs until 2020. With the AMAs being a live television performance, this constitutes a re-recording, hence their position. Additionally, they were also blocking the use of her Big Machine era songs in an upcoming Netflix documentary about Swift.

I didn't have the time that night to write another article, but this may actually have been a good thing, as the story has now had time to develop. Since Swift's plea has gone out, her fans have rallied around her, and Big Machine appear to have folded. Their statement, released yesterday, reads:

"The Big Machine Label Group informed Dick Clark Productions today that they have agreed to grant all licenses of their artists' performances to stream post show and for re-broadcast on mutually approved platforms. It should be noted that recording artists do not need label approval for live performances on television or any other live media. Record label approval is only needed for contracted artists' audio and visual recordings and in determining how those works are distributed."

However, despite the apparent win for Swift, this statement has still attracted attention, notably because of the mention of Dick Clark Productions (who are producing the AMAs), who have completely denied their involvement in this process.

What a strange lie for Big Machine to tell. It also seems that their statement is contradictory; if "artists do not need label approval for live performances on television", then why did they need to "grant all licenses of their artists' performances to stream post show and for re-broadcast on mutually approved platforms"?

But this controversy goes beyond Swift and Big Machine, whose feud has highlighted a larger issue in the music industry - the power of labels. The article on Friday mentioned that a lot of artists are now forgoing labels in order to retain creative control of their music, because labels are known for pressuring artists into sounding a certain way, normally different of how they actually would like their music to sound. Furthermore, once you sign that contract, the label officially becomes the owner of your music, both released and unreleased. Imagine that you write your own songs, you record them, you perform them live, but you don't own them. Legally, they are not yours.

That doesn't seem right. Surely the songs should belong to the writers and the performers, and it should be they who decide what can be done with them. Labels do a lot of good work in terms of financing the recordings, as well as promotion and distribution, but for them to own the songs seems a step too far, and that's not to mention the unfair royalty deals that are often struck.

Mick Hucknall left Warner after calling their deal "immoral".

Taylor Swift is far from the only person to have issues with the ownership of her songs; in 2000, Mick Hucknall parted ways with his label at Warner Bros., calling their deal "immoral". Warner kept all the Masters of his work, refusing him access, and from their relationship alone, made £192m from his music. Hucknall himself made just £20m, just over a TENTH of their profits. That is ludicrous.

Labels can also use their power to try and control their artists. Scottish artist Nina Nesbitt left her label in 2016, due to the way they were treating her. She said at the time:

“For the past couple years I’ve felt a lot pressure to have a hit, to sound like other people, to keep it safe, become someone I’m not comfortable being. Of course I’m ambitious, but I want to have success as ME, not someone I feel pressured into being. Sometimes people forget the ‘product’ they are working with is actually a human being.”

She later added that "Being told to date the right person, be seen with the right crowd or do something to be in the tabloids is just really insulting", and she's not wrong. That the label saw fit to tell her who to date and who to be friends with is a damning indictment on not only how much power labels have, but also how they choose to use it. Whether it be a copyright/licensing issue of the songs, or a more human issue about how they treat their artists, labels can be a nightmare to work with and with these issues coming to light in the last few years, it's easy to see why many artists are choosing to stay independent - which brings us back round to Friday's article.

The music industry can be a dangerous and intimidating place for artists, particularly those who are young and perhaps a bit naive. It needs some serious reform that would prevent the record labels from taking advantage of their artists in any way they like, and actually treat them like the human beings they are. After all, it is the artists that bring the money into the labels, so is a bit of respect and human decency to much to ask for? The matter of music ownership also needs a serious check-up, as labels should not be able to prevent artists from retrieving their masters or performing their own songs.

This is far from a new problem; artists and labels have endured uncomfortable relationships for decades. But as the entertainment industry grows and greed becomes ever-more apparent, the fight for control only heightens. The labels want the money, but the artists want to be true to themselves. Labels also recognise that the Internet has paved the way for independence, and they will therefore try ever harder to entice people into signing their deals. These deals are almost never struck with the artist in mind, with money and power being the label's only concern. Record deals can be a consent to abuse, which sounds awful and contradictory, but if that signed contract includes clauses regarding music ownership, creative control and small prints regarding your personal life, that's exactly what it is.

We all love music, but there's a dark underbelly in the industry that needs to be addressed. If left unchecked, labels will only abuse their power more, until artists merely become their pawns.