If you’ve visited the internet over the past few days, you’re aware that Taylor Swift is in the midst of yet another feud.
On the face of it, it’s against her old record label Big Machine and its new owner Scooter Braun.
After a lengthy Tumblr post where Swift explained how she has no control over her past work and why Braun owning it is her worst case scenario, the conversation has taken quite a turn.
All anyone can talk about now is whose side they are on, whether Braun really is a bully (as Swift alleges), and most importantly, who Ariana Grande will support.
This noise is all we’ve been hearing on a toxic sphere of the Interweb. None of this takes a look at the real problem everyone is aware of and yet continues to ignore – the music industry’s exploitation of its artists.
The music industry is definitely not known for being a good or healthy working environment. A terrible cycle of abuse and misogyny is often (poorly) hidden under the shining appeal of the Billboard Hot 100 (Chris Brown, anyone?).
Worse off are young artists who sign on to big labels in hopes of success, inevitably landing onto airtight contracts through which they sign away their freedom and ownership of their music. Labels then control not only the artist’s work itself, but also their image and how much money they make off their own music. Prince once compared these contracts to slavery, and he wasn’t off the mark.
In this particular case, the cold hard facts are that Braun will own the masters (original recordings) to all of Swift’s previous work, excluding the two singles from her forthcoming album which is under a different label. Big Machine and Braun, as its owner, will continue to profit off her music in perpetuity. Not only will someone else have full ownership over Swift’s music thus far, but it is also someone she claims tried to dismantle her musical legacy (Braun used to be Kanye West’s manager).
Regardless of what side you pick in this drama, it’s hard to deny that it is unfair to an artist to have to see their work in someone else’s hands. At the end of the day, this is Swift’s life work, and yet she has no rights over it.
Seeing an artist lose her work this way reminds me of the time celebrities were being sued for using paparazzi photos of themselves. That felt ridiculous. This is worse. When Swift did try to buy her music back from Big Machine, she claims she was presented an unacceptable deal. She would have to release a new album through the label to earn just one of her previous albums back and keep producing new albums until they were all hers.
If one of the world’s biggest pop stars has no control over her life’s work, what rights do less privileged artists have? How badly are they being exploited?
It is also important to acknowledge that Swift has accused Braun of bullying her for years. Yet none of this will have any impact on his ownership of her brainchild. All this case does is make it clear how women in the music industry – even powerful women – are forced to stay connected to men they have openly tried to sever contact with.
One is immediately reminded of Kesha’s legal battle against Sony and Dr. Luke, where she was legally obligated to remain with the label despite accusing her producer of raping her and claiming her label knew about the abuse. Sony continues to have control over Kesha, so much so that her career might as well be over due to her contract with the label.
There’s a long history of record labels mistreating and exploiting artists; of keeping a tight leash over their creative license and not letting them own or profit off of their art. Many artists have tried to break free; Jay Z by creating his own streaming service in Tidal and Chance the Rapper by sticking to platforms like SoundCloud.
I'll stick with @SoundCloud till the day I die. Its the only music platform that cares about the artist and the fan.
— Chance The Rapper Album in July (@chancetherapper) May 6, 2015
For Swift, there is hope in the US Copyright Act of 1976, through which she could gain back rights to her music 35 years after the copyright deal was first signed. Paul McCartney has used the same to attempt to get back rights to songs written by him and John Lennon, almost six decades after he lost them.
It’s easy to look at rich and wildly successful celebrities and feel no empathy towards them as they object to not having liberty or ownership over their work. But only an artist can understand the meaning and value of the art they produce, and what is art without freedom?
What is the future of music if left in the tightly controlled hands of executives who only care about the money they feed the capitalist system, and not the art form being produced or the mental health of the artist trying to produce it?
Ending this exploitation is what we should be getting from Swift speaking up. Instead, all we have seen are days of support hashtags and (ironically) bullying from toxic fans on all sides. Going after Sia or sharing fake images of Grande supporting Swift will help neither artists nor their art.
Swift has used her influential platform to start an important conversation, then why are we refusing to have it?
She deserves better, and so do all other artists who have no choice but to put up with their labels because they know fans care about drama, but not justice.