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Taylor Swift and Big Machine go toe-to-toe in licensing dispute


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Taylor Swift’s latest dispute with Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun continues to blow up: a woman who millions of people think would make an excellent president of the United States weighed in with her views this weekend. In fact, two did: besides Cher, senator Elizabeth Warren also had her say, following the latest salvos from both camps in the battle.

To recap: last week, Swift went public with her claims that her former label Big Machine Label Group was blocking her from performing older tracks as part of a medley at the American Music Awards (AMAs), and also refusing to license the use of certain tracks and past performances from a planned Netflix documentary about her career.

What’s new? Big Machine countered with a statement. “At no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the AMAs or block her Netflix special. In fact, we do not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere,” said the company. It went on to claim that Swift “has admitted to contractually owing millions of dollars and multiple assets to our company”; that it has “continued to honor all of her requests to license her catalog to third parties”; and that “to date, not one of the invitations to speak with us and work through this has been accepted”.

Did this defuse the row? It did not. Swift’s team released to Variety the text of an email from Big Machine stating unambiguously that “BMLG will not agree to issue licenses for existing recordings or waivers of its re-recording restrictions” for the Netflix documentary, or a (previously unmentioned) event for Alibaba in China last week. And in another plot twist, Swift’s representative claimed that far from owing money to her former label “an independent, professional auditor has determined that Big Machine owes Taylor $7.9 million dollars of unpaid royalties over several years”.

(Note: the wording in Big Machine’s statement’s appears to be carefully-chosen: Swift’s accusation was not that the company had told her she couldn’t perform on the AMAs or had blocked the Netflix doc, but rather that it was refusing her / it permission to perform / use back-catalogue tracks owned by the label. An AMAs medley just of songs from her latest (and first non-BMLG) album ‘Lover’, and a Netflix doc featuring just tracks from that album would have been legally unproblematic. Although, given that both performance and documentary were focused on her career to date, creatively unsatisfactory from Swift’s point of view.)

Anyway, the world and its uncle has been weighing in on the dispute since. Industry veteran Irving Azoff is in the #StandWithTaylor corner, for example. “Taylor Swift should be allowed to perform her songs where she wants and when she wants. And she should be allowed to use her music to tell her story through her documentary,” said a statement from his Music Artists Coalition. “For a label to take positions contrary to that would be unprecedented. We applaud Taylor for reminding all artists to be aware of their rights and to stand up for themselves.”

And the debate has even got political, with Warren – currently one of the frontrunners for the Democrats presidential nomination – using the episode to fire a broadside at the private-equity industry. “Unfortunately, @TaylorSwift13 is one of many whose work has been threatened by a private equity firm,” tweeted Warren, in reference to the involvement of PE giant The Carlyle Group in the deal that saw Braun’s Ithaca Holdings buy Big Machine for more than $300m earlier this year. “They’re gobbling up more and more of our economy, costing jobs and crushing entire industries. It’s time to rein in private equity firms—and I’ve got a plan for that,” continued Warren.

From music-industry dispute to political hot-potato: this matter is escalating fast. There’s a short-term deadline too: which party will back down by the AMAs, which take place on Sunday? But we’ll leave the last word to Cher, as we would with every Music Ally news story given half the chance. “Babe, this shit has been happening since million selling artists were paid off with a cadillac & a bottle of Jack!! I’m sorry,” she tweeted with the kiss-blow emoji for Swift, and the eyebrow-raising chin-stroking emoji for Braun. Expect more back-and-forth (and emoji-driven commentary) from this row in the coming days.

Stuart Dredge

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