Can Young Recording Artists Avoid Taylor Swift’s “Worse Case Scenario”?

Pop star’s social media rant unlikely to force change, but is technology the answer?

On June 30, Taylor Swift took to Tumblr to vent about the betrayal she felt when her former record label sold out to Scooter Braun, a powerful music agent implicated in a series of episodes Ms. Swift found humiliating and damaging to her image and her career, including “a revenge porn music video which strips my body naked.” With the sale of Big Machine Label Group went the rights to Ms. Swift’s master recordings, giving Braun’s company Ithaca Holdings control over licensing for all of her past hits. Ms. Swift summed up the situation thus: “Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”

While we understand Ms. Swift’s visceral reaction to the sale of her song’s rights to her bête noir, copyright law does not consider a principal’s feelings. What matters is what’s contained within the four corners of the music contract. And unfortunately, the long-standing music industry practice, memorialized in countless contracts, is that artists assign the rights to their recordings to the record label. As a result:

  • Anyone who wants to perform the song must pay a licensing fee/royalties to the label
  • Anyone who wants to record the song must pay a licensing fee/royalties to the label
  • Anyone who wants to place the song in a movie, TV show, or commercial must pay a licensing fee/royalties to the label

“Anyone” includes the original artist, the one who actually created the hit song. The artist’s rights are limited to whatever the contract allows. If an artist gets into a bad deal, he or she can reclaim the rights to their recordings, but under U.S. Copyright law, they have to wait 37 years.

If this arrangement seems unfair, welcome to the music industry, where record companies have all the leverage and young artists hungry for the deal that will launch their careers basically do as they’re told.

The sad status quo within the recording industry

After Ms. Swift’s Tumblr post lit up the Internet and provoked a proxy war among her fans and supporters of Mr. Braun, industry professionals were quick to downplay any lasting impact the kerfuffle might have on the standard practices of the music industry David Chidekel, a music and entertainment attorney at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae in New York told USA Today, “There’s no potential this will change anything.” Lisa Alter, a music and copyright attorney in New York, calls the standard beginning artist contract, “sort of a devil’s bargain.” Bob Lefsetz, a music writer, attorney, consultant, called the incident just “another brick in the wall of a very long story” that includes the struggles of artists such as Prince and Paul McCartney. He notes that, “Evolution happens very slowly in the music business.”

Technology to the rescue?

Yet, changes are happening, due to technology rather than any moral awakening among record executives, and artists are gaining greater leverage. The Internet has made it possible for artists to reach audiences directly without a record label’s assistance. Youtube and streaming services like Spotify help artists earn income that goes directly to them. The record labels have caught on to these changes and are more willing to negotiate terms with artists, such as joint ventures for record deals.

But the artist must be discerning and not grab the first (bad) deal that comes along. Always consult an Intellectual Property attorney who can advise you on record contracts and copyright assignments.

At The Keller Law Firm, we apply our knowledge to practical issues affecting creators, so they can protect their creative works. We’re ready to help songwriters, singers and musicians get the best possible deal to advance their careers.

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