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Taylor Swift may have prompted stronger re-record restrictions at labels, while publishing could limit reach of Ashanti re-records

By | Published on Thursday 18 November 2021

Taylor Swift

Universal Music is reportedly placing stronger restrictions in its record contracts on when artists can re-record songs that they originally put out through the major. Which is funny, of course, because it’s Universal that is currently putting out Taylor Swift’s re-recorded versions of her first six albums, which were originally released by indie label Big Machine.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Universal has doubled the length of time during which its contracts prohibit artists from re-recording material put out by the label.

It is standard for record contracts to bar artists from re-recording the music they make for a label for any other company for a certain period of time. This ensures that the original label has time to make a return on its investment before any new versions hit the market and start confusing things.

For the most part, of course, artists don’t go around re-recording songs willy nilly. And when they do, they would usually try to make the new versions different to the originals in some way. But then there’s Taylor Swift.

Swift, of course, left her original label, Big Machine, and moved to Universal for her 2019 album ‘Lover’. Then Big Machine was sold to her arch nemesis Scooter Braun. Unhappy about this, she stopped approving her Big Machine songs for licensing and sync – via her interest in the publishing of those songs – and vowed to re-record her old catalogue as soon as her old Big Machine record contract allowed.

Making good on that threat, earlier this year she released a new version of her 2008 album ‘Fearless’, and last week she followed it up with a re-record of 2012 album ‘Red’.

Although made entirely out of spite, the ‘Taylor’s Version’ records have been well received and are being streamed more than their original versions. They’re also available to be licensed by brands, TV companies, filmmakers and more. Which is good for Swift. And also Universal.

So then it’s somewhat ironic that Universal would now be presenting contracts to artists that prohibit re-records for longer. The Wall Street Journal reports that Universal is pushing to extend re-record restrictions in the US from the traditional five years to ten years.

Actually, there are other reasons for this, aside from Taylor Swift putting the wind up them. In the streaming age, it is taking longer for labels to recoup on the investments they make in recordings, because more modest royalties flow in month by month over a long period of time, rather than there being a surge of sales and revenue around release. And at least one source who spoke to the WSJ said that these new contract restrictions pre-date Swift’s re-recording project.

Also, we’re now in an age where some elements of recording contracts are moving more in the favour of the artist, particularly where those artists arrive with a large online following in tow already, giving them more leverage in any deal making. And if artists are getting a bigger cut of revenues in one area, the label is going to try to get better terms somewhere else in the deal.

However, while it may be that Universal wasn’t prompted to make these changes to its contracts because of Swift, it may prove to be a wise move as her ‘Taylor Versions’ gain popularity.

While to date it’s been uncommon (but not unheard of) for artists to go to the extraordinary lengths of re-recording their past hits, it’s not uncommon for artists to fall out with their former business partners. And the success of Swift’s re-recording project may well prompt other artists to attempt to replicate what she has done, mainly to fuck over old allies. Or at least reduce the impact of record deals they regret signing back in the day.

In fact, that’s arguably already happening. For example, Ashanti recently announced that she plans to re-record her eponymous 2002 debut album. That, she says, will be out in April next year, coinciding with the unveiling of her star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

Speaking to US radio presenter Angie Martinez this week, Ashanti explained: “The thinking behind [re-recording my music] is showing the business side of ownership. And how important it is to own. And once I re-record the first album [I own it]. When that [is released], everything purchased from that moment, I own”.

This news has not pleased Irv Gotti, the boss of her former record label Murder Inc, which works with Def Jam at – let me just check, oh yes… Universal.

In a comment on the Instagram post where Martinez shared the interview, Gotti writes: “Just for super clarity, I own all those great Ashanti albums, Angie. I own the masters. And I produced all those great Ashanti albums. So I also own a good portion of the publishing. What she is trying to do is re-record all those great records. And put them out on her label”.

So, the point he’s making there, is that when she re-records her album, all she owns is the rights in the re-records. It doesn’t mean that she suddenly takes control of all the royalties generated by any version of the album, as she possibly suggested in her interview. So, basically, while Gotti will still own the masters of the original recordings, she will own the masters of the re-records, which may or may not prove beneficial to her.

What’s interesting in Gotti’s comment is that he says he owns “a good portion of the publishing”. This would mean that Ashanti wouldn’t have full control over what she did with those new recordings – because some uses of the re-records would require Gotti’s approval on the songs side.

While Taylor Swift has presented her re-records as something she’s doing out of the kindness of her heart, so that fans don’t have to give money to Scooter Braun (or the investment types he flogged her music on to), it’s really a dispute about who makes money off her music full stop.

A key reason for creating new versions is so that she can license them, in particular for sync deals, rather than allowing the old versions that she doesn’t control to be used. She can force any sync clients to use her new recordings because they’d also need her to get her approval when it comes to the publishing rights.

If Gotti owns a chunk of the publishing rights in Ashanti’s early songs, then she finds herself in the opposite position. Gotti could veto the use of the new recordings for sync through the publishing. Of course, she could also possibly veto use of the old recordings too through her stake in the song rights. So that could be fun.

None of that stops Ashanti from putting out her new versions – especially in the US where physical releases and streams are subject to a compulsory licence on the songs side. But she won’t necessarily get the sync kickback. Meanwhile, Gotti is hoping that she won’t manage to re-create the magic of the originals, meaning he’ll still get a decent cut of streaming money too.

“She can [re-record her music] under the cover laws”, Gotti goes on. “But she is basically trying to fuck me out of my masters and make people decide which album to listen to or stream, hoping her loyal fans will choose her version. But hey, I stand on the magic that was created. And I wanna see her duplicate that magic. It’s fucked up really. But such is life”.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. But, while Swift’s re-recording project may prove to be an inspiration for other artists, Ashanti’s may be a cautionary tale about who you allow to be cut into your publishing.