Taylor Swift's Former Label Big Machine Is Sold, Rankling The Star

Jul 1, 2019
Originally published on July 2, 2019 10:42 am

The country-pop record company Big Machine Label Group, one of the most successful independent labels in the country — and the longtime label home of megastar Taylor Swift — has been sold. It was purchased by Ithaca Holdings, an umbrella company owned by Scooter Braun, the manager of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, among others. According to anonymous sources quoted by The Wall Street Journal, the deal is valued at more than $300 million.

Big Machine Label Group was founded by Nashville music industry veteran Scott Borchetta and signed Swift as a teenager in 2006, shortly after the label's founding; it has released all of her albums to date. As Swift was Big Label's most successful artist by a wide margin, her catalog would have been a prized asset within the company's portfolio.

After announcing the sale — which had been rumored for years and had attracted interest from various companies, including from Snapchat co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel — the shift in ownership prompted a heated back-and-forth between Swift, Borchetta and some in orbit around Scooter Braun, including Braun's wife and Justin Bieber.

In a blog post on Sunday, Swift claimed to have been unaware of the deal before its announcement, and called the sale of Big Machine to Ithaca "my worst-case scenario," alluding to Braun's past involvement in feuds between her and artists he manages, including Kanye West. In the post, Swift says that overtures she made to purchase control of her master recordings from Big Machine were met with a proposal by the company that she found unacceptable.

"For years," she wrote, "I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work. Instead I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and 'earn' one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in. I walked away because I knew once I signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label, thereby selling me and my future. I had to make the excruciating choice to leave behind my past."

Ithaca Holdings owner Scooter Braun, left, and his management client Justin Bieber, photographed on Apr. 27, 2012 in New York.
Jemal Countess / Getty Images

Last fall, Swift departed Big Machine for the world's largest record company, Universal Music Group, and its subsidiary label Republic Records. (At the time, Universal Music was also said to be considering a purchase of Big Machine.) A major part of that deal, and something long desired by Swift, was ownership of her master recordings. "Thankfully, I am now signed to a label that believes I should own anything I create," Swift wrote on Sunday.

(It's uncommon for artists not of Swift's stature to own their masters; instead, the label's ownership of those materials is generally the centerpiece of any major-label contract. Relatedly, controversy erupted when the New York Times recently revealed that potentially hundreds of thousands of master recordings and other archival materials owned by Universal Music were destroyed in a 2008 fire; the company has been sued for at least $100 million by a group of artists over failing to protect that property.)

Big Machine president Scott Borchetta responded to Swift with his own riposte, claiming he made Swift aware of the deal via text on Saturday, and that the terms of the deal Big Machine offered her were different from what she described on Sunday.

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Who owns the recordings a musician makes? Most of the time, especially in pop music, it's the record labels, and that can create painful situations for artists who have worked hard to create that music that ultimately someone else owns. The megastar Taylor Swift is just the latest musician to come forward with bitter complaints about that very situation, and she's gotten into a very public feud about it that swept up the likes of Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and Kanye West. We're joined by NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas in New York to untangle this story.


TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) You need to calm down. You're being too loud. And I'm just like, oh-oh.

MARTIN: OK, Anastasia, that's Taylor Swift and her latest single, "You Need To Calm Down," but she is anything but calm right now. What's going on?

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel. Well, you've got to go back a ways. Taylor Swift signed her first record deal when she was just 15 to what was then a brand-new Nashville outfit called Big Machine. And she became the label's big, big star. She made six multiplatinum albums for them. And Big Machine owns all of those albums, including the master recordings.

MARTIN: Masters are important, right? These are the original recordings.

TSIOULCAS: Exactly. They're vital musically, historically and not least financially. And most of the time, pop labels own those. As Prince famously said back in the '90s when he was fighting about masters, he said, if you don't own your masters, your master owns you. So this past Sunday, news came that the founder of Big Machine, who's a guy named Scott Borchetta, sold his label for $300 million to another very powerful guy in the entertainment industry, a manager named Scooter Braun. And now, Braun represents a whole flock of A-listers, including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Kanye West.

MARTIN: And this is where the whole thing exploded, right?

TSIOULCAS: Exactly. Taylor Swift turned to her Tumblr blog on Sunday, and she wrote that she didn't know that Big Machine was being sold. She'd been trying to buy back her masters for years. And that in the past, Borchetta had suggested terms that were just so onerous that she had to walk away. And she also laid into Scooter Braun, and she claimed that he's subjected her to what she calls, quote, "incessant, manipulative bullying."

MARTIN: And I mean, she said that her work had been snatched up by two men who had nothing to do with her creative process.

TSIOULCAS: That's exactly right, Rachel. And Borchetta fired back on his social media, saying that if Taylor had re-upped her deal with Big Machine, she could have earned her old masters back. But in the meantime, in that blog post of hers, Swift laid into a couple of Scooter Braun's clients by name. She name-checked both Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, whom she has very publicly feuded with before.

MARTIN: Right. This is at the VMAs - right? - when he got onstage and interrupted her acceptance speech.

TSIOULCAS: Exactly. I'm-a (ph) let you finish - 10 years ago, classic moment.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

TSIOULCAS: And then Justin Bieber, who has worked with Scooter Braun since he was 12, jumped into the fray to defend him; so did another of Scooter Braun's clients, Demi Lovato. And this whole issue of who owns masters, which has been an issue that has plagued artists in the industry since literally the dawn of the recorded era, is now playing out like a middle school throwdown among some very, very rich people.

MARTIN: So what's Taylor Swift doing now?

TSIOULCAS: Well, last November she signed a new deal with the world's largest record company, Universal Music Group, and as part of that agreement, she'll own her masters.

MARTIN: Which is a big deal.

TSIOULCAS: Absolutely. The irony, Rachel, is that Universal is under intense scrutiny right now because a New York Times investigation last month revealed that Universal allegedly allowed hundreds of thousands of master recordings and other treasures to burn in a catastrophic fire back in 2008.

MARTIN: Whoa. OK, Anastasia, thanks. We appreciate it.

TSIOULCAS: Pleasure to be with you, Rachel. Thanks.


SWIFT: (Singing) You just need to... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.