“For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work,” Taylor Swift wrote in her Tumblr post about the sale of her masters and former label Big Machine Records to Scooter Braun, who she calls a “bully.” Some can read the post as merely a call-out of Braun and Big Machine Records owner Scott Borchetta—one which has already attracted support and ire from fellow celebrities (Justin Bieber, Halsey, Selena Gomez, etc.) treating it like a flaming feud. But aside from what the receipts say (did Swift know or not know about this news? Did she or did she not receive a good faith deal to buy her masters?), Swift’s post illuminates a struggle so many artists face as their careers climb: widely standardized shitty deals that keep artists from owning their work.
Taylor Swift is something like the Sheryl Sandberg of pop music. She has propelled her career from tiny country artist into pop machine over the past few years with little shame when it comes to corporate collaborators, inking deals and sponsorships with brands like Target, AT&T, Apple Music, NYC & Company, and for her Reputation album cycle, confusingly, UPS. She is not the one to surprise drop an entire album, either, playing by traditional distribution rules with all the right singles and videos, even announcing a song release on ABC during the NFL draft. Her career, and even the sound of her music, has expanded with such commercialism that it seems that currently Swift is less interested in being an artist and more interested in being the biggest brand she can be.
Swift leaves these seams holding her net worth together exposed for everyone to see, which can be corny in an industry where everyone is supposed to ignore the mechanisms of power, wealth, and fame, and pretend pop stars get where they are through talent alone. But in Swift’s transparency, fans get a better understanding of her industry’s technical fuckery.
Throughout her career Swift has spoken up about problems artists face as working musicians. She’s written Op-Eds on dismal streaming pay and pulled her music from Spotify for that reason and later negotiated a deal with her new label Universal so that in the event they sell their shares in Spotify the label will pay out that money to artists and she gets to own her masters. And the current conversation about her masters is another example of Swift attempting to be a mouthpiece for the issues of her industry.
This isn’t to say that Swift’s post alone will change the way artists sign deals. One woman’s success in negotiating a new, fair deal does not ensure the same will become standard for all the women below her, even if she advocates that it’s a win for everyone. But her Tumblr post is still a loud addition to a conversation that’s already happening, though not necessarily between artists and their fans. To understand how the problems pop artists face with their labels, to not own their masters, to have their albums stuck in record label purgatory, one has to read between the lines or hear it rarely from the artist themselves; Rihanna quietly buying her masters, Frank Ocean dropping his best album immediately after his contractual deal with Universal ended, Jay-Z having to wait 10 years to own his masters after signing on to become Def Jam’s president in 2004.
For a pop star to talk about the disempowerment they face at a label is to admit that they are not as powerful as their brand telegraphs, just as dozens of young pop stars can write “their most honest album to date” about “feminist empowerment” and still be cordoned into a recording studio with men writing their words. For Taylor, the ways in which she is screwed over by the industry have long been a part of her brand, whether genuine or not. But when she uses her platform to articulate the slimier aspects of the music industry from her already extremely comfortable throne, fans, outsiders to that reality, are better for it.