Taylor Swift fans scour her lyrics and music videos for Easter Eggs and references, and her new music video for “The Man” gives them plenty to chew over. The video for the song, which imagines all the ways life would be easier for the pop icon if she were treated by her critics and tabloids with the same generosity that often greets male celebrities, includes references to Swift’s long-simmering feud with record executives Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta.
Since this summer, the pop star has been locked in an ongoing, very public dispute with Nashville record company Big Machine, which signed her as a teenager and released her first six albums. After the label was acquired by her self-described longtime-enemy Scooter Braun in July, Swift posted to social media, writing that Big Machine’s founder Scott Borchetta had not allowed her to purchase her back catalog when she left the company. The singer accused him of attempting to hold her music hostage with a deal that would have found her releasing more albums for Big Machine in order to “earn” the rights to her prior releases—an account that Borchetta vigorously denied.
The issue seemed like it was more or less resolved, with Swift finding a new home at Universal Music Group and announcing that she would be re-recording the albums held by Big Machine. But the dispute reignited, after Swift posted a message to social media accusing Borchetta and Braun of using their status as the owners of her back catalog to thwart her new projects, including a performance at the American Music Awards and the Netflix documentary Miss Americana.
“It’s been announced recently that the American Music Awards will be honoring me with the Artist of the Decade Award at this year’s ceremony,” wrote Swift. “I’ve been planning to perform a medley of my hits throughout the decade on the show. Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun have now said that I’m not allowed to perform my old songs on television because they claim that would be re-recording my music before I’m allowed to next year.”
Here’s what you need to know about the controversy.
Are record labels allowed to do that?
Artists are generally free to perform live under blanket public performance licenses, as these don’t result in tangible recordings that compete with the original masters. But the AMAs aren’t just live—they’ll be televised next Sunday and potentially re-aired or made available on streaming services. “Live performance is potentially different than it being televised,” says entertainment attorney Barry Heyman. “Under copyright law, if it’s rebroadcast or licensed to third parties, the sound recording is considered fixed in a tangible form. And once her voice and the music production is fixed in a tangible form, it becomes another sound recording, even though it’s an audio-visual work.” And according to Swift’s post, she’s not contractually allowed to begin re-recording her music until next year.
Swift also said that Big Machine was preventing Netflix from using her music and performance footage in the film. “Scott Borchetta told my team that they’ll allow me to use my music only if I do these things,” she continued. “If I agree to not re-record copycat versions of my songs next year (which is something I’m both legally allowed to do and looking forward to) and also told my team that I need to stop talking about him and Scooter Braun.”
Big Machine responded in a statement, denying that they attempted to prevent Swift from performing at the AMAs or tried to “block” the Netflix documentary. The label wrote that it does “not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere,” and accused the artist of “owing millions of dollars and multiple assets to our company.”
The New York Times reported that Swift’s team provided the paper with an email from a Big Machine executive that read that the label “will not agree to issue licenses for existing recordings or waivers of its rerecording restrictions” for the Netflix documentary. Esquire reached out to Big Machine for comment, but has received no response as of this time.
How have other disputes between artists and labels been settled?
Swift isn’t the only big-name artist to become embroiled in a dispute over the rights to her music. One-time friends Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney fell out after Jackson outbid McCartney for the rights to the Beatles catalog in 1985. And in the ‘90s, Prince promised to re-record his entire back catalog while locked in a dispute with Warner Bros, though in the end he only re-created a few songs before purchasing his masters.
“The message being sent to me is very clear,” wrote Swift in her original post. “Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you’ll be punished.” Swift asked her fans to “let [Borchetta and Braun] know how you feel about this,” and to ask artists managed by Braun, a roster that includes Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and J Balvin, “for help with this.”
And the fans seem to have been mobilized. More than 131,000 people have signed a Change.org petition petition titled “Let Taylor Swift perform/use HER art.” In its statement, Big Machine accused Swift of sicking her fans on the company and its staff. “Taylor made a unilateral decision last night to enlist her fanbase in a calculated manner that greatly affects the safety of our employees and their families,” wrote the company.
Other artists, including Halsey and Selena Gomez, came to Swift’s defense. “This is just mean,” wrote Halsey on Instagram. “This is punishment. This is hoping to silence her from speaking about things by dangling this over her head.”
So did Swift perform her old songs at the American Music Awards?
The awards show took place on Sunday, and with Big Machine denying that it ever attempted to prevent Swift from performing songs from her back catalog, things seemed to go off without a hitch.
After receiving the Artist of the Decade award from fellow singer-songwriter Carole King, she performed a mashup of six of her hits—“The Man,” “Love Story,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Blank Space,” “Shake It Off,” and “Lover.” Only the first and last songs are from Lover, her most recent album and the only one released under her current record label. The rest are songs she recorded while signed to Big Machine.
Swift didn’t publicly mention Big Machine, Braun, or Borchetta during the show. But she did thank her current label, and while that’s pretty run-of-the mill acceptance speech fodder, in the context of a long-running feud with her former label, it sounded a bit pointed. “I also really love my record label, Universal and Republic,” she said while accepting the Pop/Rock Album of the Year Award. “Thank you for letting me make the music I want to make.”
Her set list contained another subtle potential swipe at her old label. She started off her performance with “The Man,” a song from Lover that finds Swift deploring the toll of sexism. It definitely sounds like something that could be directed at the men she described as suggesting she be “a good little girl and shut up.”
I’m so sick of running as fast as I can
Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man
And I’m so sick of them coming at me again
‘Cause if I was a man, then I’d be the man.
How did her video for “The Man” reference the feud?
In February, Swift released a music video for the song that featured her indulging in all kinds of stereotypically male bad behavior while done up in very realistic drag. And the video also included references to her feud with Braun and Borchetta.
A scene that found “Tyler” Swift man-spreading on the subway before taking a leak on the platform was filled with Easter Eggs. One train car ad reads “Bo$ Scotch,” and has the word “greedy” spray painted next to it. Could that be a reference to Big Machine boss Scott Borchetta?
But there’s little question as to what another Easter Egg meant. On the subway platform, there’s a sign featuring a scooter with a line crossed through it—”No Scooters Allowed.”
The message is hammered home in the video’s end credits, which read, “Directed by Taylor Swift,” “Written by Taylor Swift,” and “Owned by Taylor Swift.”
What happened at Billboard’s Women in Music event?
In her acceptance speech for Billboard’s first ever Woman of the Decade Award, Swift called out Braun directly.
“Lately, there’s been a new shift that has affected me personally and that I feel is a potentially harmful force in our industry, and as your resident loud person, I feel the need to bring it up,” she said. “And that is the unregulated world of private equity coming in and buying up our music as if it is real estate, as if it’s an app or a shoe line. This just happened to me without my approval, consultation or consent.”
“Scooter never contacted me or my team to discuss it prior to the sale or even when it was announced,” she said, repeating her claims from this summer.
Swift also addressed the artists who’ve defended Braun, which at one point included Demi Lovato.
“And let me just say that the definition of the toxic male privilege in our industry is people saying, ‘But he’s always been nice to me,’ when I’m raising valid concerns about artists and their rights to own their music,” she said. “Of course, he’s nice to you. If you’re in this room, you have something he needs.”