Yes, The Sale of Big Machine is Big, and So Is Taylor Swift’s Concerns

Taylor Swift / Scott Borchetta

This story has been updated (see below).

You’re a music fan. And sure, you know a little something about labels and producers and how all this stuff is necessary to get the music to you. But it so quickly gets bogged down in minutia and detail, does the sale of one huge music company to another really affect you, or affect the music in some significant way that you should marshal the effort to care? Labels are always going through some version of musical chairs, mergers and acquisitions. Is this sale of the Big Machine Label Group by its CEO Scott Borchetta to talent manager and entertainment executive Scooter Braun anything different? The short answer is “Yes.”

The first red flag about this deal is that this announcement was made on a Sunday morning. Nothing in the music business is announced on Sunday morning, unless it’s done as a preemptive measure to head off negative publicity, or to bury it in the news cycle. In the case of the Big Machine sale to Scooter Braun, it could likely be both. You can bet Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun knew Taylor Swift would react negatively to this, and perhaps that she was already getting ready to release her own statement as a preemptive strike simply from the rumors of a potential sale. And so while many were at church or slurping up the Sunday morning political shows, the mammoth news rocking the music world broke.

This sale significantly affects music at large, country music more specifically than anything, and Taylor Swift more specifically than anyone. But she is far from the only artist affected, or the only one in a position to cry foul. Since Swift is the superstar in the room, and today’s entertainment media is so obsequiously entranced by celebrity, that is where the focus will dwell. But all of the artists from the present to the past who’ve been signed to Big Machine will be affected by this deal. This includes big country stars such as Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett who are currently signed to the label. But it also includes artists such as Sunny Sweeney, The Mavericks, Reba McEntire, Hank Williams Jr., Ronnie Dunn, Aaron Lewis, Alex Williams, and others who have all done business with Big Machine and Scott Borchetta—the man Saving Country Music first boldly and unflinchingly labeled as the “Country Music Antichrist” on April 28th, 2011 to the chagrin and horror of many who are now calling him much worse for this deal.

After the sale was announced Sunday morning (6-30), Taylor Swift made the following statement.

For years 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. Music I wrote on my bedroom floor and videos I dreamed up and paid for from the money I earned playing in bars, then clubs, then arenas, then stadiums.

Some fun facts about today’s news: I learned about Scooter Braun’s purchase of my masters as it was announced to the world. All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at his hands for years.

Like when Kim Kardashian orchestrated an illegally recorded snippet of a phone call to be leaked and then Scooter got his two clients together to bully me online about it.  Or when his client, Kanye West, organized a revenge porn music video which strips my body naked. Now Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy. Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.

This is my worst case scenario. This is what happens when you sign a deal at fifteen to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept. And when that man says ‘Music has value’, he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it.

When I left my masters in Scott’s hands, I made peace with the fact that eventually he would sell them. Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter. Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words ‘Scooter Braun’ escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to. He knew what he was doing; they both did. Controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity. That means forever.

Thankfully, I am now signed to a label that believes I should own anything I create. Thankfully, I left my past in Scott’s hands and not my future. And hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation. You deserve to own the art you make.

I will always be proud of my past work. But for a healthier option, Lover will be out August 23.

Sad and grossed out,

💔

Taylor

The linchpin of Scott Borchetta’s sale of Big Machine Records has always been Taylor Swift. Before she had fulfilled her six record deal with the label, Borchetta was already trying to sell the company in hopes that the prospect of keeping her under contract would embellish the sale price. Borchetta—who started Big Machine in 2005 with seed money from Toby Keith and Taylor Swift’s father among other investors—tried to sell the Nashville-based independent record company as far back as 2011 when he was reportedly in negotiations with Sony. In October of 2014, Big Machine was reportedly on the sales block again for an estimated $200 million. Then in February of 2015, Borchetta was said to be in negotiations to sell the label to Apple Music for $250 million. The sale of Big Machine to Scooter Braun is said to be for $300 million.

Taylor Swift officially left Big Machine for the Universal Music Group in November of 2018, however this move still left the door open for a potential reunification of Taylor Swift with her masters. As an independent label, Big Machine still had to rely on a bigger fish for distribution. That bigger fish was Universal. If Scott Borchetta would have sold to Universal instead of Scooter Braun, perhaps something could still have been worked out. Taylor Swift’s current Universal contract allows her to own her own masters. Though the Big Machine portfolio goes way deeper than Taylor Swift, the masters of her first six albums are still considered to be the crown jewels, not just from the significant revenue that can continued to be earned from them with Swift only drawing royalties, but because she clearly wants them back in her possession. Swift, whose estimated worth is said to be $360 million, could still try to buy them outright. However due to her sordid past with Scooter Braun, that’s unlikely to happen.

To play a little devil’s advocate, the deal that Taylor Swift signed at 15-years-old relinquishing the ownership of her masters to Big Machine is not out of the ordinary whatsoever. In fact it is completely commonplace, if not necessary in the major label space. Only in exceptional cases do labels allow artists to retain master rights, and usually after they have become well established in the industry, and can negotiate from a position of power. As evil of an individual as Scott Borchetta has been made out to be (especially here on Saving Country Music), he is also the one who took a chance on Taylor Swift when other labels refused to sign her, or only offered her a development deal. Though from a public relations standpoint, Taylor Swift is wise to play the card as the victim of controlling men in this deal—and she most certainly has a legitimate beef with her music going under the control of Scooter Braun—there is no reason to believe Scott Borchetta would maliciously try to hurt or control Taylor Swift with this sale. In fact he probably made it knowing it would turn into the public relations nightmare it has become. That is why the news was released on a Sunday. This is about the money, and there are plenty of men who are currently and previously signed to Big Machine and other labels who also have no say in where their master recordings are headed at the moment, let alone ownership in them. This is the devil you dance with when dealing with a major label.

Nonetheless, Swift is justified in feeling like her creative efforts are being used as unwitting pawns, and feeling jilted by the loss of loyalty by Scott Borchetta, and her music now being in the possession of Scooter Braun. And combined with the recent story of the loss of thousands of music masters in a 2008 fire while they were in custody of Swift’s current label Universal, it underscores just how strange and inequitable it is that artists often must sign their creative works away to deal with labels who will never show proper care with them. Once again it highlights the importance of independent labels such as Thirty Tigers and others that allow artists to keep creative and intellectual control of their music as a matter of course, and why real reforms in the Copyright Act should be looked into to make sure these creative works are dealt with and protected more equitably.

But this all feels like it’s burying the lead. When the sale of Big Machine to Apple Music was rumored in 2015, it represented the potential seismic shift to a new paradigm in recorded music. Scott Borchetta was rumored to not want to sell the company to just another record label. He wanted to do something unique in music to unlock new synergies in the business other companies are overlooking. In the deal with Scooter Braun, Scott Borchetta remains the CEO of Big Machine under the bigger umbrella company. But partnering with Scooter Braun potentially puts management, film, promotion, and all sorts of other entertainment entities under one virtual roof. Instead of an artist having a separate record label, manager, publicity team, and promotional company, now (hypothetically) it could all be handled in one place. For men like Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta, this prospect will be enticing. For artists like the ones who may become the next Taylor Swift, this could be intimidating, and destructive, with no third party voice in the room to offer guidance on things like the ownership of masters.

Make no mistake, this sale of Big Machine Records will be incredibly significant. And since Big Machine is a Nashville-based Music Row record label, the reverberations in country music will be more significant than anywhere else. Just exactly how it will affect the music we will have to see, but expect more “synergies” with pop performers and producers, similar to what we saw when Borchetta struck a deal with another controversial character from the pop world, Dr. Luke. And remember, it was Scott Borchetta who first suggested that Taylor Swift work with super producers Max Martin and Shellback, and put her on the path to becoming a pure pop star. Putting Big Machine in bed with Scooter Braun—known best for managing artists such as Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and Ariana Grande—will only continue to blur the lines between popular music, making the people at the top of the music business significantly more money, codifying the monogenre as formats blur, while genre-based artists who refuse to sign their masters away fight for attention.

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UPDATE 6/30/19 11:00 p.m. CDT:

In a statement by Scott Borchetta addressing Taylor Swift’s claims, the Big Machine CEO says that he did offer to sell Taylor Swift her masters, and that he did notify her, or at least attempt to, before the sale went through. Borchetta also says he did not know about the degree of acrimony between swift and Scooter Braun. Borchetta also says of the deal, “This move will give us more pop culture super-power than ever before and I’m so excited about the future.”

Borchetta’s entire post can be seen below.

“So, it’s time for some truth…It’s time to set some things straight. Taylor’s dad, Scott Swift, was a shareholder in Big Machine Records, LLC. We first alerted all of the shareholders on Thursday, June 20th for an official shareholder’s call scheduled for Tuesday, June 25. On the 6/25 call the shareholders were made aware of the pending deal with Ithaca Holdings and had 3 days to go over all of the details of the proposed transaction. We then had a final call on Friday, June 28th in which the transaction passed with a majority vote and 3 of the 5 shareholders voting ‘yes’ with 92% of the shareholder’s vote.

“Out of courtesy, I personally texted Taylor at 9:06 p.m., Saturday, June 29 to inform her prior to the story breaking on the morning of Sunday, June 30 so she could hear it directly from me.

“I guess it might somehow be possible that her dad Scott, 13 Management lawyer Jay Schaudies (who represented Scott Swift on the shareholder calls) or 13 Management executive and Big Machine LLC shareholder Frank Bell (who was on the shareholder calls) didn’t say anything to Taylor over the prior 5 days. I guess it’s possible that she might not have seen my text [as a rep claimed]. But, I truly doubt that she ‘woke up to the news when everyone else did.’

“I am attaching a few very important deal points in what was part of our official last offer to Taylor Swift to remain at Big Machine Records. Her 13 Management team and attorney Don Passman went over this document in great detail and reported the terms to her in great detail.

“Taylor and I then talked through the deal together.

“As you will read, 100% of all Taylor Swift assets were to be transferred to her immediately upon signing the new agreement. We were working together on a new type of deal for our new streaming world that was not necessarily tied to ‘albums’ but more of a length of time.

“We are an independent record company. We do not have tens of thousands of artists and recordings. My offer to Taylor, for the size of our company, was extraordinary. But it was also all I could offer as I am responsible for dozens of artists’ careers and over 120 executives and their families.

“Taylor and I remained on very good terms when she told me she wanted to speak with other record companies and see what was out there for her. I never got in her way and wished her well.

“The morning that the new Taylor/UMG announcement was going to be made, she texted me shortly before letting me know that the announcement was coming in a few minutes.

“As we both posted on our socials, we saluted each other and cheered each other on.

“Taylor had every chance in the world to own not just her master recordings, but every video, photograph, everything associated to her career. She chose to leave.

“As to her comments about ‘being in tears or close to it’ anytime my new partner Scooter Braun’s name was brought up, I certainly never experienced that. Was I aware of some prior issues between Taylor and Justin Bieber? Yes. But there were also times where Taylor knew that I was close to Scooter and that Scooter was a very good source of information for upcoming album releases, tours, etc, and I’d reach out to him for information on our behalf. Scooter was never anything but positive about Taylor. He called me directly about Manchester to see if Taylor would participate (she declined).

“He called me directly to see if Taylor wanted to participate in the Parkland March (she declined). Scooter has always been and will continue to be a supporter and honest custodian for Taylor and her music.

“This is the text Taylor sent to me on Monday, November 19th at 8:57 a.m.:

Scott,

I hope this finds you well. Since communication ran dry on our negotiations, I’ve done what I told you I would do and gone out exploring other options. Owning my masters was very important to me, but I’ve since realized that there are things that mean even more to me in the bigger picture. I had a choice whether to bet on my past or to bet on the future and I think knowing me, you can guess which one I chose. I also saw a rare opportunity to effect positive change for a lot of other artists with the leverage I have right now. I know you believe in the same things I do and I’d like to think you would be proud of what I’ve negotiated for in my deal. I wanted to tell you first that I’ll be signing with Lucian. I honestly truly cherish everything you and I have built together and I plan on saying so in my announcement of the new deal. What we accomplished together will be a lasting legacy and a case study on excellent partnerships, and may it continue. I still view you as a partner and friend and I hope you feel the same. Sending you a hug and my most sincere gratitude.

And SO much love,

Taylor

“Here is the text I sent on the evening of June 29 at 9:05pm:

“Dear Taylor,

“Hope all is well and congratulations on the success of your first two singles from “Lover”!

“I can’t wait to hear the entire album…

“I wanted to pass along to you the same courtesy that you passed along to me in regard to my future.

“Tomorrow morning (Sunday, June 30th) at 10 a.m. central, the Wall Street Journal will announce that I am entering into a merger/acquisition with Scooter Braun and Ithaca Holdings. This move will give us more pop culture super-power than ever before and I’m so excited about the future.

“I want you to know that I will continue to be the proud custodian of your previous works and will continue to keep you and your team abreast of all future plans for releases of you work.

“Nothing but the best,

Scott”