Taylor-made deals: how artists are following Swift’s rights example

The singer’s public fight over ownership of her work has lit the way for a new generation of musicians – especially young women – demanding more control over their output

A revolution is brewing in the music business as a new generation of female acts, following the example of Taylor Swift, are seizing ownership of their music rights and refusing to sign deals that cede complete control to music companies.

Swift is nearing the end of her project to re-record her first six albums – the ones originally made for Big Machine Records – as a putsch to highlight her claim that the originals had been sold out from under her: creative and commercial revenge served up album by album. Her public fight for ownership carried over to her 2018 deal with Republic Records, part of Universal Music Group (UMG), where an immovable condition was her owning her future master recordings and licensing them to the label.

It is a power-play template for younger acts who are now rising up – especially female pop stars, historically among the most exploited figures in music – alert to the fact that owning their recordings and songwriting is everything. Olivia Rodrigo made ownership of her own masters a precondition of signing with Geffen Records (also part of UMG) in 2020, citing Swift as a direct inspiration. In 2022, Zara Larsson bought back her recorded music catalogue and set up her own label, Sommer House. And in November 2023, Dua Lipa acquired her publishing from TaP Music Publishing, a division of the management company she left in early 2022.

At Glastonbury last summer, Rina Sawayama made a veiled jibe at the 1975’s Matty Healy for laughing at racist comments on a podcast and for the fact that he “owns my masters”, due to his directorship at Dirty Hit Limited (although his directorship was in fact terminated in April 2023). This claim about ownership skips over the complexities of contract law – Sawayama presumably having signed over the rights to her recordings in exchange for the label’s financial investment – but emotionally it plays to a fanbase who increasingly see “the industry” as the inherent enemy of art and creative autonomy. “The artists were creating those works, so really they should be owning them from an emotional point of view,” says Brian Message, a partner at Courtyard Management.

This recalibration of the rules of engagement between artists and labels is also a result of the democratisation of information about the byzantine world of music contract law. At the turn of the 2000s, music industry information was highly esoteric and typically confined to the pages of trade publications such as Billboard, Music Week and Music & Copyright, or the books of Donald S Passman. Today, industry issues are debated in mainstream media outlets and artists can use social media to air grievances or call out heinous deal terms. In 2021, Raye castigated her label, Polydor, for refusing to let her release a debut solo album; the label freed her from her contract and her independently released 2023 debut, My 21st Century Blues, received widespread acclaim.

Artists today are more industry-literate and aware of the pitfalls and bear traps of the past, simply because they have to be. A multitude of older acts – perhaps most notably George Michael and Prince – had to take legal action over, in their eyes, being ripped off or badly exploited, while others such as Radiohead have made ownership of their rights in renegotiations an economic and moral mission. Some acts had prescient management on their side, with Bono recounting in his Surrender memoirs in 2022 that band manager Paul McGuinness negotiated with Island Records for U2 to take a lower advance and lower royalties as “it meant that at the end of a period of time we’d get back our rights and regain ownership of our recordings”.

Prince and George Michael are bleak warnings from history, but the moves by Swift, Rodrigo and others can stand as roadmaps for the future. It also means the music industry has had to adapt away from contracts based on ownership. There are two kinds of rights at stake here: the rights to the master recordings of an artist’s work, and songwriting rights, known as publishing. One senior music publishing executive says their part of the business was ahead of the curve, explaining that publishing deals tend to work on exclusive licensing terms or retention periods. “Publishers pivoted from a rights-ownership business to the servicing of rights,” they say. Those retention periods are getting shorter, they add, down from about 25 years three decades ago to between 12 and 15 years today.

David Martin, CEO of the Featured Artists Coalition, says there is “a propensity towards owning rights” for artists, but some acts are still prepared to sign away ownership for what they think might be their only shot at the big time. “We have members who are still signing major label deals,” he says. “Some of the terms in some of those deals are terms that we’d expect artists to be thinking very carefully about.”

Message says he steers acts away from ownership-based contracts. “We have a default position that we won’t advise our artists to do life-of-copyright deals,” he says. “It’s not that we wouldn’t do them, but our strong advice would always be to come up with a licence arrangement of some description.”