Taylor Swift’s re-recorded album “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” has reportedly sold approximately 1.5 million units in the United States alone within the first week of its release, making it the biggest opening week for any album released this year. Up until its release, the biggest first-week sales for 2023 belonged to the artist, Drake with 402,000 units sold with his album “For All the Dogs”. Taylor Swift almost tripled Drake’s first-week numbers with an album that was first released a decade ago.  This is a remarkable feat.

You might ask why Taylor had to go through the trouble and expense of re-recording her albums. The simple answer is that she does not own the rights to the original recordings, the rights were vested in the first record label she was signed to, namely Big Machine Records. The label sold the rights to music entrepreneur Scooter Braun’s company Ithaca Holdings, which subsequently sold the rights to the investment company, Shamrock Capital.

By way of background, every recorded song is made up of mainly two copyrights, namely the copyright in the composition (lyrics, melody, and/or structure of the song) and the copyright in the sound recording, which is the original recording of the song (also known as the “master”).  The copyright in the composition is owned by songwriters and the copyright in the master is usually owned by the person or entity that pays for the making of the master, typically the record label. 

You might wonder whether Taylor’s new recordings infringe on any rights held by Shamrock Capital.  They do not. Copyright law allows a person who creates a new master to own the copyright in the new master created.    Given the considerable risk that labels take to invest in the recording and promotion of artists, it would not make business sense (to labels) for artists to make new recordings of the same songs the labels invested in as it could create confusion in the market and devalue the original recordings.

To protect their investment, labels made provision for a re-recording restriction clause in recording contracts. The clause restricts artists from making new recordings of the songs delivered under the contract for a certain amount of time after the release of the songs or a certain number of years after the expiry of the contract. Taylor waited for the recording restrictions in her contract to expire and proceeded to re-record her previous albums, making her the owner of new masters. At the same time, Shamrock retains ownership of the original masters.  Both recordings exist on music platforms with the same titles, the slight difference being Taylor’s new recordings are aptly titled “Taylor’s Version”.

In 2022, the re-recorded version of her album “Fearless” received 401.2 million streams, while the original version received 257 million streams. In the same year, the re-recorded version of the album “Red” was streamed 961.6 million times while the original was streamed 254.7 million times.

As an artist who writes the majority of her music, Taylor still owns the copyright in the underlying compositions in the original recordings owned by Shamrock. Therefore, anyone who wishes to license the original recordings for television, film, or advertisements from Shamrock would still need Taylor to clear the use of the compositions.  Taylor is in a position to approve the licensing of her compositions ONLY when her new masters are used, effectively cutting out Shamrock from licensing revenue.

While the re-recording of music is hardly a new phenomenon, Taylor Swift’s success with re-recorded albums serves as a seminal moment. We can expect the re-recording restriction clause to be the subject of drawn-out negotiations between artists and labels in the near future.

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