clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Taylor Swift/Scooter Braun controversy, explained

It’s really about Kanye.

2019 iHeartRadio Wango Tango Presented By The JUVÉDERM® Collection Of Dermal Fillers - Show
Taylor Swift performs onstage at an iHeartRadio concert in Carson, California,
Rich Fury/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Typically, record company sales don’t trend on social media, but when Taylor Swift is involved, all bets are off.

This past Sunday, June 30, Swift published an explosive Tumblr post accusing two major music executives of bullying her. And now Swift’s loyalists — and loyalists to those executives — are feuding across the Internet, in a fight that involves some of the biggest names in music.

On Sunday, the Big Machine Label Group announced that it had been acquired by music mega-manager Scooter Braun and his company Ithaca Holdings. Braun currently works with Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, among numerous other entertainers, and in the past he’s worked with Kanye West. Swift — whose master recordings of her past six albums are all owned by Big Machine — was outraged.

“This is my worst case scenario,” Swift wrote in an emotional Tumblr post published later that same day. Braun, she declared, was an “incessant, manipulative bully,” and now he owned all of her masters. Swift herself had been trying to buy her old master recordings for years, she wrote, but Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta — “someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept,” per Swift — had refused to budge.

Swift began her career as a musician at Big Machine Label when she was 15, and she stayed there until last fall, when she switched to Universal Music Group’s Republic Record in a highly publicized deal. Everyone involved presented the move as a cordial business decision with no hard feelings involved — until this week, when Swift wrote her Tumblr post decrying both Borchetta and Braun as toxic manipulators.

On social media, the response to Swift’s Tumblr post has been heavily divisive. Swift’s supporters, including musicians Halsey and Iggy Azalea, have been tweeting under the hashtag #WeStandWithTaylor, applauding Swift for her willingness to speak out against industry figures as powerful as Braun in an effort to protect her work and her artistry. But Braun has his own allies, including huge pop star clients like Bieber and Demi Lovato, and they’re painting Braun as a misunderstood good guy being bullied by a mob.

That kind of divisiveness has become par for the course with Swift. As her public image has evolved, she’s increasingly courted major public feuds of the sort where everyone is invited to take sides — and increasingly, it seems that no matter how the headlines play out for her, Swift is winning.

The big issue here is that Scooter Braun now owns all of Taylor Swift’s old master recordings. Here’s what that means.

The master recording of a song is the first recording of it, the one that all copies are made from. In Swift’s case, that means the master recording of a song like “You Belong With Me” is the actual record she made in the studio in 2009, and all the copies of the song that exist in the world — on YouTube, on Spotify, on iTunes, on CDs — are copies of that record.

What’s more important is that owning the rights to a master recording means owning the right to make, sell, or distribute copies. Anyone who wants to make a copy of the recording must ask for permission from the owner of the master rights. And now, those rights belong to Scooter Braun. Which means that if someone wants to license “You Belong With Me” so that they can put it on a TV show or in a movie or an ad, they need to get Braun’s permission, and they need to pay him a fee.

Traditionally, record companies own an artist’s masters. Swift, however, has pushed hard against that policy. When she switched record companies last fall, one of the conditions of her move was that going forward, she would own her masters, meaning she would have sole say over how and where her music was used. But that deal only applied to her new material, starting with this year’s forthcoming album Lover. The masters for her old material, as in all the music she made prior to 2018, were still at Big Machine Label Group, where they could be acquired by Scooter Braun.

Swift is arguing that Braun has bullied her and Borchetta has betrayed her

Swift’s accusations are twofold: Braun, she says, is a bully, and now he owns her master recordings. And Borchetta is a traitor for selling them to Braun behind her back without giving Swift a fair opportunity to buy her old masters for herself.

Swift’s biggest complaint against Braun is rooted in his association with her sworn enemies, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West. Braun is Kanye West’s former manager (per Braun, Kanye called him the “Kanye West of managers”), and he was working with Kanye in 2016, back when the big fight over Kanye’s song “Famous” went down.

A quick refresher on the fight: “Famous” contains the line, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.” Swift publicly denounced the line as misogynistic, while Kanye maintained that he’d asked Swift for her permission to use the reference to her before he released the song, and she had said yes. The controversy was further amplified when Kanye released the video for “Famous” — which included the nude likenesses of multiple celebrities, including Swift — apparently without their permission.

But the whole fight really exploded when Kim Kardashian West, Kanye’s wife and a media superstar in her own right, released a video showing Kanye calling Swift to ask for permission to use the line (minus, Swift defenders often point out, the word “bitch”), and Swift giving him her blessing.

In the court of public opinion, Swift decidedly lost that battle. People filled her social media feeds with snake emojis, and the hashtag #KimExposedTaylorParty started trending on Twitter. Swift’s image took such a significant hit that she’s still responding to the controversy in her latest single, three years later. In Sunday’s Tumblr post, she says that moment was “her lowest point.”

So what does Braun have to do with all this? Well, Braun was West’s manager at the time. It’s unclear if Braun had anything to do with the videos Kardashian released (that development feels like a vintage Kris Jenner operation, in my opinion, but I’m only going off info that’s already public). And as West’s manager, Braun presumably was involved in the “Famous” video and the creation of the nude Taylor Swift figure. In her post, Swift refers to the video as “a revenge porn music video which strips my body naked.”

She also maintains that Braun was trying to actively bully her after Kardashian released those videos. Specifically, she cites a now-deleted Instagram post made by Justin Bieber (also a Braun client) shortly after Kim released those videos in July 2016, showing Bieber on a video call with Braun and West. The caption said, “Taylor Swift what up.”

“Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it,” says Swift, adding, “Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter.”

Swift is blaming not just Braun but also Borchetta, whom she accuses of betraying her loyalty. She says she begged for the opportunity to buy her masters back from Big Machine Records. But the only offer Big Machine gave her, she says, was the chance to earn her masters back one record at a time, so that she would have to release an entirely new album through Big Machine in order to get back the masters to just one of her old albums.

That offer, Swift says, was unacceptable to her, because she knew that Borchetta was going to sell Big Machine soon — “I knew once I signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label, thereby selling me and my future,” she writes — and she didn’t want to commit her future career to an unknown party.

Swift also says that Borchetta knew she didn’t trust Braun, that Borchetta gave her no advance warning of his plans to sell to Braun, and that she only learned about the acquisition when the news went public.

“He knew what he was doing,” Swift writes; “they both did. Controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity. That means forever.”

A lot of the details in Swift’s post have been disputed

Since Swift published her post, multiple parties have come forward to take issue with some of her claims.

So far, Braun hasn’t responded to any of Swift’s accusations. Bieber, however, has come out in defense of his manager, claiming that Swift has the story wrong on that 2016 Instagram post of Bieber’s that she cited as proof of Braun bullying her.

“it was my caption and post that I screenshoted of scooter and Kanye that said ‘taylor swift what up,’” Bieber wrote in a new Instagram post on Sunday. “he didnt have anything to do with it and it wasnt even a part of the conversation in all actuality he was the person who told me not to joke like that.”

For his part, Borchetta wrote a lengthy post on Big Machine’s website with the foreboding title, “So, It’s Time For Some Truth…” In that post, which came out a few hours after Swift’s, he responds specifically to Swift’s accusations against him.

Swift’s post says that Big Machine offered her the chance to earn her masters back album by album, but Borchetta disagrees, and he has included screencaps of a negotiation document to back himself up. Per Borchetta, the deal they were discussing would have meant that Swift would take control of her masters as soon as she signed the contract, and in exchange, she would agree to stay at Big Machine for another period of several years. (In the screenshot that he posted, Swift’s camp has proposed a period of seven years and Big Machine has countered with 10 years).

Negotiation points for a proposed deal allowing Taylor Swift to buy her masters from Big Machine Label Group
Big Machine Label Group says it was negotiating a new deal with Taylor Swift in this document.
Big Machine Label Group

It’s worth noting, however, that while Borchetta’s account of the deal varies in the particulars from what Swift described in her Tumblr post, his corrections don’t alter what Swift says was the sticking point on the proposed deal: She says she didn’t want to be obligated to stay at Big Machine because she knew it was about to sell, and this deal would have required her to stay there under its new management. Borchetta doesn’t suggest that Swift was ever given the opportunity to buy her masters from Big Machine outright, without committing herself to spending more time at the label.

Borchetta also takes issue with Swift’s claim that he blindsided her with news of the sale. According to him, Swift’s father, Scott Swift, is a shareholder in Big Machine Records and as such was apprised of the sale. Further, Borchetta says, lawyers and executives from Swift’s 13 Management company were present on the shareholder calls during which the shareholders voted to sell Big Machine to Braun. Borchetta also says that he texted Swift personally about the sale the night before the news broke.

Borchetta hedges a bit on the issue of whether he knew that Swift wouldn’t be happy to learn that he was selling her masters to Braun. “Was I aware of some prior issues between Taylor and Justin Bieber? Yes,” he writes. “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 has always been and will continue to be a supporter and honest custodian for Taylor and her music,” Borchetta concludes.

On social media, the controversy has become a chance for some alliance-building

As the drama has raged on, it’s become a chance for multiple celebrities to solidify their stances on either side of the Swift-Braun feud.

Bieber is sticking staunchly by Braun, writing that Swift’s post “isn’t fair.” Fellow Braun client (and occasional Swift frenemy) Demi Lovato is also Team Braun, describing him as a “good man” in an Instagram story and saying, “I’m grateful he came into my life when he did.”

Meanwhile, artists like Halsey have come out in support of Team Swift. Wrote Halsey on social media, “She deserves to own the painstaking labor of her heart.”

“Telling someone about a deal days before it’s public means the deal was already done & she never had the opportunity to even make a bid to own her own work,” said Iggy Azalea, another member of Team Swift. “These deals take months to negotiate in long form.”

YouTube star Todrick Hall, who is Swift’s BFF and a former Braun client, is also sticking by Swift. “He is an evil person who’s only concern is his wealth and feeding his disgusting ego,” he wrote of Braun. “I believe he is homophobic & I know from his own mouth that he is not a Swift fan.” Hall is so far the only major player to have alleged that Braun is homophobic.

Non-celebrities who are also involved in the deal have spoken out as well, including former Oprah Winfrey Network president Erik Logan, who called Swift a liar and a bully in a now-deleted post. If you want a thorough rundown, journalist Yashar Ali has collected most of the most dramatic responses in a helpful Twitter thread, and pop culture journalist Courtney Soliday has charted the various alliances.

What does it all mean?

There are a few ways of interpreting Swift’s decision to publicize this incident here.

It is entirely possible that the most straightforward reading is the correct one: that Swift really does believe that Braun bullied her and Borchetta betrayed her, that she is genuinely outraged by the predicament in which she finds herself and is making that predicament public because she thinks that’s the best way to resolve it.

It certainly appears to be true that Borchetta presented Swift with the news of the sale as a done deal, without giving her an opportunity to try to buy her masters outright: According to Borchetta’s account of the timeline, Swift’s surrogates were notified of the deal only when the time came for a shareholder vote, and he did not tell Swift directly until after the deal was finalized. It also seems to be true that Braun at the very least helped work on a music video that included Swift’s nude likeness without her permission.

Swift may not be correct about Braun deliberately bullying her on social media, or about the particulars of the deal Big Machine offered her, and based on what’s been made public, I don’t think she was. But it probably doesn’t feel great to Swift that someone who helped build the “Famous” video now owns the masters of all her old music. She probably would have appreciated the chance to try to head off the deal behind the scenes.

It’s also true, however, that Swift is extremely strategic about the way she builds her public image. She has to be, because that’s part of the job of being a pop star, especially a mega-successful pop star who’s been famous for more than a decade. And Swift specifically has made a bit of an art form of it.

Swift is currently in the middle of promoting a new album due out in August, which means she needs positive headlines. And in the past, she’s successfully built herself a positive news cycle by positioning herself as a much-maligned victim in public celebrity drama — both in cases where she really was inarguably in the right (her sexual assault case) and ones where she maybe wasn’t (Kanyegate).

It would not be out of character for Swift to seize on this controversy as an opportunity for her to both vent her outrage and get a few flattering headlines at a particularly opportune moment. Nor would it be out of character for her to deliberately stretch the truth of the situation in the process.

Even if she doesn’t win this particular publicity cycle, Swift has just guaranteed that millions of people are going to read her name this week and remember that she has a new album coming out this fall. Scooter Braun may yet walk out of this skirmish unscathed, but no matter what happens there, Swift has just scored herself a win.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the difference between owning a physical master and owning the right to copy a master.

Listen to this

When a listener asked Switched on Pop about the “sorcery” behind Taylor Swift’s new song “ME!”, co-hosts Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding knew they had to investigate.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.