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12 November 2021

Why is Taylor Swift re-recording her old albums?

The singer’s decision to release new recordings of her old albums reflects a bitter struggle over music rights.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Why is Taylor Swift re-recording her old albums?

The short version of the story is that when Taylor Swift left her longstanding label Big Machine Records (part of Universal) in 2018, for a new deal with Universal’s Republic Records, they retained the right to the master recordings of her back catalogue.

On 30 June 2019, Big Machine Records was acquired by Scooter Braun, a music executive who has worked with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and who has been involved in high-profile disputes between Swift and those celebrities. 

In a Tumblr post published on the same day as the acquisition, Swift wrote: “All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at his hands for years… Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it. This is my worst case scenario.”

Swift claims she entered negotiations with Braun to buy back her masters, but was unsuccessful. During this time, the masters were sold again, to a private equity group called Shamrock Holdings: as part of the deal, Braun would continue to profit from future sales of her back catalogue. 

Though Swift no longer owned these recordings, she retains the publishing rights to the music itself and as such has the rights to record and perform her own songs. After that sale, Swift tweeted: “I have recently begun re-recording my old music and it has already proven to be both exciting and creatively fulfilling.”

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What’s the long version?

For that, you have to go all the way back to 2004, when Taylor Swift was 14 and unsigned. She met with a man called Scott Borchetta from Universal, who had just established a new record company called Big Machine. In her diary, she wrote of the meeting, “I really loved all the stuff he said… he’s so passionate about this project.”

She signed a 13-year recording contract with Big Machine that gave them ownership over the masters of her first six albums. She did indeed release six records with Big Machine: Taylor Swift (2006), Fearless (2008), Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), 1989 (2014), and Reputation (2017). 

Once she had fulfilled those contractual obligations, she signed a new deal with Republic Records at Universal. (Confusingly, when this was first announced, Swift claimed she would own her masters as part of the agreement.) At the time, Swift said in a statement, “I want to express my heartfelt thanks to Scott Borchetta for believing in me as a 14-year-old and for guiding me through over a decade of work that I will always be so proud of.”

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Over the coming months, Borchetta and Swift entered a dispute over her masters. Swift explained in a later Tumblr post: “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.”

Borchetta’s decision to sell Big Machine to Scooter Braun cemented the rift. Swift wrote: “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.”

Then what?

After more failed attempts to buy back the masters from Braun and Shamrock Holdings, Swift decided to begin re-recording her first six albums – releasing them under their original names and the parenthesis “Taylor’s version”.

How many of her old albums has she re-recorded?

Two. The new recording of her 2008 second album, Fearless (Taylor’s Version), was released in April 2021. The new version of her 2012 hit record, Red (Taylor’s Version) was released on 12 November 2021.

Are they exactly the same?

Devoted fans can hear subtle differences between the tracks – but Swift has decided against reworking the melodies, lyrics or arrangements of these new recordings. Instead, they are as faithful to the original songs as possible. But each new release does contain a series of bonus tracks – including unreleased songs from the album’s sessions and reworkings of existing songs with guest appearances from other artists. The most obvious example is “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” – an extended reimagining of one of her most popular songs. 

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