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OPINION

Artists seek more control, less fine print

Posted on December 14, 2020

Updated on December 15, 2020

ColumnsOpinion
The cover of Taylor Swift's “Reputation,” the songbook that followed her 2017 album of the same name, is shown in a publicity photo. By re-recording her earlier music, Swift will own her master recordings in addition to her songs' publishing rights.

Contributed photo

The cover of Taylor Swift's “Reputation,” the songbook that followed her 2017 album of the same name, is shown in a publicity photo. By re-recording her earlier music, Swift will own her master recordings in addition to her songs' publishing rights.

cfriedman@restorationnewsmedia.com | 252-265-7813

Corey Friedman

Corey Friedman

If breaking into the entertainment industry requires a Faustian bargain, Taylor Swift and Dave Chappelle are winning back their souls.

The pop star cried foul when music management honcho Scooter Braun bought Big Machine Label Group in 2019, acquiring the master recordings to her first six studio albums. Braun sold those masters to Shamrock Holdings for $300 million last month, recouping his outlay for Big Machine and ending Swift’s efforts to buy back her own catalog.

Her recording contract allowed CEO Scott Borchetta to sell Swift’s masters against her wishes, but the “Reputation” singer may find vindication. She’s begun re-recording her old albums — as a songwriter, Swift retains intellectual property rights to her music and lyrics.

Swift signed with Big Machine as a 15-year-old Nashville neophyte and likely felt pressured to take the deal she was offered. When the time came to ink her 2018 contract with Republic Records, her star power conferred the leverage to demand ownership of her master recordings. Swift’s “Evermore,” the sister album to July’s “Folklore” and her third Republic release, went on sale Friday. 

“When Swift releases new versions of her old songs, she’ll own both their master rights and their publishing rights, earning every penny they bring in and securing unilateral control over how they’re used,” Drew Schwartz explained in a piece for Vice magazine.

That could devalue the Big Machine masters by making Swift the sole conduit for lucrative advertising deals. To use the 2010 hit “Back to December” in a commercial, prospective clients would have to license the recording from Shamrock and the song from Swift, who won’t entertain such offers as long as Braun could benefit. If she records a new version, however, she’ll have the market cornered.

Shamrock Holdings can still make money from selling the rights to stream Swift’s early work. But her notoriously loyal fanbase could be mobilized to abandon the old tracks and embrace the re-recordings.

Enter Dave Chappelle, the caustic comic who returned to the stage in 2015 after a yearslong hiatus. He’s since recorded five standup specials for Netflix at $20 million each, and the incisive material earned him three consecutive Grammy awards.

He’s never escaped the shadow of the wildly popular sketch comedy series that bears his name. Shell-shocked by sudden fame and tired of tussling for creative control, the “Chappelle’s Show” host quit the project early in the third season of filming, walking away from a $50 million deal.

Chappelle explained his decision to cancel the Comedy Central show in a 2006 Oprah Winfrey interview. Fourteen years later, he was furious to see episodes available on Netflix, CBS All Access and the HBO Max streaming service.

The series made a mint in DVD sales and reruns, but Chappelle says he didn’t receive royalties. He signed a skewed contract allowing his image and likeness to be used in perpetuity without understanding the practical implications, he explains in “Unforgiven,” an 18-minute video shared Nov. 24 on Instagram.

Chappelle says it’s wrong for middlemen and hangers-on to grow wealthy from his work without cutting him in on the deal. Platforms that stream the show are “fencing stolen goods,” he thundered.

William David Chappelle, who was born into slavery and later became a pastor and university president, might say his great-grandson “got bought and sold more than I have,” the comic continued.

Netflix removed the series at Chappelle’s request, and that gesture may have cemented the site as his comedy home. He tore into ViacomCBS, which licensed “Chappelle’s Show” without consulting or compensating him.

Eschewing agents, lawyers and executives, Chappelle closed the set with a heartfelt appeal to his fans, whom he described as his “real boss.”

“I’m begging you. Please don’t watch that show,” he said. “I’m not asking you to boycott any network. Boycott me. Boycott ‘Chappelle’s Show.’ Do not watch it unless they pay me.”

Artists are demanding greater control over their life’s work, and as technology makes cable conglomerates and record labels more obsolete by the day, expect the pendulum to swing in their direction.

A raw deal is still a rip-off even if you signed on the dotted line. For Chappelle and Swift, however, the microphone is mightier than the pen.

Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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