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Taylor's Version Era

2021-present

Taylor kicked off the 2020s decade by embarking on the very ambitious mission to re-record the six studio albums released by her old record label. Even though she had just written her two most acclaimed projects with folklore and evermore, beneath those dreamy soundscapes was an artist who had been fighting for years to manage the means, method of production, and distribution of her work. And since Taylor has power that most don’t, her personal fight to reshape the way wealth is distributed from creative work was a potential model for wrestling compensation back from industry forces.
In 2021, Taylor is a long-established veteran of the industry, and she is using all of the tools that she has learned along the way at her disposal — both as an artist and as a brand — to prove that she knows how to thrive in an ever-changing music landscape. She is also one of the few artists with the power and profile to create change in the music world. When she acts, the industry listens. In reclaiming her masters, and drawing attention to the saga surrounding it, Taylor has made a dramatic statement about the importance of artists owning their work and refusing to let others capitalise on their creativity. Sure, she’s a multi-millionaire but in using her platform in this way, she’s galvanising other, less established artists to fight for a better deal. “Hopefully […] kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation,” she wrote in one tweet. “You deserve to own the art you make.”
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Taylor's Worst Nightmare

It all began after the masters for Taylor’s first six albums were sold to impresario Scooter Braun and his company Ithaca Holdings back in June 2019. Taylor signed to Big Machine Records in 2005 as a 15-year-old, fresh-faced Nashville singer with a guitar and long blond hair. The contract expired in 2018 but not before she rocketed to radio-play heights with hits like “I Knew You Were Trouble.” and crossed into the pop stratosphere with sold-out stadium tours over the course of six albums. When her deal was up in 2018, she switched labels to Universal’s Republic Records. Big Machine owns the masters, or original recordings, of her first six albums, as is typical with many recording deals. In her new contract, Taylor made sure to secure ownership of her future masters. Changing labels, carving out more agency, updating contract terms — these steps are par for the course for a successful artist. People change, and so do the contracts that govern them.

Months later, Taylor’s behind-the-scenes moves became front-page news when Big Machine sold to private-equity group Ithaca Holdings, an entity owned by music manager Scooter Braun, making him the owner of Taylor’s master recordings, the original versions of every track she had released with the company. Every time a fan, say, streamed “Shake It Off” or downloaded RED, Braun would now profit. On a business level, Braun’s move was smart: Taylor’s master recordings reap profits whenever the songs are streamed or bought. On the personal front, it was contentious: Taylor has stated multiple times that Braun has repeatedly bullied her. In an explosive Tumblr post she described Braun’s buyout as her “worst case scenario”, accusing him of “incessant, manipulative bullying” and Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta of betraying her trust. “Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy,” she wrote. “Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”

Making Her Intent Known

It wasn’t long before Taylor outlined plans to re-record her first six albums, from her eponymous country debut, Taylor Swift (2006), to her iconic comeback reputation (2017), in November 2020, as soon as her contracts allowed. It was the only way for her to essentially reclaim ownership over the period of her career that made her a household name.

Things took another turn in November 2019, when Taylor announced that Big Machine and Braun were blocking her from performing old tracks at the televised American Music Awards ceremony (where she was awarded the “Artist of the Decade” award), as “they claim that would be re-recording my music before I’m allowed to”. Finally, an agreement was reached — in her performance, Taylor wore a white shirt covered in the names of her six albums released with Big Machine.

Another twist came in November 2020, when Braun sold the masters to LA investment firm Shamrock Capital in a rumoured $300 million deal. Taylor said she had been “hopeful and open to the possibility of a partnership” with Shamrock but ruled that out upon learning that “under their terms Scooter Braun will continue to profit off my old music catalogue for many years”.
Fearless (Taylor's Version) [Republic Records, 2021]
Fearless (Taylor's Version)

The New Original Version

Artists regularly chafe against their record label contracts. But rarely do they go through the hassle of re-recording and re-releasing old work. Taylor, though, is not the usual artist. As is often the case, she separates herself from the rest of the industry with sheer level of commitment. She is meticulous about how her work is consumed and perceived, from the aesthetics of her album covers to the comments she makes on fan blogs. Of course, Taylor has resources many don’t, but what makes her rereleases essential are the amount of attention, thought and feeling she puts into every step of the recording and the rollout, ensuring that the sets feel less like deluxe reissues and more like near-sequels to the originals. “Nobody’s tried this kind of insane project before. I mean, it’s completely bizarre. It’s like if Paul McCartney in the 70s went back and redid…Rubber Soul.” That’s what Rolling Stone wrote in November 2021.

Taylor’s hope is to override her archival works with her new versions. “Artists should own their own work for so many reasons,” she wrote in a March 2021 Instagram post. “But the most screamingly obvious one is that the artist is the only one who really knows that body of work.” As Taylor’s Versions arrive online, the value of the originals will diminish — given the choice, fans will inevitably pick recordings that support Taylor over ones that profit Braun.

Headfirst, Fearless

Taylor officially embarked on this new phase of her career in February 2021, when she unveiled the re-recording of her 2008 album Fearless, now called Fearless (Taylor’s Version). What could have been an industry curiosity based around a rights dispute instead played out like a widescreen revisit to a pivotal era of Taylor’s career, as hits like “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” were lovingly re-created, and previously unreleased tracks from the Fearless recording sessions were finally unveiled as “From The Vault” treasures on April 9. Even though the original was Taylor’s sophomore LP, it felt like the right place for this musical do-over to begin. These songs feature some of her most personal stories, tales of female friendships and growing up and first loves that formed the bedrock of her career. The amount of care that Taylor put into Fearless (Taylor’s Version) turned the 26-track set into a must-hear remake of the diamond-certified original, and fans embraced it as such. The full-length became the first re-recorded version of a previous No. 1 album to top the Billboard 200 albums chart upon its release, with the biggest debut week of 2021 at the time with 291,000 equivalent album units, according to MRC Data.

Proving Her Legend Status

Fearless (Taylor’s Verison) wasn’t the only way that Taylor’s towering legacy cast a shadow over the first half of 2021. After the April release of the album, she proved a key influence, and contributor, to another artist’s year-defining album. Pop singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo hadn’t been shy about her love of Taylor’s music over the course of her breakout year, name-checking Taylor as a sonic and spiritual guide when “drivers license” was released back in January, and receiving an Instagram shout-out from Taylor during the debut single’s quick ascent. Olivia’s debut album SOUR took the adoration even further upon its May release: the heart-wrenching piano ballad “1 step forward, 3 steps back” borrowed from Taylor’s own piano ballad, 2017’s “New Year’s Day,” resulting in Taylor and Jack Antonoff being listed as writers on the track. Two months after the album’s release, Olivia also added Taylor, Antonoff and Annie Clark as co-writers to the post-breakup reflection hit “deja vu” due to the bridge’s similarities to Taylor’s own complex-romance remembrance, 2019’s “Cruel Summer.” Olivia was pop’s rookie of the year with 2021’s biggest breakthrough album — which Taylor got some of the credit for, in ways both figurative and literal.

Also in May, Taylor got awarded the prestigious “Global Icon Award” at the BRIT Awards in London. A few weeks later she also accepted the “Songwriter Icon Award” at the 2021 NMPA Awards. She stayed active all summer, guesting on two songs (“Renegade” and “Birch“) on How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, the latest album from Aaron Dessner’s Big Red Machine project — a charming continuation of the folklore & evermore era of gentle songwriting and rustic textures — and tossing out the Taylor’s Version re-recording of 1989’s “Wildest Dreams” to have a little fun with an unexpected viral moment the song was enjoying on TikTok.
Taylor Swift for RED (Taylor's Version) [Beth Garrabrant, 2021]

Painting the World RED – Again

RED has long stood as the fan-favorite Taylor album. It was the storied start to her pop crossover, it contains massive hit songs along with B-sides that gained cultish followings, and it’s long been heralded by fans as her best work. That’s probably why Taylor orchestrated an elaborate promotional campaign when it came time to release RED (Taylor’s Version) in November 2021. If it had simply matched Fearless (Taylor’s Version) in terms of fanfare and listenership, Taylor’s year would have still been pretty spectacular. Instead, her second re-recorded album wildly outpaced its predecessor in nearly every way, turning the release of “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” into a cultural sensation. Taylor had the internet writing thesis papers on a three-month relationship that happened more than a decade ago because she offered up so many new intimate details to pore over — The short film! The remarkable SNL performance! — and another chart-topper for Taylor. With its November debut atop the Hot 100, “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” also became the longest No. 1 in the chart’s history — in the age of TikTok virality and dwindling attention spans, no less. In short, RED (Taylor’s Version) was treated like an event in pop culture, and both diehard and casual fans responded in kind.

«One of the things about the whole discussion over music ownership is that this was something that started out as a really hard thing I went through. The fans are the ones who turned it into something very empowering. They were just saying to me over and over again, 'We wanna listen to your versions. If you redo it, that's what we'll listen to.' If they hadn't done that, I don't think I'd be having this amazing, exciting experience.»

Taylor Swift
In the end, RED (Taylor’s Version) drove as much conversation as any of Taylor’s recent all-new studio albums, and scored a blockbuster debut, with 605,000 first-week equivalent album units moved, more than double the amount of Fearless (Taylor’s Version). What’s more, the set also launched 26 of its tracks onto the Billboard Hot 100 – a record among female artists.

The Greatest Pop Star of 2021

In December 2021, Billboard crowned Taylor the “Greatest Pop Star of 2021.” This marked the second time she received the honor, after 2015. No other popular artist harnessed that type of fan energy with as much passion and imagination in 2021 as her, across albums and platforms, on projects that challenged the modern music industry while still succeeding wildly within it. Even without a proper new album, Taylor sent three separate projects to the top spot of the Billboard 200 during the calendar year — the first female artist to accomplish that feat in the chart’s 65-year history. And in November, one final domino fell for Taylor’s re-recordings project when iHeartRadio announced that it would now only be playing Taylor’s Versions of her older hits from each album as they rolled out – after streaming platforms had already given them prominent placement on main pages and major playlists. In addition to the impressive sales of her re-recorded albums, the reactions from the streaming and radio worlds underlined the widespread acceptance that these new recordings have replaced the classic versions as the ones listeners would be digesting and caring about moving forward. She could release a 20-minute version of a song on her next re-recorded album, and you’d be foolish to bet against it becoming a hit.

Taylor was making the type of moves within and outside of her music that elevated an artist from superstar to legend. Those moves are often very hard to execute, but no one who had been paying attention was the least bit surprised when she stuck each landing. Wind in her hair, Taylor was there, and making it look all too easy.

Honorary Doctorate

In January 2022, New York University’s Clive Davis Institute introduced its first-ever course on Taylor and her career. Taught by Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos, the class covered Taylor’s evolution as a creative music entrepreneur, the legacy of pop and country songwriters, discourses of youth and girlhood, and the politics of race in contemporary popular music. The course had a long waitlist. In March 2022, it was announced that Taylor will receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from New York University for her work and achievements as “one of the most prolific and celebrated artists of her generation.” She will also serve as the commencement speaker for the graduation ceremony of the Class of 2022 in May 2022.
General Information
Associated AlbumsFearless (Taylor’s Version)
RED (Taylor’s Version)
1989 (Taylor’s Version)
Beginning of EraFebruary 2021
End of Era
AestheticYellow heart
Red scarf
StyleBoho
Mom Jeans
Floral dresses
Long hair and bangs
ERA CHRONOLOGY
folklore & evermore Era (2020-2021)Taylor’s Version Era (2021-2022)
Taylor's Version Era

Fearless
(Taylor's Version)

RED
(Taylor's Version)

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