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Master Recordings

The master recording is the original recording of a song from which all copies of that song are created from (CDs, vinyls, mp3s). Owning the master means that you can distribute or license its usage (radio, television, streaming). Having the rights to a master track is having the copyright to that piece of music.
Taylor’s plan to rerecord came about because of the master recordings of her first six albums. In 2018, Taylor left Big Machine Records, the label to which she had been attached, and signed a contract with Universal Music Group. In 2019, around the time she was ready to release her seventh album, Lover (2019), the company of talent manager Scooter Braun bought out Big Machine and a dispute over the master recordings for Taylor’s albums erupted. Taylor’s desire for total artistic authority over her work is well known, and so the masters for every album she produces under contract with Universal Music/Republic Records are hers.
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The Master Recording

To put it another way, a master represents the right to a recording. This is not the same thing as the intellectual property rights, or rights to the work itself. This means that, if you were to write a song and record it under contract with a record label, what can be done with the recorded song is a different issue altogether. The master’s rights holder can sell that recording recordings as an album and profit from it on streaming services. They can also sign off on the rights to the recordings for use in movies, TV or video games. By contrast, the songwriter maintains their own separate right to give permission for cover versions. If you want to record a song using someone else’s lyrics and melody, you naturally seek permission from the person who wrote them. As Taylor was involved in the writing of every song she has released, she can give herself permission to cover them. More importantly, a newly recorded cover also produces a new master. This is where the idea for rerecording comes from.

The New Official Version

However, that raises a question: Won’t the masters or the original versions still be around? Indeed. Previously, Prince and Def Leppard rerecorded some of their work to make new masters, but those were tactical decisions – weapons of negotiation against their record labels. However, considering Taylor’s reason for rerecording, there is a good chance she will go further than just using them as a negotiation tool, and in the best-case scenario, her updated recordings could replace the original masters in the music industry going forward. The market’s shift in focus to streaming is the greatest variable. Unlike with physical releases, you can stream Taylor’s Version instead of the original completely free of additional charge.

Streaming also makes it harder for those who have the original masters to retaliate. In the past, one typical way record labels would burden artists who had left their companies was to produce greatest hits albums without the artists’ permission. The tactic was more effective if executed just before the artist released their own new album. In the streaming era, however, the best-of album no longer holds much power. It may have been a fair assumption during the album age that people would more readily open their wallets for a greatest hits collection full of old favorites than for a new album. Above all, Taylor’s dedicated fan base are likely to agree with her vision and accept Taylor’s Version as the new original. Anyone who makes a film or game and wants to use her music, any artists who seek to sample her, and all radio broadcasters will definitely feel the pressure, the reason being that there are no drastic changed to “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” from the original. Paradoxically, the absence of any major difference between Taylor’s Version and the original imbues it with that much more influence.

There is one more question, too: What about the charts and awards ceremonies? The answer is actually simpler than it is with remixes or songs that feature other artists. Rerecorded songs and albums are considered separate from their original versions, so any upcoming Taylor’s Versions are eligible to chart anew. Awards ceremonies are no different: As long as she is interested, Taylor is allowed to submit her new versions for nomination. Of course, whether the rerecordings will receive votes on artistic merit is another story.

Changing the Music Industry for the Better

Masters are a label’s most important right, and the music industry is naturally watching the success of “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” closely. The results have been encouraging: The song was streamed 13.7 million times in the week after its release and was first in the country music category. Plays of the original version of “Love Story” also went up 30%, for a weekly total of 3.4 million. The anticipation that even the original would benefit from the rerecording had proven true, as listeners unsurprisingly compared the two versions. Taylor’s Version was only just beginning, though, with many years left to go. If Taylor’s Version is elevated in status to the market’s de facto master, Taylor will have opened a completely new dimension in the history of musician’s rights.