On Oct. 30, Billboard released a report that record labels are trying to keep artists from re-recording their songs for extended periods — and in some cases, never again — following the success of Taylor Swift’s “Taylor’s Version” albums.
Top music attorneys told the site that Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group have “overhauled contracts for new signees” and want artists to wait “10, 15 or even 30 years” to re-record releases after leaving their labels. A re-recording is when a music artist or group records a new version of a song that was previously released.
This change represents a departure from the long-standing norm in music contracts. Artists are typically required to wait for five to seven years from the initial release or two years after the contract expires to re-record their music.
It’s worth noting that re-recording restrictions have been in place for decades; however, they have only recently come into the spotlight because of Taylor Swift (which we’ll expand on below). The limitations are meant to stipulate that an artist cannot re-record a song while they are still under contract with a particular label or within a specific period after their contract ends. This is to maintain exclusivity with the original recording.
Record labels also make substantial investments in the artists they sign, and their music catalogs are considered valuable assets. As a result, they employ various strategies to safeguard these investments and minimize risks, such as time restrictions, exclusivity clauses and more.
Historically, artists would re-record only a handful of their most significant hits — or maybe their biggest albums decades later. But in the case of Taylor Swift, re-recording her catalog is about ownership and control and not so much about nostalgia.
Swift’s masters (her first six albums) were purchased in 2019 by Scooter Braun — a move that Swift says occurred behind her back. They were eventually sold to Shamrock Capital for $300 million in 2020. In response, the 33-year-old decided to re-record her first six albums and add “Taylor’s Version” at the end of each title so fans could distinguish between the re-recordings and the originals. She also signed a a historic deal with Universal Music Group that would give her complete ownership over songwriting and the recordings, ultimately boosting her earnings in the long run.
The pop star’s efforts greatly paid off, and Forbes named Swift a billionaire in October 2023. A whopping $500 million of Swift’s fortune derived from music royalties and touring, while another $500 million came from the rising value of her music catalog. This makes Swift one of the only musicians to earn her billion-dollar fortune through music alone.
Swift’s re-records Fearless (Taylor’s Version), Red (Taylor’s Version) and Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) all debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. 1989 (Taylor’s Version), which was released last week, sold over 1.1 million copies in the U.S. in its first six days of release.
So, what are musician reps doing moving forward to advocate on behalf of artists? They’re pushing back against these labels to try to change the agreements.
Music attorney Gandhar Savur, who represents Cigarettes After Sex, Built to Spill and Jeff Rosenstock, told Billboard that labels are going to do “whatever they can to address that and to prevent it.” But unfortunately, there’s only so much they can do.
“Artist representatives are going to push back against that, and a certain standard is ingrained in our industry that is not easy to move away from,” he explained.