Taylor Swift Stands to Make Music Business History As a Free Agent
Come November, the superstar will be able to sign a new deal for the first time since she was 15. And it’s sure to be a big one.
Now 28, and among the most successful female artists in modern music history —not to mention a savvy businesswoman in her own right — Swift has already been free to negotiate with rival companies, though she couldn’t sign any new deal before November. Her reps are known to have preliminary discussions with the major label groups, along with talks about returning to Big Machine, the Nashville-based , Universal Music Group-distributed indie that became a powerhouse with Swift as its flagship artist.
Potential auctions like this don’t come up every year, and the numbers could be historic. Several music business insiders note that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Swift could command $20 million per album.
“There’s no precedent to look to regarding the top-selling artist of the digital era becoming a total free agent,” says The Davis Firm’s Doug Davis, one of the music business’ top lawyers. “Taylor Swift is at an extraordinary point in her career where she can write her own ticket in regards to the commercial terms and deal structure. If she is seeking to break financial records and extend with a major, she could have the biggest artist deal of the century so far. If she wants to be creative and choose an alternative structure for capitalization, she could create her own business model. It’s very exciting.”
Variety spoke with high-ranking label insiders and industry experts about how things might shake out for the “Shake It Off” singer, and came up with these four scenarios:
Signing with a non-Universal major. Any major label group would jump at landing someone who’s inarguably one of the three or four biggest music stars in the world. The complications would only come in as various imprints are considered. A Sony source notes it’d be tricky to sign her to Columbia, where she’d have to share oxygen with a couple of those other biggest heavyweights, Beyoncé and Adele… but she’d be the undisputed champ at any of Sony’s other labels, not to mention over at the Warner Music Group. One high-ranking Sony insider would like to see a deal with his company but believes their chances really depend on what Borchetta is willing to do, saying “it’s a nonstarter for us” if Big Machine decides to give in on the masters.
Leaving Big Machine but staying within the Universal Music ecosystem. Some see this as the likeliest scenario, since there’s been some strain with Big Machine but Universal has more to lose than just bragging rights by not being in the Taylor Swift business anymore. “[Universal Music chairman] Lucian [Grainge] will do everything in his power to make sure she doesn’t go away,” says a label insider. “Bear in mind, UMG is looking to sell 50 percent of the company. If someone offers her $100 million, he’ll go to $120 million.” And the Republic label would be the obvious place to go within UMG, since they’ve had a hugely fruitful relationship ever since she went pop and needed the help of a Top 40 radio promotion department that Big Machine didn’t have. “This is the team partly responsible for making you one of the biggest stars the world,” says a UMG source. “To change that up midstream is a risk.”
How valuable to Big Machine are the masters for Swift’s past albums if they hold onto them? “Streaming catalog is at a peak — a bubble peak perhaps, but nonetheless a peak,” says industry analyst Mark Mulligan. “So any label would perceive retaining ownership of masters of majorly successful albums as a priority.” But licensing synch rights to her older music wouldn’t be possible without Swift signing off on that usage, which would be within her rights as a songwriter, hampering Big Machine’s ability to do much with the music besides stream it.
Will Swift and Borchetta work it out? The odds on that vary depend who you talk to: One label source believes the differences are truly irreconcilable, but another close to both sides says “it’s like family” — strained family — where blood could yet prove thicker than competition.