Everyone needs to calm down. Taylor Swift is allowed to perform a medley of her greatest hits, old and new, this Sunday at the American Music Awards, where she’s being honored with Artist of the Decade.
That “calm down” isn’t hyperbolic. On Monday, TMZ reported that “Swifties,” aka Swift stans, sent death threats directed at Scooter Braun, his wife, and their young children over Swift's continued disagreement with Braun over rights to her masters. Scott Borchetta and other Big Machine staffers were also targeted, and the threats were so intense that one of Braun’s offices in Nashville, Ithaca Holdings, was shut down last week over safety concerns.
That’s a whole lot of rage over one TV performance, but the intense feelings are rooted in music industry drama that started a years ago. In late 2018, Swift announced she was leaving her label of over a decade, Big Machine, run by Borchetta. In a contentious bit of maneuvering, the label retained rights over Swift’s entire back catalogue, though she’d own all her future masters with Universal Music Group.
Then, in June, Borchetta sold his company to Braun, which was a big problem for Swift. The mega-manager represents her public foes Kanye West and Justin Bieber, and she alleges Braun helped his artists bully and intimidate her. In a blistering Tumblr post from June, she called the acquisition her “worst case scenario.” She signed the letter to fans, “Sad and grossed out, Taylor.”
Over the summer, Swift hatched the plan to re-record copycat versions of her older albums and re-release them sometime in 2020. The idea is that Swift, with her massive social influence, will direct fans to buy and stream the new versions, thus ensuring Taylor’s royalties end up in her pocket, not Braun’s.
Their standoff flared up again this month, when the singer posted a plea for help on social media. She alleged that Braun and Big Machine were essentially silencing her, prohibiting her from performing her songs on camera, both at the AMAs and in a forthcoming Netflix documentary about her.
“The message being sent to me is very clear. Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you’ll be punished. This is WRONG,” Swift wrote. “So this is where I’m asking for your help. Please let Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun know how you feel about this.” Fans evidently took Swift’s plea to the extreme and began sending the aforementioned death threats. It’s a pretty stark proof of the power of her stan army and a chilling one.
The conflict between Braun and Swift exposes the shifting nature of the music business, too. Most people these days agree with musicians like Swift, Tyler, the Creator, and Prince — they think artists should be able to retain ownership of their masters. Conversely, the dispute between Swift and Big Machine that centered on the AMAs was mostly about who could make money off the recording of the awards show, when people streamed Swift’s performance later.
As Braun pointed out, it was never about whether or not Taylor would be allowed to perform the songs live. As Eriq Gardner wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “Braun and Borchetta may have seen Swift's AMA performance as a backdoor route toward rerecording hits and taken the position that any distribution of Swift's recorded appearance flouted Swift's contract.”
This week, after weathering a weekend of attacks from Swift’s camp, Big Machine and Dick Clark Productions, which produces the AMAs, announced they’d reached a licensing agreement. Taylor would be allowed to perform all her old hits on the awards show this Sunday. The details are still fuzzy on who will be allowed to make money from that performance, but it seems like Swift has won, for now.
Yesterday, Page Six reported that Taylor is readying a “fierce show of female artistic strength and empowerment” for her AMAs performance and an acceptance speech that will take aim at Braun directly.
Braun won’t be anywhere near the AMAs this Sunday, however. TMZ says he’ll be attending one of his clients’ shows — an Ariana Grande concert in Tampa, Florida. And she just happens to be slated against Swift at the AMAs for Artist of the Year. This drama just travels in an infinite loop.