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Taylor Swift's music being held hostage in a gross power play

Commentary: A Swift super-fan wades in on Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta blocking the Grammy-winning artist from performing her work.

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Swift's first six albums have brought joy to millions. Now she can't perform songs from them on TV.

Jun Sato/TAS18/Getty Images

It is my great displeasure to inform you that two Nashville music industry executives are threatening a woman to stop her from singing lyrics on national television that she wrote in her diary as a 14-year-old girl.

That woman is Taylor Swift, and she's being lauded as the Artist of the Decade at the American Music Awards on Sunday, Nov. 24, due to her unparalleled success over the past 10 years. It's a great honor, and a cause for celebration for both Swift and her longtime super-fans (myself included). But because of the record deal she struck when she was just 15, she is not allowed to perform a medley of the music (often written with collaborators, but always by her) that got her there. Oh, and Netflix isn't allowed to feature it in a documentary it's making about her either.

Now, instead of celebrating with Swift, her fans are commiserating, starting hashtags such as #IStandWithTaylor and partaking in a wider cultural conversation about ownership in the music industry.

This egregious abuse of power is the weird flex of the men who own Swift's back catalog: Scott Borchetta, CEO of her former label, Big Machine, and Scooter Braun, the music manager who bought the label after several years of Swift trying extremely hard to keep her distance from him, in part due to him bullying her in the past.

The multi-award-winning Swift, who signed a new deal with Universal Music Group and Republic Records last November, didn't have ownership of her masters as part of her original deal with Big Machine and said she intended to re-record her first six albums as soon as she is legally allowed (the end of 2020). She's also made no secret of her dismay at Braun being the one to own her music and the betrayal she felt when Borchetta sold it to him. 

It's a sad but not uncommon situation Swift has found herself in (Prince famously changed his name in a bid to regain control of his masters, and singer Sky Ferreira recently also spoke of being in a similar position to Swift) -- that the lifetime's work she's poured her heart and soul into is owned by and feeding the bank accounts of two men who had nothing to do with its creation. 

They are now refusing to let her perform that older music in specific contexts unless she agrees not to re-record her first six albums and stops speaking about frustration with the situation publicly. 

In a statement issued Friday, Big Machine broadly denied this, saying "at no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the AMAs or block her Netflix special," acknowledging it did not have the power to do so, but not refuting her specific allegations. Swift's publicist responded with a statement quoting an email in which they deny Swift's requests to perform her music.

In a statement posted across her social accounts, Swift encouraged people to let Braun, Borchetta, the Carlyle Group (Braun's financial backers) and other artists they're fans of know how they feel about the situation. Fans (and many others who were just outraged) started petitions and reached out to people across the music industry on Twitter to express their frustration. A small number of people have been accused of attempting to dox Braun and Borchetta, but it should be noted that Swift didn't suggest this as a course of action.

The lengths Braun and Borchetta are now going to to forbid her from re-recording music she wrote give a rare inside glimpse at how far music executives with unchecked power will go to control artists. Their actions also prove they're inadequate caretakers for this trove of artistic treasures, beloved by so many, which they're wielding like a weapon against its creator.

When signing her new record deal, Swift felt her only choice to make a better future for herself was to flee the house she built with her own hands, even though it caused her great pain to do so. Now she can't get her songs back, or even borrow them for the weekend. If you're a music fan, this is something you should care about regardless of how you feel about Swift or her music. Because if something like this can happen to Swift, it can happen to any artist, and it does, and will continue to.

Swift is the first to acknowledge this is much bigger than her. She knows that at least she has the power and reach not to have her voice stifled. She also knows all too well the power of withholding music, having taken her music off Spotify for several years to make a point about streaming royalties. But more broadly, she's speaking to the vast power imbalance between music industry executives and artists everywhere.

It's why it's disappointing that so few prominent male artists have so far been willing to join her in raising their own voices, even though they publicly gush over her talent and will happily fish for collaborations in interviews. 

The musicians who have spoken up (Halsey, Selena Gomez, Camila Cabello, Lily Allen and Sara Bareilles) are almost exclusively female or new, or they just have smaller followings. With less clout or less of an established presence, these are the artists most at risk of retribution from cutthroat execs, and they should be applauded alongside Swift for their willingness to speak out.

It's worth considering for a moment the current push toward greater artist ownership and empowerment and how this incident will be relayed in that context in the annals of music history. To step back is to see this as part of a pattern of paternalistic power plays designed to disenfranchise artists and keep them in their place.

Braun and Borchetta claim to be on the side of musicians and artistry, often referring to Big Machine as a family. But as things stand, music history will tell a different story. It's hard to imagine anyone in the future looking back at this incident and seeing anything other than two men in a boardroom holding a woman's lifework hostage for the purposes of profit and power. History will likely not be kind to these men, primarily because, in this instance at least, they showed very little care and kindness of their own in their time.

The narrative of Swift's legacy is already secure, thanks to her vast body of critically acclaimed music, much loved by fans for its lyrical depth. It will also speak of her boldness and fearlessness in standing up for herself, others and what she believes in while being frequently berated by the misogynistic attitudes ingrained in the media, the music industry and society as a whole. It's not the story of someone playing victim, as many would have you believe. It will be the story of a victor.

As for Borchetta and Braun, their contribution to music will be remembered as what it is (nil) and if they continue on their current trajectory, their reputation for stifling the contributions of others is at risk of overshadowing anything they've done to promote and support musicians.

There is still time for them to change this narrative and truly uplift the art they claim to support. They've proven they have the power they so clearly desire. Now let's see if they've got the integrity to wield it wisely, ethically, compassionately and for the greater artistic good.

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