Taylor Swift's Music Catalog Drama: 7 Other Artists Who Have Fought With Their Record Label
By Desiree Murphy and Zach Seemayer
Kevin Winter, BERTRAND GUAY, Jim Dyson, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Taylor Swift's anger over Scooter Braun purchasing her former record label, Scott Borchetta's Big Machine Records, and acquiring the rights to the majority of her master recordings is a feeling many musical artists can relate to.
The singer -- who left Big Machine Records for Universal Music Group late last year -- slammed the reported $300 million deal in a lengthy, impassioned Tumblr post over the weekend, claiming that Braun has been "bullying" her for years and her life's work now lies in "the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it."
Many Swifties were shocked by the singer's claims that she wasn't given the opportunity to buy the catalog herself, only the chance to "sign back up" to Big Machine Records and "'earn' one album back at a time, one for every one" she turned in, which would essentially bind her into another years-long contract.
Typically, under most contracts between an artist and a label, the latter is given the legal rights to the master recordings. It's a common battle within the music industry, and Swift certainly isn't the first artist to speak up publicly about the challenges of seeking ownership for her art after achieving superstar status. From Prince to Kesha, ET is breaking down some of the most highly-publicized artist-label feuds.
The legendary singer, who died in 2016, was a trailblazer and champion in the fight for artistic control. "If you don't own your masters, your master owns you," he famously told Rolling Stone in 1996. "People think I'm a crazy fool for writing 'slave' on my face, but if I can't do what I want to do, what am I? When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave."
At the time, Prince was signed to Warner Music Group and was fighting with the label over the various demands of his contract. He frequently showed up to events and on stage with "slave" written on his cheek as an act of protest. Prince then temporarily left Warner Music and established NPG Records, but reconciled with the label in 2014 after working out their differences. The "Purple Rain" singer was also victorious in getting the label to return the U.S. copyrights on some of his studio albums to him.
Even when the master recordings have changed owners, the major labels "almost never publicly admit" it, Evan Cohen, a lawyer, publishing catalog administrator and owner of Manifesto Records, once explained to Grammy.com. This particular case with Prince -- when he was celebrated and publicly acknowledged by Warner Music Group for renegotiating his contract -- was a huge exception at the time, and an inspiration for other artists to follow in his footsteps.
Back in 1985, Michael Jackson paid a reported $47.5 million to acquire The Beatles' catalog for a company called ATV. The purchase tore apart Jackson's friendship with the group, made up of Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison. For decades, the ownership of one of the most famous catalogs in music history was a painful battle for McCartney and company.
"Paul and I both learned the hard way about business," Jackson -- who actually learned about the value of publishing from McCartney -- wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk. "And the importance of publishing and royalties and the dignity of songwriting."
Jackson later sold 50 percent of ATV to Sony for nearly $100 million in 1995, creating Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Finally, in 2017, McCartney was able to reach a settlement with Sony/ATV over copyright to The Beatles catalog under the US Copyright Act of 1976, which allows songwriters to reclaim copyright from music publishers 35 years after they gave them away.
With help from her mother, Diana Levesque (who JoJo says had no prior experience in the music industry), the "Leave (Get Out)" singer signed a contract with Blackground Records in 2004. After reaching pop success with her self-titled debut album, followed by 2006's The High Road, her planned third album was never released. JoJo began to battle with the label for not only keeping her album on hold, but also refusing to let her out of her seven-year contract.
"I had signed a seven-album deal, and I figured I could put out an album every year or two years," she recalled in a 2015 interview with Vulture. "I wanted to keep making music with my family, so I didn't see it as a huge commitment. And I also believed through conversation and an understanding that if it wasn’t working out between us, it would be OK and we could go our separate ways."
"We were assured that the deal was very normal, and the lawyer that I was with at the time said, 'This is a great deal, you shouldn't look into it any deeper than what it is. You’re gonna be protected,'" she continued. "We didn't know anything. We thought, 'You know more than us, so you must be right.'"
Following a decade-long legal battle, JoJo was finally able to break free from the label in 2014.
Kesha's long, protracted and very public legal battle over her music focuses more on her efforts to get out of her contract with music producer Dr. Luke, and his Kemosabe Records label, which is owned by Sony. Kesha -- who then spelled her name Ke$ha -- released her debut 2010 album Animal with the Kemosabe Records, as well as her 2012 follow-up, Warrior.
In October 2014, Kesha filed suit against Dr. Luke, accusing the producer of drugging and raping her, which she claimed subsequently led to an eating disorder, which she sought treatment for in January 2014. The thrust of the singer's lawsuit focused on asking the judge to allow her out of her contract, under which she was obligated to record six albums.
Dr. Luke staunchly denied all allegations of misconduct that Kesha presented, and claimed she was fabricating her story to get out of her contract. Kesha vehemently maintained her accusations as the legal drama played out over the next four years.
In February 2016, New York New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich rejected Kesha's request for a preliminary injunction, which would have allowed her to record music on a different label until the case was finalized. While Sony argued that they would have allowed Kesha to record music with Kemosabe Records under the auspices of a different producer, Kesha rejected this possibility.
Without being legally allowed to break her contract, Kesha released a new single "Praying" in July 2017, and her third album, Rainbow, the following August. The album was released until Kemosabe Records, as the courts maintained the validity of her contract with the label, but was not produced by Dr. Luke.
Kesha also wrote an essay on "Praying" for an issue of Lena Dunham's newsletter, Lenny Letter, in which she shared: "This song is about me finding peace in the fact that I can't control everything — because trying to control everyone was killing me. It's about learning to let go and realize that the universe is in control of my fate, not me."
After Clarkson won the first season of American Idol, she signed on with RCA records and, according to the singer, her relationship with the label was rocky and strained, to say the least -- especially in the early years.
Clarkson told Variety in October 2017 that she had to fight with the label over what her sound should be from the very beginning, and had to go to the mat to get execs to allow "Miss Independent" to be the lead single off her debut 2003 album Thankful, which ended up catapulting her to fame.
Then, music mogul Clive Davis took control of RCA in 2004, and Clarkson recalled how she had high hopes that her relationship with the label would improve, but that didn't prove to be the case. When Clarkson played "Because of You" for Davis, with the hopes it being included on her sophomore album Breakaway, Clarkson claimed Davis denigrated the song and herself.
"I was told that was a s**tty song because it didn’t rhyme," Clarkson said, adding that she was told this in the middle of a meeting with multiple execs. "A group of men thought it was OK to sit around a young woman and bully her. I was told I should shut up and sing. And then, this is the best part. He [Davis] played me the song that should be on the album, which was 'Behind These Hazel Eyes,' which I wrote. Am I a s**tty writer?"
Her clashing with Davis continued, and she claims he tried to entirely bury her third album, My December. However, Clarkson kept producing hits until her contractual obligation was fulfilled after seven albums, and she immediately left RCA and signed with Atlantic, who released her 2017 album Meaning of Life.
The popular girl group -- made up of Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes -- filed for bankruptcy protection in 1995, around the same time their Crazysexycool album was one of the most popular of its time and wracked up multiple Grammy awards. The move came after a major dispute with Arista Records and LaFace Records over the contract they intially signed in 1991.
"I hope we go down in history for being something more than just another famous act that got ripped off," Lopes said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times prior to her tragic death in 2002. "It's hard to believe that a group can sell 14 million records and still be treated so badly. But guess what? This is a cutthroat business full of greedy individuals who take advantage of naive young artists."
"Everybody treats us like stars now, except our own record company," added Watkins. "When we signed our contract, we were under the impression that if we sold a bunch of records they would give us a better deal. No matter how many records we sell or awards we win, they just treat us like dirt."
In that same interview, Lopes claimed that TLC was receiving less than 1% of the estimated $175 million in revenues that the group's music had generated around the world. "When you first start out, you are so trusting. You feel lucky just to get your foot in the door," Thomas explained. "But the bigger you get, the more hands want to pick your pockets. We know our producers helped us create these records, but we're tired of watching everybody cash in on our success but us."
The "Level Up" singer had a public falling out with Jive Records in 2011, after reports began to swirl that they'd dropped her after the release of her album Basic Instinct. However, in a public letter written by the singer to her fans, Ciara said she wished it were true, and she wanted nothing more than to part ways with the label.
"It is true that I have asked and I pray that my label will release me. I have had some great times and success with my label, but sometimes like all great things, its at that point where I feel we don’t share the same views on who I am as an artist," she wrote, adding that she felt Jive wasn't supporting her by promoting the album. "I have so much of me as an artist I still want to give to the world and my fans. A release would allow me to go be creative with people who care and understand me as an artist. In a short time, I will be able to bring to you a new music energy and a visual excitement!"
Ciara eventually moved to Epic records for her next two albums before starting her own record label, Beauty Marks Entertainment, in 2017, under which she released her most recent album in May, also titled Beauty Marks. One thing that she's been very vocal about since leaving Jive is maintaining control over her own music.
"Being able to own my masters has been really cool. When I see opportunities come I’m like, 'Yes I want that,'” Ciara said during a Makers Conference Q&A earlier this year. "To have that freedom and flexibility has been amazing."
ET caught up with Ciara in April, on the set of her music video for "Thinkin Bout You," and she opened up about starting her own entertainment company.
"It was huge. I had dreamt of making my own label for a while," she expressed. "In this stage in my career, you've worked so hard so you really want to fully benefit from the work of your labor. So that's what this moment is about for me. It's about ownership, it's about self-empowerment also, it's not only myself, but also young girls and people around the world… This is the best feeling. I've been able to learn so much on this new chapter."