In multiverse posts, I examine alternate recordings of songs. Yes, I know I’m a nerd.
For any artist, power – and money-making potential – lies in owning your masters. If you own your master recordings, you can fully control what is done with your work. If you don’t want it licensed for use in this film or in that advert, you can say no. Moreover, the revenue earned by your records goes to you, not to a company that then pays you a small percentage of what they’re making.
Under the terms of her record deal with Big Machine, Taylor Swift did not own her masters. This was not in any way exceptional; few artists actually do. Young musicians, signing their first contract, are negotiating from a position in which they have no power; granting ownership of master recordings to a label is almost always a necessary price of signing a record deal.
In 2019, Scooter Braun, manager of Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and others, bought Big Machine. The deal to buy the label included Swift’s masters, which the label owned. Braun subsequently sold them to a private equity firm called Shamrock Holdings, owned by the estate of Roy E. Disney, for a sum said to be in the region of $300 million dollars. Under the terms of the deal, Braun continues to derive a percentage of the earnings from the masters. He is, we can presume, a very rich man.
Swift had, by her own account, been trying to buy her masters for a while, and she was furious at the deal. Coverage of the story made the mainstream press, with lots of ink spilled over what it all signified, who was the goodie, who was the baddie, etc.*
Early on in the dispute, Swift signalled her intent to rerecord her old catalogue, or at least part of it, so that she could own the masters to her old songs at last, derive fair value from them, and control how and when they’re used. And so, two years later, we have this: a re-recorded version of Love Story (parenthetically titled Taylor’s Version – that is, not Shamrock’s version). A new version of Fearless, her second album and pop breakthrough, will follow next month.
Love Story in its original form is only 13 years old, and pop music mix topologies haven’t changed as much as you’d think in that time.** Even so, the two versions of Love Story are appreciably different, despite sharing an identical arrangement. This is because the new version of Love Story is, to my ears at least, rather less pop than the original, and significantly more indie.
Over the last year, Swift has worked extensively with the National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner, and from him she appears to have developed a taste for reverb, which the National slather all over their recordings to give an air of profundity to their lugubriousness.
A reverb haze on everything is ubiquitous in indie, but is seldom to be heard in pop music. The density of the mix topologies works against it. OG Love Story is, as these things go, relatively organic, but the wall of sound in the choruses (nine acoustic guitars, according to producer Nathan Chapman, plus nearly as many electrics, as well as fiddle, pedal steel, splashy hi-hats and backing vocals) renders long reverb tails an unwelcome distraction, if a creative mix engineer were actually able to make them audible above the wall of sound in the first place.
Taylor’s Version of Love Story, then, is most noticeably different from the original in its treatment of the vocal. There is audible reverb throughout, which is especially prominent in the first verse. The harmony vocals are downplayed throughout in favour of the lead, and that lead vocal is heavily Auto-Tuned, in a way the original lead vocal surprisingly wasn’t. We’ll get back to that.
The results are, if you’ll pardon the pun, mixed. There are things I prefer about the new version. I like that it sounds more like it was recorded in a shared physical space; the disjunct between the dry vocal and wet drums in the original recording is unpleasant and jarring to my ears. I think Dessner has overdone it with the reverb, as usual, but there’s been an attempt to make the mix coherent in terms of space, and it does work better than the 2008 recording.
However, the praise Swift has received for the greater level of control*** of the new vocal in many reviews strikes me as pretty clueless. Love Story was written when Swift was 16, and her youth is always apparent in the original recording – both in the song’s sentiment and the sound of Swift’s voice. The breathless, barely-in-control quality of the original vocal works in the song’s favour by getting it over some of the awkward turns of phrase: the lines that don’t have enough syllables to fit the metre, the lines that have too many, and the lines where an unnatural word or syllabel is stressed to fit the rhythm. The new Auto Tuned vocal is bland – the robotic sound of it doesn’t match the lyric or emotion of the song. It could have been delivered by any early-rounds American Idol contestant, and would have been subjected to the same brutal processing.
Whether Taylor’s Version of Love Story or any of the other songs from Fearless will supplant the originals – on radio or in the hearts of the fans – only time will tell. Early signs from fans are encouraging, but radio may be a tougher nut to crack in the long term. The Nathan Chapman-produced original was machine-tooled to work on radio, and it does work. The National’s sound – bigger low end, less mid-range info, lots of reverb – is more of a headphones/home-stereo kind of sound, so is less attractive to radio stations whose primary concern is being audible on a small stereo in the corner of a shop or office, or in a car. And those original versions are not like the original cuts of Star Wars that George Lucas pulled when he released his Special Editions. They’ll still be out there, winking at radio programmers who’ve loved them all this time.
Then there’s simple attachment and inertia. Despite Jeff Lynne’s best efforts, DJs are still playing the ELO recordings from the 1970s and ’80s, not the versions he’s recreated at home by himself, despite them being more or less identical. If anyone has the fan power to buck this trend, it’s Taylor Swift, but I remain sceptical that it can be done.
*My own take (simple version): the baddie is clearly Scooter Braun, who comes over as a complete prick.
But here’s the more complex version. Record deals with most labels are profoundly weighted in favour of the label in a way that would be judged illegal in almost any other industry. She’s been shafted, no doubt, and maybe a really sharp manager might have been able to do a better job for her when she was a kid, but probably not. As I said, all young artists get shafted.
However, old school label deals did pay off handsomely for a small percentage of artists, and Swift was one of those. She has an aboslutely gargantuan reported income and a considerable fortune that increases every year. If she wants to play the long game, she’ll have more than enough stashed away in five years to buy the masters from Shamrock, pretty much whatever their price. The only question will be, is she willing to pay it. But there’s a price for everything. The masters may increase in value, but they can’t go on tour, they can’t sell merchandise, and they have no claim on the money Swift makes from her post-Big Machine records, which it’s safe to assume will earn her tonnes more cash.
Re-recording your old songs is one way for Swift to try to regain control of her work, but it’s a very time-intensive way and, long term, there’s no guarantee it would be successful in terms of supplanting the old recordings, especially as she gets to songs released relatively recently, where the differences between an old and new versions would be minimal and the new recordings would benefit less from the curiosity factor that is undoubtedly helping Taylor’s Version of Love Story.
There’s also the opportunity-cost element: what writing and recording work isn’t Swift doing while she’s doing this? Surely cracking on with that will be more fulfiling, and with every radio play and Spotify stream, she’ll be closer to buying back her old masters in future, too.
**There are differences, of course, but a 2008 recording and 2021 recording have a lot more in common than a recording from, say, 1963 and 1976, 1982 and 1995, or 2000 and 2013.
***Her much the “control” comes from the singer’s performance and how much from the mixer is – literally – impossible for the listener to judge. The vocal is Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life – that much will be apparent to basically every listener. But when mixing in the box, you can do almost anything to almost any musical element in the mix. That includes shortening the length of a given syllable by hundredths of seconds to make it tighter if you choose to. If you’re good at it, you can do it without notable artefacts, too. It’s simply not possible to tell, as the listener, exactly what editing and processing has been employed during the mix, and any critic who makes confident claims on behalf of Swift here is overstepping the limits of what they can know.