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Copyright, A.I., and Taylor's Version

Will record labels seek to control eras of an artist's voice to stop retaliatory cover songs? (708 words / July 8, 2024)

Published onJul 08, 2024
Copyright, A.I., and Taylor's Version

The narrative is that Taylor Swift dropped the hugely successful (Taylor's Versions) of her earlier records because she wanted to ‘re-gain’ control over her early albums after the rights to them were sold against her will. This worked out really, really well for her. She will receive payment both from the originals and the re-recordings, with a much higher percentage coming from the latter. More importantly, she introduced a new generation to her old standards in a way that felt of the moment, without degrading the memory for those whom experienced it firsthand.

All this is old news, of course. The point is: there’s a lot of artists in similar positions who might similarly want to re-gain control (and income) from their earlier works and now a very clear path to do so has been established. Even though Taylor did not have rights on her original records, she was able to re-record them, to the note, because:

  • mechanical licenses allow for the recording of cover songs and

  • her voice was able to recreate sounds produced at a younger stage of life.

Heading off at the pass

If I were a major record label, I would not wish for re-recordings to continue, at least not in a way that cuts me out of the profits. Therefore, a long-term overriding prospect I would pursue is lobbying to change the nature of existing laws (like the Music Modernization Act) or create some new one.

A more immediate change I would make would be an expansion to every newly-negotiated artist contract. A lot of label deals are known as ‘360 deals’ where companies “provide financial and other support for the artist, including direct advances as well as support in marketing, promotion, touring and other areas” in exchange for the artists giving up a percentage of revenue on everything from “digital and online streaming and live performance to merchandise sales, endorsement deals, and songwriting royalties.”

If I were a label, I would not just be asking for a cut of concerts, commercials, and songwriting profits, I would create some sort of non-compete clause for use of an artist’s ‘voice-sound’ from the era in which they are signed to me. (By voice-sound, I mean this like the auditory version of mouth-feel.)

New Deals

Imagine a freshly-signed musician looking at their deal on one hand and Swift’s example on the other. What is to stop the new artist from recording their official studio recording and then going home to record a pretty identical version to keep in their back pocket for a rainy day?

Imagine that musician getting big and signing to a new label. But their new songs aren’t hitting like the old ones. So maybe they decide to drop some ‘vault tracks’ using lyrics from old notebooks and their vocal cords haven’t changed much since those earlier days and so they can make a pretty good approximation.

Or maybe they’ve lost use of their voice, but have a big enough library of contemporaneous vocal recordings that they can train an A.I. to sing in that younger style for them. Some new and not-yet-sued version of Suno or Udio could take care of cover songs and vault tracks in no time.

Conclusion

If I were a label, I would be thinking about these possibilities and making interventions to keep me looped into future profits. And if I were an artist or artist advocate, I’d be thinking three steps ahead to cut those schemes short.

Post-Script

Moments after sharing this post, Art & Design Librarian Maggie Murphy referred to a law review article to point out that “contracts CAN keep artists from rerecording their songs above & beyond copyright, and that's what kept Swift from doing it previous to Nov 2020. She's able to rerecord now, not b/c she is making a faithful cover of a previous recording, but because she owns the composition.”

What I am still left wondering after is the wiggle room for re-recording. If it’s only the artist who has an embargo against a re-record, what about a machine learning model that has been trained on the artist’s voice? Do current label contracts (or other standing laws) preclude this possibility?

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Comments
1
Dan Rudmann:

Resources. Taylor Swift is in an exceptional position due to her earth-shifting fame. Most other artists, even ones who we might perceive as successful, likely don't have the money or time to book the studio, pay for mixing and mastering, printing a physical run, distribution, enter into and manage a secondary streaming deal with each platform, mount a marketing campaign, and run financials. Taylor also leveraged a public battle with Scooter Braun - a unique moment of transparency which I imagine scares the label from threatening or pursuing legal action.

Dan Rudmann:

Somehow forgot to mention booking shows and tour, traveling, and performing. Exhausting. Taylor Swift is a business, man.