04 Nov Creative Autonomy
Even as someone who doesn’t regularly listen to Taylor Swift, the modern phenomenon of ‘(Taylor’s Version)’ is pretty hard to miss. Recently, I have started to notice that many of the Taylor Swift songs reminiscent of school dances and FM radio in the back of my mom’s car were charting once again. I thought maybe there was another nostalgic trend on TikTok that boosted Taylor’s older music again. When I checked, the Fearless album, first released in 2008, was no.1 in America. The twist to this success however is that this newfound popularity is the re-recorded version, or ‘Taylor’s Version. The rights to Taylor’s original songs were being withheld from her by her manager and label owner, Scooter Braun, on condition of her releasing new music under his label. So in order to gain back the rights to her original songs, Taylor had to re-record and independently release the new versions of her older albums. There is much more context to this dispute, but I want to emphasize that this sort of problem is not unique to Swift. Ownership disputes and disputes over creative direction have always been characteristic of the music industry, but also somewhat within non-music creative realms.
Let’s go back to 1993 when pop icon Prince announced he legally changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, Ƭ̵̬̊. He did so in order to emancipate himself from the legal bindings of his record deal with Warner Brothers. Warner Bros. seemed to care about “Prince” the brand over Prince the individual. The label wanted him to refrain from releasing songs, and did not give Prince (who was able to resume using his original name after his Warner Bros. contract expired in 2000) the full artistic freedom he desired. W Prince became one of the musicians most outspoken about the predatory nature of record labels, openly cautioning young artists not to sign record deals.
The modern music industry as many of us understand it is inextricably linked to streaming platforms, social media, and the internet more broadly. The state of connectivity that creatives today are operating in allows for a larger reach and more initial accessibility to and inside of the scene. However, with a saturated pool of content creators comes the potential for competition. This creates an industry whose purpose is to strategically navigate this competition — some with good intentions, others not so much. In the world of music specifically, it is possible that artists who heed Prince’s advice to go solo have a chance at success since there are more routes available to reach listeners. There are a few factors that contribute to the advantages label-signed artists have that I would like to note in this regard. To start, streams. In 2021, each stream on Spotify earns an artist $0.00437. To make just one day’s worth of minimum wage through streams alone, you would need your songs to be streamed 26,270 times. In contrast, under a label, you have more access to marketing teams, people who put your music onto popular playlists, higher-end recording technologies — all sorts of things that increase exposure. This can lead to an increased stream revenue, along with other non-stream revenues like brand deals.
So for Prince, it seems easy for him to criticize record labels since he had already gained the social power (directly or indirectly) through the opportunities being on a label had afforded him. This doesn’t take away from the heart of the argument, which is that artists should be able to maintain their autonomy and their work should be able to, on its own, exemplify the intentions set out by its creator. With innumerable accessible music-sharing platforms and a variety of newly available marketing techniques coming from these competition-driven industries, creatives should have the opportunity to succeed no matter the path they choose — independent releases or not. Though the culture of record labels and the music industry has changed for the better since the days of Prince, the traps of commodification remain.
Much of what we create ends up being consumed. In sharing any art form, there is the chance that someone will take something away from your work without credit or compensation. Not only is this dangerous financially for career creators, but incredibly draining. The time, emotion, and mental labor often put into finishing and sharing our work is so rigorous that a setback that large has the potential to derail future creative projects. Although these artists’ battles against their contracts are extreme examples of the hardship a creator may face in the current state of capitalist work culture, the average creative still needs to take caution when sharing their work with the world. Take some time to establish what sharing looks like to you, decide what you’re comfortable giving away, and set intentions for your creation.
The facts of labels, money, technology, and capitalism are not reasons to shy away from creating or sharing your art, but these are reasons to take extra care and to shift your mindset. I want to emphasize, however, that these forces are not beyond your control nor unshakable in the face of passionate challenge. Taylor Swift and Prince both fought against people who technically played a part in their success, and who they had given legal permission to take control over some aspect of their work. Many people thought these artists were in the wrong for their challenges against their labels. At their high level of social visibility, they put their reputation (no Taylor Swift pun intended) at risk in pursuit of legal, financial, and ultimately total creative ownership. This goes to show that you do not owe these kinds of people anything when the intentions of your art are no longer being honored.
We know the saying “if you love something, set it free”. When we create, sharing – or letting go – is often an inevitable part of the process, but it can also be the most rewarding part. Therefore, it is essential to understand how you want your work to be shared and received. If you aren’t in the position to maintain full ownership of your product, you can lean into the aspect that your art is for sharing, and it belongs to the community you share it with. How do you want to see your work providing for the community? How do you see the community giving back to you? Is there joy simply in the creation, or do you seek joy from others’ enjoyment of your creation?
HEADER IMAGE CREDIT: PINTREST, WINGSART STUDIO