Who is Scooter Braun and why do those masters matter?
The rift between Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun is dividing the music industry with many artists siding with one or the other, explicitly, or more subtly via follows and unfollows on social media. But who is Scooter Braun and why is Swift so irate about him and his company’s takeover of Big Machine Label Group?
Braun (38) is a talent manager and entertainment executive, originally from Connecticut, who kicked off his career as a party promoter in his late teens. He was still at college in 2002 when he was hired to plan the after parties for Eminem and Ludacris’ Anger Management Tour. This led to a plum role at So So Def Records when he was just 20; music producer Jermaine Dupri hired him as executive marketing director at the label and he dropped out of college to work with artists including Usher and Kevin Federline.
Scooter went on to be a founder of SB Projects, ultimately managing Usher among a long list of other high profile names including Justin Bieber, who he discovered as 12-year-old on YouTube (like Carly Rae Jepsen, who he also manages), Ariana Grande, Hillary Duff, Tori Kelly, David Guetta, and more. SB Projects also manages models Karlie Kloss and Ashley Graham and the business has branched out into TV and film projects, as well as music events, including Ariana Grande’s One Love Manchester concert in aid of the victims of the Manchester Arena attack.
Scooter is an extremely powerful player in the business. He also heads up Ithaca Holdings which, in February, acquired Atlas Music Publishing, home to songs by artists including Ed Sheeran, Drake, Nicki Minaj and John Legend. Atlas founder Richard Stumpf said in a statement at the time, “I’ve admired the work that Scooter has done over the years and his commitment for doing right by talent. He has the pulse of the music industry like no other. It was clear to me that beyond the business, Scooter was someone who genuinely wants to be part of the greater good.”
This weekend Ithaca also acquired Big Machine Label Group, the indie record label founded by Scott Borchetta. The deal means he acquires all Big Machine’s roster of clients and their master recordings. The master recording is the original recording of a song or album from which all copies that exist on YouTube, Spotify etc are made so owning those rights means that the label earns money through the distribution and licensing of that music. However, songwriters will usually maintain the copyright to their music so they do have rights about how it is used and they will often work with the label regarding licensing deals.
Taylor Swift’s first six albums were released via Big Machine Label Group, before she signed to Universal earlier this year, so Big Machine still owns those master rights (her seventh album will release in the autumn via Republic Records, a division of Universal, and Swift's terms there are different - she will own her masters going forward). Ithaca stumped up more than $300 million for the privilege, according to the Wall Street Journal. Swift's masters would have been a significant factor in that sale given her profile and success as an artist. Those rights now belong to Scooter. So, if a production company wants to license a Taylor Swift song for a TV show, for example, their first port of call will be Scooter. Swift will only earn a percentage of the money made from her own albums, although exactly how much (or how little) is anyone's guess.
It's not unusual for an artist not to own their masters. Beyonce's are owned by Columbia Records, for example. Some artists, like Jay-Z and Rihanna have managed to buy back their masters from their labels but that is not typical.
For Taylor Swift, as well as the financial impact, it is obviously a bone of contention for her that it is Scooter who effectively owns her life’s work. Their issues appear to be myriad, as Taylor’s language regarding the exec in a Tumblr post this weekend fell far short of complimentary. She accused him of “incessant, manipulative bullying” and said she was “sad” and “grossed out” at the news that Ithaca had purchased Big Machine.
Writing on Tumblr, she said: “I learned about Scooter Braun’s purchase of my masters as it was announced to the world. All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at his hands for years.”
Borchetta responded by posting a statement claiming that Swift’s father Scott Swift was a shareholder in Big Machine and was alerted about the deal on June 25. Swift’s camp refuted this by saying Scott Swift “did not participate” in the shareholder phonecall “due to a very strict NDA that bound all shareholders and prohibited any discussion at all without risk of severe penalty.” He did not participate, said a spokesman, because he “did not want to be required to withhold any information from his own daughter.”
The news of the deal, whenever and however that news came, was bound to devastate Taylor, who has been trying to acquire the rights to her own masters for "years". Not being given the opportunity (at least) to buy them from Borchetta must be a particularly sore point, and even more so because the man who has now acquired them is a man she apparently abhors.
Taylor’s Tumblr post provides insight into the reasons why. She included a screen grab of an old social media post showing a photo of Justin Bieber, Scooter Braun, and Kanye West, with the caption, “Taylor Swift, what up”. It harks back to the drama surrounding the lyrics of Kanye’s track, ‘Famous’, and the use of Taylor’s image in the accompanying music video. “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous’ rapped Kanye while the video also featured a nude replica of Taylor. Taylor objected to the track publicly following its release but Kanye said he had her permission. Kanye's wife Kim Kardashian West got involved and it got messy. Braun was Kanye’s manager at the time (as well as Justin Bieber’s). So that Instagram post of the three of them together, addressing her in the caption, was not the most sensitive.
Taylor’s post this weekend prompted Bieber to leap to his manager’s defence, although he acknowledged that his Instagram post with West and Braun was “hurtful”. However, he also criticised her for airing her issues with Braun on social media.
“Hey Taylor. First of all i would like to apologize for posting that hurtful Instagram post, at the time i thought it was funny but looking back it was distasteful and insensitive,” he wrote on Instagram.
“I have to be honest though it was my caption and post that I screenshotted of scooter and Kanye that said ‘Taylor Swift what up’ he didn’t have anything to do with it and it wasn’t even a part of the conversation in all actuality he was the person who told me not to joke like that.”
He continued, “Scooter has had your back since the days you graciously let me open up for you.! As the years have passed we haven’t crossed paths and gotten to communicate our differences, hurts or frustrations.
“So for you to take it to social media and get people to hate on scooter isn’t fair.
“What were you trying to accomplish by posting that blog? seems to me like it was to get sympathy u also knew that in posting that your fans would go and bully scooter.”
Bieber said that he and Braun both loved Swift and that communication was the only way to “resolve conflict”.
“So banter back and forth online i don’t believe solves anything. I’m sure Scooter and I would love to talk to you and resolve any conflict, pain or any feelings that need to be addressed.
“Neither Scooter or I have anything negative to say about you we truly want the best for you. I usually don’t rebuttal things like this but when you try and deface someone I loves character that’s crossing a line.”
The rift has divided the music industry. Singer Demi Lovato joined Bieber in defending Braun, saying on her Insta stories that he is a good man. Braun’s wife Yael Cohen took a pop at Taylor on Instagram too, accusing her of attacking her husband and ending her statement with, “My husband is anything but a bully, he’s spent his life standing up for people and causes he believes in.” Swift also has her supporters, of course, including Halsey and Iggy Azalea who are tweeting under the hashtag #WeStandWithTaylor, along with her army of Swifties.
Whatever the outcome for Swift, the row has shone a spotlight on an aspect of the music industry that can prove difficult for artists, especially those making decisions and signing contracts when starting out which may impact on their career in the future.
As Taylor concluded in her post, “I am now signed to a label that believes I should own anything I create. Thankfully, I left my past in Scott’s hands and not my future. And hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation.
“You deserve to own the art you make.”