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Taylor Swift vs Universal Music

Former Chairman and CEO, Sony Music, UK

IP Interview
Published on October 17, 2020

Why is this interview interesting?

  • How the change in Taylor Swift's international rights ownership could pave the way for future changes with artist contracts
Executive Bio

Nick Gatfield

Former Chairman and CEO, Sony Music, UK

Nick is a British music industry executive with over 34 years of experience scouting, signing, and working with global artists such as Amy Winehouse. Nick started his career as a musician in the band ‘Dexys Midnight Runners’ before moving into recorded music. At the age of 26, he was made Director at EMI Records, the youngest in the company’s history. Over the next 20 years, he went on to lead global labels such as PolyGram and Island Records and has worked at three of the four major record labels. More recently, as the Former Chairman of Sony Music, he was leading negotiations with Spotify and both new and old artists in the repertoire. Nick currently runs Twin Music, an incubator for new talent, which funds and services new artists coming to market.

Interview Transcript

What would the major do in that case? Let’s say Drake turns around and goes to Spotify in five or six years?

I’ll give you an example of what’s happened now. This is anecdotal as opposed to empirical fact, but this is what my instinct tells me. Taylor Swift and her team are savvy. She was out of contract and she was already on a distribution relationship with Universal, so she was signed to a company called Big Machine. Big Machine had a distribution deal with Universal, so she was getting a good lion’s share of the royalties, as far as the US was concerned. But where Universal was making proper money on Taylor Swift was through its international structure. Without getting over-complicated, there is a structure within all majors, where you have a repertoire owner. In the case of Taylor Swift with Universal it was Universal Republic who were the repertoire owner.

All the territories, all the affiliates around the world, would pay a royalty back to the repertoire owner. They retained some money in their home market and then paid 30% to 32% back to Universal Republic. Universal Republic would then pay on whatever the international artist royalty would be, back to Big Machine. Invariably, that was considerably lower than they would have to pay if it was a straightforward distribution deal. There was big money to be made on international, on both Drake and Taylor Swift.

In her recent renegotiation, Taylor Swift timed it to perfection. Universal was on the block, it was being floated with a number of interested parties which, obviously, resulted in Tencent acquiring 10% of Universal Music Group, but they couldn’t be seen to be losing Taylor Swift. Effectively, what she got was her catalogue back, so the catalogue reverted back to her. She has a four-album deal but she owns her repertoire and, in effect, it’s a global distribution deal. She will be paid at source, from major territories, as opposed to the inter-company rate. So Universal’s margin on Taylor Swift has gone way, way down. That will be the way of the future.

It’s almost become a distributor, rather than a rights owner?

Correct; you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s a shift in the business from rights ownership to artist service/distribution, with artist service being the primary one. Where does Universal provide an advantage for Taylor Swift? When you’ve got an artist of that size, you still put together a global marketing campaign. You need to be able to hit any new release from her hard out of the box, on a global level. Therefore, you need scale and Universal have got the scale to be able to do that. In certain markets, like Germany and Japan, for instance, your physical business is still a significant part of their business. Just the logistics of having to manufacture and distribute physical content, yes, it can be outsourced, but it’s a pain in the arse to outsource it. To have that wrapped up in one company, who can launch a global campaign with expertise on the ground – in the case of Universal, in 40 plus markets around the world – can manage issues such as the formatting releases, both physical and digital, takes an awful lot of the hassle away.

So Universal had a claim to the international rights, but now Taylor Swift has taken that back and they are, effectively, just distributing the content now, which hugely changes the economics for Universal?

It changes the economics massively. Their margins will be significantly decreased because of that. I don’t know the actual number, but I would guess they have not paid the level of advances they would be expected to pay, so they probably reduce the advances they pay to her, on that basis. But the other key factor is, they don’t own the rights; they borrow them for a period of time. Those all revert back to Taylor Swift. If you look at the value play, the value is always going to be in the catalogue, for these businesses. That’s why pension funds look at acquiring music copyrights, largely in publishing, but now looking at master rights because streaming is built around stability. You don’t have manufacturing issues, you don’t have distribution issues, you don’t have out of stock issues; it’s always available 24/7.

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