In Live from Clear ChannelThe interpretations of songs like “Love Story” and “Fearless”, Swift’s tales of the disordered ups and downs of young adulthood are deeply sincere. But taking advantage of these performances today is complicated by the nature of their release. Live from Clear Channel is the first archive material to be released by Big Machine since powerful music manager Scooter Braun bought the label and its assets, including the master rights for Swift’s first six albums, last year. In the midst of an ongoing public battle between Swift and his former label, it serves as a concrete sign that his past work is beyond his control, and sets a precedent for future unauthorized releases to come. In his warning Note last week, Swift berated the “greed” of Braun and his investors “in the days of the coronavirus”.
In a June 2019 Tumblr article, Swift explained that Braun owning the rights to his music was his “worst case scenario.” “My musical legacy is about to fall into the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it,” she wrote, referring to Braun’s “harassing” role in his public feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. The situation got even worse when Swift accused Braun and former Big Machine boss Scott Borchetta of preventing him from playing his old material in his 2019 American Music Awards performance and using it in his Netflix documentary 2020, Miss americana, which Borchetta and Braun denied. (The performance and documentary eventually included old songs.)
The debate over an artist’s right to own music is not new. “If you don’t have your masters, your master has you,” said Prince, who is no stranger to the difficulties of owning his job. Rolling stone in 1996. But Braun’s control over the Swift Masters seems particularly overwhelming, given his bitter personal history with him and his lifelong struggle to control the history of his own music and public figure. Publishing archival material may be fair game under the terms of a contract signed by Swift at the age of 15, but there is always something disreputable in an older men’s meeting room taking advantage of the naivety of an adolescent whose adult self desperately fights against him.
Since its separation from Big Machine in 2018, Swift seems determined to demonstrate its growth. Miss americana and album 2019 Lover the two were playing like public accounts with a past self. Whether you believe it or not, there is no doubt that it is trying to make one’s voice heard in a newly representative manner, which means in part to trade the security of doe-eyed naivety for the occasional discomfort of being outspoken – whether through a sexual assault trial of a dollar, support for LGBTQ rights or the new voice policy. While her approach may at times seem brutal or opportunistic, watching her nascent self-determination be crushed in this way – by trotting a younger, more conforming version of her, just as she seems to be setting out on her own path – is truly upsetting.
Swift’s music, it seems, is the only place where she can speak from the bottom of her heart without tripping, and the presence of unauthorized outings like Live from Clear Channel threatens his autonomy even there. As you would expect, it does not exactly meet the standards of presentation of his past work. She is meticulously famous on all aspects of her releases, from album announcements to secret messages hidden in cover notes. Live from Clear Channel, on the other hand, looks like a cheap bootleg. The cover portrait of a curly-haired Swift and his acoustic guitar floats in a dark void, with a typeface drawn directly from the kind of memes that were popular at the time of the performance. It is practically begging that someone also throws the Impact font over their heads: I can masters?
The release, which should have been a triumph for Big Machine and Braun, strangely resembles the cases where false or leaked music appeared on streaming services without the artists’ knowledge or without their approval; outings where the crooks hold the reins and the real creator never sees a penny. In both cases, legal or not, it seems that there is little that artists can do, except ultimately publish their own versions of their music; Swift announced that after November 2020, it plans to re-record nearly a decade of its own work.
It’s hard to say Live from Clear Channel could mean for the rest of the Swift Big Machine era archives. It might be a glimpse of more unauthorized releases coming, but given Swift’s clear disapproval of any music posted by Braun, it seems unlikely that his dedicated fanbase will listen to them. In a way, it’s the most overwhelming thing Live from Clear Channel: Even his ostensible purpose as a shameless money grab doesn’t make much sense.