A group of the most powerful players in entertainment are in a financial struggle laced with sexual politics.
On one side: Taylor Swift, backed by fellow pop stars including Halsey and supermodel Cara Delevingne.
On the opposition: Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato, with potential assists from Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.
And at the center? Scooter Braun, a Jewish talent agent, executive, and philanthropist.
Let’s get into it.
Taylor Swift has released six studio albums, each of which has gone multiplatinum. All six of those albums are owned by Big Machine, a Nashville label founded by Scott Borchetta. Swift left Big Machine in November, signing a multi-album agreement with Universal Music Group. Under the new deal, she’ll own her future albums. But the six records that made her name over the last decade — from 2006’s “Taylor Swift” to 2017’s “Reputation” — are still owned by Big Machine.
On Sunday it was announced that Scooter Braun will acquire Big Machine, and thus, all of Swift’s recordings. You don’t know Braun, but you know his work — he’s the person you can thank for introducing the world to Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. In addition to those massive names, he manages Ariana Grande and Kanye West.
Now Taylor Swift says that she begged Borchetta for the chance to buy back her work, but he refused, selling instead to Braun, who Swift accuses of bullying and manipulation. “He knew what he was doing,” Swift said of Borchetta. “They both did. Controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity.”
Swift laid out her accusations on Sunday in a post on Tumblr, where she accused Braun of “incessant, manipulative bullying,” drawing a connection between his relationship to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian and their culture-shaking 2016 beef. She also claimed that Borchetta offered her the chance to gain her albums back one by one, in exchange for new albums, which his label would own. Swift says she refused the deal.
Just hours later, Borchetta responded with his own lengthy post, complete with photo-evidence. “Taylor had every chance in the world to own not just her master recordings, but every video, photograph, everything associated to her career. She chose to leave,” Borchetta wrote, next to an image of negotiation papers ostensibly between Swift and Borchetta’s label, stipulating that all of Swift’s records would be returned to her within ten years. Neither the paperwork nor Borchetta’s writing clarify what, exactly, Swift would owe in terms of the deal besides “remain[ing] at Big Machine Records.”
However, later in the post, Borchetta supplies a friendly note Swift allegedly wrote him in November, in which she wrote, “Owning my masters was very important to me, but I’ve since realized that there are things that mean even more to me in the bigger picture.”
From an outside perspective, neither Swift nor Borchetta supplied sufficient evidence to prove that the other was in the wrong. Borchetta doesn’t provide complete copies of his contract negotiations with Swift, and he doesn’t provide proof that her note is legitimate. Swift provides no contractual materials, and makes claims about Braun’s “bullying” behavior that she doesn’t substantiate.
Bieber, who was discovered by Braun on YouTube when the singer was a child, defended the executive. “Scooter has had your back since the days you graciously let me open up for you!” he wrote to Swift publicly. “Seems to me like it was to get sympathy u also knew that in posting that your fans would go and bully Scooter,” he added.
Meanwhile, singer-songwriter Halsey spoke out in Swift’s defense, writing, “It turns my guts that no matter how much power or success a woman has in this life, you are still susceptible to someone coming along and making you feel powerless out of spite.”
But who’s Braun?
The 38-year-old Greenwich, Connecticut local is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and a Camp Ramah grad. Once a party-promoter in Atlanta, he plotted a course based on studying David Geffen, dropped out of college, discovered Bieber, and built up an “Avengers”-like force of pop talent. “I’m a camp counsellor for pop stars,” he told the New Yorker in 2012. Often described as “fratty,” Braun also has giant philanthropic bonafides — after the terrorist attack at his client Ariana Grande’s concert in Machester, Braun organized the concert event that raised $22 million for the city’s emergency fund. He served as executive producer for a telethon that raised $66 million for victims in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria. He sits on the board of education and health-related philanthropic organizations; Braun was reportedly a major funder and organizer behind the 2018 March for Our Lives.
“My grandma, who I loved more than anything in the world, was working in a sweatshop for 18 years after surviving the Holocaust. I know I come from that,” he told Buzzfeed in April 2019. “So I look at my life — getting on private jets, hanging out with celebrities, living in a big house — and I just think to myself, there’s no way I get to keep any of this.”
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny