If music execs can hold Taylor Swift’s music hostage, imagine what obscure female artists go through every day

There is a clear gendered power dynamic at play here, and there have been no sufficient moves to address the overwhelmingly male industry

Olivia Campbell
Wednesday 20 November 2019 12:02 GMT
Taylor Swift explains why writing music is so important to her during Time 100 Gala performance

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The message from Taylor Swift’s two biggest problems to date – former manager Scooter Braun and music executive Scott Borchetta – couldn’t be clearer. As Swift put it in a Twitter post last week: “Basically, be a good little girl and shut up or you’ll be punished.”

The chilling message comes as part of the latest twist in a very public feud over the right to perform her own music. Braun, the man who currently owns nearly the entirety of Swift’s back catalogue, and Borchetta, his business partner and Big Machine Records founder, were apparently continuing to hold the global pop star’s work hostage – until Monday, when they reversed the decision.

In plain terms, when it comes to Braun especially, Swift’s music is now in the hands of a man she says has “actively bullied” her in the past, a man whose clients include people who have had public and lengthy feuds with her, such as Kanye West and Justin Bieber.

Though it may seem as if the ongoing saga is finally dying down, the issue at the heart of it – attempting to control Swift by deterring her from challenging them for lording over her music – remains a worrying issue in the industry, particularly for women.

For those who aren’t caught up, Swift recently claimed that in order to play her music at the 25th American Music Awards and include it in an upcoming Netflix project, she was pressured to agree not to re-record versions of her songs and refrain from publicly talking about the men who she feels have sought to ruin her life.

As one can imagine, the backlash was instantaneous and support came from everyone, from fellow star and friend Selena Gomez to US presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren. Fans and spectators across the world saw the move for what Taylor believed it was – a thinly veiled attempt to control and undermine an independent woman because they believed they could get away with it.

Lily Allen perhaps responded the most articulately: “Solidarity with Taylor here … people wonder why music hasn’t had its #MeToo moment?”

She’s right. This incident, alongside a myriad of others, demonstrates that even in 2019, the music industry has not held enough people accountable for abusing their power, and continues to function as a toxic sector of the entertainment industry.

Unlike Hollywood, the music industry has been resistant to confronting its long history of abusive behaviour towards (and general unequal treatment of) women by male figures.

It is a business worth £4bn a year and men hold 67.8 per cent of the jobs. Clearly, some are not above exploiting that power.

Though this is not a matter of sexual misconduct, the imbalance of power between Braun and Borchetta and artists like Swift demonstrates how important it is to expose abusive treatment regardless of the form it takes. This is about calling out those who seek to coerce, control and manipulate women for the sheer sake of it.

The question I ask is: if this is how they treat a successful female musician at the top of their game, how badly must women lower down the corporate ladder fare?

For those navigating the music industry, particularly burgeoning artists, it can be exceptionally difficult when male executives possess a monopoly on power. Many feel pressured to engage in uncomfortable (and sometimes illegal) situations in an effort to advance their career and this extreme power imbalance means that said behaviour often goes unchecked out of fear of damaging said career.

The culture of silencing and intimidation is rife in the industry meaning there are many, many people who have not or cannot come forward. Control across music manifests itself in a myriad of different ways and is only exacerbated by this imbalance.

When it was announced that Borchetta had sold Swift’s catalogue of music up until 2017 to Braun, she was quick to condemn it, calling it an attempt to “[control] a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them”.

I have to agree. There is something particularly sinister about two grown men manipulating a successful woman with a contract she signed as a naive 14-year-old.

Manipulators must be held accountable across all facets of society, and it is no more apparent than here. Despite both Braun and Big Machine Records saying a controlling “narrative does not exist”, to me, the opposite seems to be true.

For those who insist this isn’t an issue of sexism, look again. While coercive contracts are a problem for all young and/or new musicians, there is a clear gendered power dynamic at play here, and there have been no sufficient moves to address the overwhelmingly male industry.

Without #MeToo, or something resembling it, this power will continue to go unchecked. We only have to look towards the tragic case of the late Amy Winehouse to see what happens when women are reduced to the record sales they make. Or when Ke$ha was forced to stay in a contract with her alleged abuser and was only freed after international condemnation.

As long as men are able to control and manipulate, no matter how nuanced the actions may seem, these issues will persist. It is time that the music industry heralds in its own era of #MeToo to stamp out this abuse once and for all.

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