With the recent launch of 1989 -Taylor's Version, Taylor Swift continued her tremendously successful project to re-record and re-relase her first 6 albums.
Some other artists have revisited earlier works later on in their careers - for example, Natalie Merchant re-recorded her debut solo album Tigerlily to commemorate its 20th anniversary, re-interpreting her songs and illustrating her growth as a performing artist.
The fundamental reason behind Taylor Swift’s re-recordings, however, lies in the sale of the master rights (recordings) to her first six albums by Big Machine Music (her first record label) to Scooter Braun in 2019, which she disputed publicly and forcefully.
Artists own the recording of songs when they are created ("Master Recordings"), but typically either long-term license the rights or outright assign ownership of these to their record labels, who normally fund the recording and marketing of the songs.
However, there is another element to ownership of any song. The songwriting rights of the people who wrote the songs ("Publishing Rights") - in Taylor's case, herself - are represented by Music Publishers (see the 'Who Owns a Copyright' section here for more information on the two sides of music ownership) but typically remain in the writers control unless they decide to sell them (see our blog on the growing trend of superstars selling their publishing catalogs here).
In Taylor Swift's case, she has been able to leverage her continued ownership of the songs on her first six albums to re-record and commercially launch sound-alike ‘cover’ versions of her own songs. She, with the help of her fans, is using her new "Taylor's Version" versions on streaming platforms like Spotify to supplant and thereby reduce the value in the original recordings value for the new owners, and getting royalties for herself, and regain full control over her earlier work.
It's working out very well for her - her re-recordings are topping the current charts and getting the majority of plays of streaming services over the original recordings.
The Moral of the Story - Check that your music licenses cover Publishing Rights!
Taylor Swift is providing an incredible example of the power of music publishing rights, and the need to get permission from the owners of the songs you are using.
Whether the songs you are using are by Taylor Swift or any other famous recording artist, always carefully check before you buy a license that every cover version you use is licensed by all the songwriters as well as the owners of the master recordings!
Unfortunately, it's not normally the case, and a license from the owners of sound-alike cover version recordings who don't offer publishing rights still leave you with a big job to get these permissions and become fully copyright compliant.