Taylor Swift shared an important lesson about the capitalist mode of production

The songs end swiftly.
The songs end swiftly.
Image: AP/Richard Shotwell
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Karl Marx was not a fan of Taylor Swift. We can state this with certainty, mainly because the pop singer was still several generations away from being born back when Marx was penning revolutionary critiques of capitalism in the 1800s. Had they been contemporaries, though, the German philosopher and economist might very well have been humming along to “Bad Blood” while describing the process by which the private ownership of capital takes away workers’ stake in the products of their labor.

At any rate, Marx’s theories are quite relevant to Swift’s current predicament.

On June 30, Swift shared an emotional post on Tumblr explaining that her back catalog now belongs to a man she regards as an adversary, music executive Scooter Braun. Braun acquired the rights to Swift’s work as part of his $300 million purchase of Big Machine Label Group, the recording company that released all six of Swift’s albums before 2018. Swift’s Tumblr post accuses Braun of “incessant, manipulative bullying,” largely related to his role as the former manager of Swift’s long-standing nemesis, Kanye West. But the crux of her post centers on the injustice she sees in the fact that she doesn’t own the work she created, and that, in her words, “my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”

Setting aside the question of whether the allegations Swift raises in the post are true—for the back-and-forth on the various dimensions of that issue, check out this Vox explainer—the controversy is also drawing attention to the strange economics of creativity.

On the surface, the maxim in Swift’s Tumblr post—”You deserve to own the art you make”—might seem obvious. But that’s not the way things work in the music industry. It’s entirely commonplace for record companies to hold the rights to artists’ music, and for those rights to be bought and sold with little regard for the preferences of the people who actually wrote the songs and played the instruments. To cite just one infamous example, Michael Jackson bought the rights to the Beatles catalog for $47.5 million in 1985, creating a rift in his friendship with Paul McCartney, who particularly disagreed with Jackson’s decision to license the group’s songs to commercials.

This dynamic is hardly limited to music. Many publications have contracts with freelancers that include what’s known as a “rights grabs” clause—which asks writers to sign away the copyright that would have allowed them to make money should the article be adapted into a book or get turned into a screenplay.  Inventors often make very little profit from their innovative ideas, whether because they didn’t secure a patent or because, like Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, they sold the rights to their creations for a pittance only to have the work take off. Even NASA can’t necessarily hang onto its own property. In 1976, the space agency auctioned off more than 1,000 reels of videotape that happened to include one of just three surviving copies of the footage from the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing, and now the person who bought it—a former NASA intern himself—is putting the tape on the block at Sotheby’s.

The upshot, as described by Noah Berlatsky in an article for NBC Think, is that in a capitalist society, it’s perfectly normal for creators to be deprived of the rights to their work. Marx himself argued this was the conceit that capitalism is built upon: Workers get paid wages in order to produce things that don’t belong to them, whether that’s songs or sweaters or steel rods, while the few who control the means of production—say, industrial machinery (or record labels)—actually own the goods and reap the benefits when they are sold. Marx said that the inevitable result of this system is “alienated labor,” in which workers are estranged from their work and thus, from themselves.

Swift, of course, has had plenty of opportunity to profit from her body of work even without owning her recordings. But as Berlatsky points out, the majority of workers aren’t nearly so lucky. “The catch here is that most people not only don’t own their labor but aren’t in a cultural position to even imagine owning it,” he writes. “Swift can say, ‘I should own my albums,’ and it makes instant sense. But if an assembly line worker said, ‘I should own my cars,’ or a Walmart employee said, ‘I should own my store’ they’d receive substantially less public support, presuming they could even find anyone to listen.”

That said, creative professionals and artists do seem increasingly invested in finding ways to challenge the status quo. As Swift writes in her Tumblr post, one of the reasons she signed with her new record label, Universal Music Group, was that the deal gives her ownership over her master recordings. Writers and photojournalists are pushing back against rights grabs, while musicians like Amanda Palmer and Chance the Rapper have opted not to sign with record labels in order to retain control of their work. And on the small-business level, the Harvard Business Review predicts that employee-owned companies, already gaining traction in the US, will continue to grow in popularity over the next few decades.

Changing a system that regularly demoralizes workers by removing their sense of ownership over the things they create, however, is a much bigger endeavor.