EQ Case Study: Taylor Swift

Never underestimate Taylor Swift.

The 31-year-old pop star will again make headlines this week when she launches Fearless (Taylor’s Version), a newly recorded take of the mega-successful album that catapulted her to stardom. The project is a culmination of a multi-year battle in which Swift claims she was “stripped of [her] life’s work,” when her former label, Big Machine, along with the master recordings to her first six albums, were sold to powerful music executive (and Swift’s sworn enemy), Scooter Braun.

“This process has been more fulfilling and emotional than I could have imagined and has made me even more determined to re-record all my music,” Swift said in a statement posted to Twitter.

Swift’s new album is more than a savvy business move. It’s a signal to artists and content creators everywhere of a major shift in the balance of power.

And at the center of the story is a brilliant lesson in emotional intelligence.

The backstory

Why did Taylor decide to re-record her old albums in the first place?

The answer is complex. (The New York Times writes a great summary that you can read here.)

The short version goes like this:

In 2019, Braun bought the Big Machine Label Group, the music label that signed Swift as a teenager to her first recording contract and subsequently gained ownership of the master recordings (masters) of her first six albums. Swift quickly went public to describe the sale as her “worst case scenario,” as she recounted stories of how Braun and his client Kanye West bullied her through the years.

Swift didn’t sulk for long, though. She soon hatched a plan to regain control of her music by recording new masters of her old albums–beginning with Fearless. In doing so, Swift would now have new versions of the songs that fans loved. She could then encourage those fans to stream or buy those new versions instead of the old ones.

But there’s one more important piece of the puzzle. While Swift doesn’t own the masters of those early albums, she does own the publishing rights, or the copyright for the composition (the musical arrangement and lyrics) of the songs–in many cases because she wrote the songs herself.

This is significant because as the owner of publishing rights, Swift can veto use of her (original) songs when it comes to commercial use, such as in films, TV shows, advertisements, and just about anything else–in effect requiring anyone who wants to license her music to use the new versions, which she owns.

In other words, by deciding to record new masters of her older albums, Swift potentially devalues the original assets and takes control of her art.

But that’s not all. In addition to recording new versions of all the songs from the original Fearless album, Swift has added six previously unreleased songs. Swift describes these as songs she “absolutely adored, but were held back for different reasons–don’t want too many breakup songs, don’t want too many down tempo songs, can’t fit that many songs on a physical CD.”

“Artists should own their own work for so many reasons, but the most screamingly obvious one is that the artist is the only one who really knows that body of work.”

This new album is the director’s cut of Fearless. And Taylor Swift is the director.

Swift’s bold move has potential to drastically change the landscape of the music industry, and beyond. On one hand, if she’s successful, it could prompt record labels to attempt to revise their standard contracts–perhaps calling for a longer period of time before artists can re-record songs or exacting other restrictions.

On the other hand, the world is a different place than when Swift signed her first record contract. With the rise of YouTube and social media, it’s easier than ever for artists to gain a following and monetize their work. In effect, any musician with an audience already begins with significant leverage.

By setting a new standard, Swift is sending a signal to artists across industries–that they don’t need to give up control over their work to reach a large audience.

But there’s an even bigger lesson at play here.

What’s emotional intelligence got to do with it?
Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage emotions in order to reach a goal. I like to describe it as the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.

As a brilliant performer and songwriter, Swift has a gift: She’s able to channel her feelings through her music, to touch others on an emotional level.

But Swift’s talent extends far beyond that: She built one of the largest fan bases of all time by combining her musical genius with the ability to remain authentic, relatable.

Swifties don’t see their hero as untouchable. It’s quite the opposite: They see her as one of them. She’s the girl next door, the best friend. And even now, after becoming a global superstar, Swift continues to strengthen that image when she surprises fans with private listening parties or graduation cards in the mail.

With Fearless (Taylor’s Version), Swift is tapping into all of her emotional intelligence: Years of practice honing her abilities to get in touch with her own emotions, and years of trust built up with fans as she’s touched their emotions.

By taking control of her music, Swift teaches a major lesson for artists, content creators, solopreneurs, and entrepreneurs of all types. If you run into a seemingly insurmountable problem, there are only two ways to handle it.

You can:

  • bask in negative emotions, feeling sorry for yourself. Or,
  • use those feelings as a catalyst, as motivation to take action.
    Only one of these actions leads to success.

So the next time you seem to lose control of a situation, do what Swift does.

Instead of dwelling on what you can’t change, focus on what you can.

And turn “emotional” into emotionally intelligent.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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