“Taylor Swift comes to rescue of Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre over use of hit song Shake It Off.” “‘Permission granted’: Taylor Swift’s 11th-hour rescue for Sydney theatre show.” “Taylor Swift says yes to Belvoir Street SOS, theatre set to Shake It Off.” And so on.
The fast story is this: Belvoir Street Theatre, a well-known and respected Australian theatre company is producing a play, Seventeen, in which a group of elderly (and acclaimed) actors play 17 year olds. The director of the show wanted to use “Shake It Off” as a choreographed number at the show’s climax. But going through normal channels, the music publisher had denied the company the rights, for reasons unknown.
Five days before opening, all conventional efforts exhausted, the company resorted to trying to reach Swift on social media and in what may be a first, she granted the rights via Twitter just hours ago. While I suspect there are some contractual details to be worked out beyond “Permission granted,” presumably the tweet from Swift gives Belvoir Street enough comfort that they can proceed. While news reports indicate that alternate music and staging was being prepared, now everything can continue according to the theatre’s and the production’s original plans.
It is, as I say, a happy ending, and having the reigning queen of pop music as your deus ex machina is quite the capper. But I would caution others who want to try this approach not to count on a recurrence: music licensing (or the licensing of any copyrighted material) via social media is not, in my estimation, going to become the new normal.
The fact is, Belvoir Street got lucky. To be sure, they waged a heck of a campaign, with people like Tim Minchin tweeting support and online pleas like “Please @taylorswift13 help these seventy-year-olds Shake It Off!” making the case on emotion, rather than business grounds. And, of course, Swift seems to be very personally involved in every single aspect of her career, including her social media feeds, so she and her team actually saw and considered the request, having undoubtedly known nothing of the original denial.
Just don’t try this at home with your show, whether it’s a fringe production or at a resident company like Belvoir Street. There are lots of artists who have people paid to monitor their social media (as I’m sure Swift does as well), but they’re not necessarily as shrewd or as generous as Taylor. They also have people paid to monitor unauthorized use of their words and music. Proceeding deep into rehearsals with material you don’t have rights to can easily bring heartache, and while that might merely be more song fodder for Swift, it can be unsettling to a production and possibly even expensive for a company when last minute changes need to be made.
There’s no question that pop music added to plays can enhance a production, without turning it into a jukebox musical. I vividly recall the Steppenwolf production of Balm in Gilead which interpolated now-vintage Bruce Springsteen recordings so brilliantly, and Trinity Rep’s All The King’s Men which made Randy Newman’s songs from his Good Old Boys album seem as if they’d been written expressly for the show. I can’t say whether the music was properly licensed in either of those cases – both are over 25 years old and my Playbills are in storage – but even if they weren’t then, I can’t imagine these shows getting away without the rights agreements now.
So the story here is not so much that Belvoir Street dodged a bullet, but that Taylor Swift deflected it. While she may seem to be omnipresent these days, she can’t actually be everywhere, and other artists and songwriters may not be quite as magnanimous. So when it comes to using existing songs, it may be like you’ve got this music in your mind, saying it’s gonna be alright, but that’s not necessarily the case. When it comes to copyright, you just can’t shake it off.
Howard Sherman is the director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama.