What role did Glenn Youngkin play in purchase of Taylor Swift’s masters?
In an unexpected twist, a controversy involving pop superstar Taylor Swift has become a new angle of attack in the Virginia governor’s race.
On Oct. 5, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe launched a series of internet ads accusing Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin of playing a role in the controversial 2019 purchase of Swift’s master recordings.
"Did you know that Republican candidate for Governor, Glenn Youngkin, helped buy Taylor Swift's masters out from under her when he was co-CEO of Carlyle Group?" reads a Facebook ad posted by the campaign.
The 2019 fight over Swift’s masters was a cause celebre in the music industry, triggering outrage among her fans and leading her to re-record her past albums.
Here’s what we know about Youngkin’s role.
The fight over the Swift masters
The complicated saga of the Taylor Swift masters involves three companies: media company Ithaca Holdings, Nashville-based record label Big Machine, and private-equity colossus the Carlyle Group, of which Youngkin was co-CEO.
At the time, Ithaca Holdings was run by record executive Scooter Braun. Braun acquired Swift’s master recordings on June 30, 2019, when Ithaca Holdings purchased Big Machine, the label that signed Swift when she was a teenager. The $300 million purchase gave Ithaca Holdings the ability to make money from Swift’s first six albums whenever they were played.
What complicated matters was that Braun had previously managed rapper Kanye West during his bitter feud with Swift. Swift was outraged by the acquisition, calling it a "worst case scenario" and labeling Braun an "incessant manipulative bully" in a Tumblr post. In subsequent interviews, she floated the possibility of devaluing the masters by re-recording her old albums.
On Nov. 14, 2019, Swift posted a lengthy statement to various social media platforms where she alleged that Braun and Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta had blocked her from performing her old songs on television and in an upcoming Netflix documentary about her life. According to Swift, Borchetta had told her team that he would only allow her to play those songs if she stopped talking about him and Braun and if she abandoned plans to re-record her old songs.
"This is WRONG," she wrote. "Neither of these men had a hand in the writing of those songs. They did nothing to create the relationship I have with my fans."
In her post, Swift also called out a third party, which had helped finance the purchase: The Carlyle Group.
This is where Youngkin comes in. At the time of the sale, Youngkin was co-CEO of the Carlyle Group with Kewsong Lee, who took over the company in full when Youngkin left to run for governor.
The Carlyle Group initially invested in Ithaca Holdings in 2017 and grew its stake in the company with the Big Machine acquisition, eventually owning about a third of Ithaca, the New York Times wrote. Evidence suggests that Big Machine’s affiliation with Taylor Swift helped drive the Carlyle Group’s investment. According to the New York Times, Jay W. Sammons, the investor who headed Caryle’s stake in Ithaca, told others that he saw the deal as a significant opportunity due to the value of Swift’s back catalog. And a press release the firm issued about the purchase devotes an entire paragraph to Swift and only cursory mentions to the label’s other artists.
According to the Times’ reporting, Sammons and the Carlyle Group urged Braun to broker a deal with Swift as the controversy reached a fever pitch. In the end, Swift followed through on her plan to re-record her old albums, putting out the first in April 2021. (Her second re-release, "Red (Taylor’s version)," is scheduled to drop Nov. 12.)
Youngkin’s role in the purchase
Given that the Taylor Swift debacle was a major public relations headache for the Carlyle Group, it seems likely that Youngkin knew about the controversy. But what role he played in the Ithaca Holdings purchase itself is unclear.
Company insiders told the Washington Post that the candidate’s managing role meant that he was "no longer driving individual deals," including the firm’s investment in Ithaca, and that he primarily directed the group’s actions in infrastructure, not media. A spokesperson for the Youngkin campaign told PolitiFact Virginia that the candidate "was not directly involved" in the purchase of Swift’s masters.
Nor can we determine how much of a say the Carlyle Group had over Scooter Braun’s day-to-day maneuvers. According to Axios, "Carlyle was a passive minority investor in Ithaca, without a say in operational decisions."
But what’s incontrovertible is that the Carlyle Group helped put up the money for a controversial purchase involving Taylor Swift’s masters while Youngkin was co-CEO. In a campaign appearance, Youngkin previously mentioned that he would "own everything that happened in Carlyle; because I was there."
Throughout the campaign, McAuliffe has attacked Youngkin for his career at the Carlyle Group, but an Associated Press investigation found that McAuliffe had invested at least $690,000 in Carlyle funds between December 2007 and 2016. McAuliffe withdrew his money from the fund three years before the Swift deal.
McAuliffe spokesperson Christina Freundlich told the Associated Press that McAuliffe had made no investments in Carlyle since 2014 and called him a passive investor with no role in crafting any deals. McAuliffe currently has "less than $5,000" invested in Carlyle.
PolitiFact Virginia staff writer Warren Fiske contributed to this report.
The Verge, Taylor Swift fans are getting caught up in the Virginia gubernatorial race, Oct. 5, 2021
Taylor Swift, Tumblr, Jun. 30, 2019
New York Times, ‘Taylor Swift: Miss Americana’ Review: A Star, Surprisingly Alone, Jan. 30, 2020
New York Times, How Taylor Swift Dragged Private Equity Into Her Fight Over Music Rights, Nov. 24, 2019
Carlyle Group, Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings Acquires Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group, Jun. 30, 2019
Time, Here’s Why Taylor Swift Is Re-Releasing Her Old Albums, Mar. 25, 2021
Washington Post, Inside Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s long career at Carlyle, Aug. 3, 2021
Axios, First look: McAuliffe calls on Taylor, Oct. 5, 2021
Associated Press, GOP candidate’s private equity resume draws scrutiny in Va. Jul. 1, 2021
Verify, Virginia is for scorned lovers: How Taylor Swift ended up in the Governor's race, Oct. 8, 2021