Shortcuts / 26 November 2020

Who Owns the Music

Pop star Taylor Swift was MIA from the recent American Music Awards, saying she was busy re-recording all of her old music. Her fight to own the masters of her first six mega-hit albums is big news in the music industry. In this Squiz Shortcut we’re going to take a look at what master recordings are, the power relationship between a record label and an artist, and how this battle has played out before.

What is a master recording?

Literally, it’s the original recorded version of the song whether that’s copied and distributed. A master could be on a disc, tape, or in these modern times a computer data storage format like an MP3 file. Often you’ll see a reference to an older song being ‘remastered’, and what that usually means is older analog recording has been transferred to a digital format to be “cleaned up” to make it sound better.

But for our purposes, we’re talking about the underlying rights to a song. The ownership of master recordings is at the heart of contracts between musicians and record labels.

Why does it matter who owns master recordings?

So as far as us music consumers are concerned, when we listen to a song via streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music or buy a CD, we’ve actually been granted a licence by the holder of the master rights. It’s the same as if a song is in an ad, TV show or move – a licence must be granted for it to be used. Which means the owner of the master has control over a song’s use and is paid for that use. Put simply, controlling the master rights means you have control over what is done with the song. And if a song is popular, that can be a valuable asset that brings in money for many many years. But very few artists own their masters.

How does the whole process work?

It all starts with a recording deal between a recording label and an artist. To describe that deal in its most simple form, it’s an agreement that artist make a record (or series of records) for the label to sell and promote.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a talented artist, a singer, let’s say – they might also be the songwriter – who wants to get their music out there. These days the might be able to do that themselves via YouTube or other digital platforms, but it’s very hard to make money that way. And having the backing of a recording company generally means they’ll promote it and get it out there – which is expensive to do. And they also ensure that people who use or listen to that music pays for it. And that’s why the issue of who owns the copyright in the records that artists make is a big deal. And if a labels control the master rights to an album, they also agree to give a certain percentage of the royalties from sales to the artist.

So why do so few artists own their masters?

The recording labels hold the power in that relationship because it’s unlikely an emerging artist will crack the big time without their support to pay for the best people to produce their recordings and then market and promote it across the world. And so that’s how it comes to be that artists as they’re starting out sign deals where they don’t own their masters.

But if an artist does become a global sensation and their contract is nearing the end, chances are they’ll have some power in the next contract negotiations to own the masters of their future music. And if their record company really wants to keep them, they might even negotiate a way for them to buy or be transfered the masters of your old music.

What about when record company sells an artist’s masters to someone else?

That’s happened to some big artists. Taylor Swift in particular has been at the centre of the most recent high profile battle. Long story short, back in the day she signed a 6-album deal with label Big Machine, which held her master recordings as part of the deal terms. That deal expired in November 2018. When it came time to re-sign, she said Big Machine only offered her the opportunity to gradually earn her back master tracks by continuing to produce new music. So she left for a better deal with Universal Music Group/Republic. Big Machine was then sold to a guy called Scooter Braun in June 2019, giving him control over her Big Machine masters.

And that’s where we hit some major pop culture references. Swift wrote that her “musical legacy was about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it,” referring to Braun’s involvement in her ongoing feuds with both Kanye West and Justin Bieber as manager for both artists.

Her response was a promise to re-record that music she produced while at Big Machine. The idea behind that is if there’s a version of those songs, presumably almost identical to the original master recordings, she can ask consumers to use that version, and not the one owned by someone else. That way she financially benefits from the use of her songs, and not the company who owns the original masters.

Who else has fought to own their masters?

Ray Charles was first black artist to own his master recordings – a deal he negotiated in the 60s showed he was not just a groundbreaking singer and songwriter but also an entrepreneur.

Another famous artist who fought this fight was Prince. In the early 90s, he took on Warner for the ownership and rights to his music. He famously changed his name to a unpronouncable symbol as a way to make the record company’s life difficult in promoting him. And he famously appeared with the word ‘slave’ written on his cheek at performances to make it clear how he felt about his record company overlords.  He eventually made peace with Warner with a new contract and he got the rights to his music.

And which artists have control of their master recordings?

Jay Z has been particularly vocal in this space, and he’s successfully combined recording with the business side. Rihanna, U2, Stevie Wonder are some others.

And there was also an interesting development in the US in 2013 when a couple of important changes to the copyright laws came into play. The “35-year law” allows for the copyright of music recorded after-1977 to be claimed by the artist 35 years after publication. And for music recorded prior to 1978, the rights held by record companies can be terminated 56 years after the date of copyright. And in a couple of years that law is going to be very important to musicians like The Beatles’ Paul McCartney. He’s already looking into the termination of Sony’s rights in 50% of a whole list of Beatles songs from the 60s.

Squiz recommends:

Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun’s Drama, ExplainedCosmopolitan

Taylor & Kanye: How two superstars, four words and 15 seconds of TV influenced a decade of pop cultureWashington Post

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