The fight between music artists and record labels continues as more celebrities, including Taylor Swift and Kanye West, use their platform to bring awareness to the issue within the industry. The issue being addressed is that record labels, not artists, generally own the master rights. We will discuss this in more detail below, but in short, “controlling the master rights essentially means you have control over what is done with [a] song or album, full stop.”
United States Copyright Law governs the issue of who owns the rights to a song. Each song has two legal rights: (1) musical compositions, and (2) sound recordings. The chart below explains the difference between musical compositions and sound recordings.
As mentioned above, artists are fighting for the rights to their own masters. A master refers to “the underlying rights to a song.” The owner of a master is laid out in a contract between the artist and the record label.
Generally, the record label owns the rights to the master, giving the artist “an advance and a royalty percentage from all profits made off the music.” However, the artist does not start profiting off the royalties until the advance is paid off. It is likely that a new artist would find a deal like this appealing because it provides an opportunity to get paid up front, whereas otherwise, it would take a while to profit from the music. However, as many popular musicians have indicated, “it’s better for artists to retain control of their masters – that way, they can control and own their own work.”
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Whoever owns the rights to the master is able to make decisions on what is done with the music. For example, the owner can grant a license to a service to use the master rights and stream the songs (i.e., “if you’re streaming [a song] from Apple Music or buying it on vinyl at your local record store or hearing it in a movie or TV show, you can do that because [the record label granted a license using their ‘master’ rights“).
It is important for artists to own their masters so they can decide what to do with their own music. If an artist does not own his/her masters, a record label could grant a license to use that artist’s music without getting permission from the artist. Therefore, an artist has no say in where the music is streamed and/or what the music is used for.
On the other hand, it is important for record labels to own the masters because that is how they make money. “[R]ecord companies are in the business of selling recorded music.” Furthermore, record labels are monetarily valued by their masters, which in turn depends on how successful the artists in the label are.
Taylor Swift and Kanye West are among the most famous musicians who have recently spoken out about wanting to own the rights to their masters. By speaking out, these artists are bringing awareness to the issue within the industry in hopes to change the way future deals are made.
In 2019, Taylor Swift publicly blasted her former record label, Big Machine Label Group (“BMLG”), for selling the company to Ithaca Holdings. The root of her anger seemed to stem from her poor relationship with Ithaca Holdings’ owner, Scooter Braun. This acquisition meant that Braun now owns the masters to all the music Swift made during her 13-year contract with BMLG, including six albums. Against Swift’s wishes, Braun will be “profiting from her catalog of music without having to lift a finger.”
Since her deal with BMLG has expired, she signed a new deal with Republic Records/Universal Music Group. Her new deal allows for her to “own the master rights to future material recorded under her current UMG deal.” Beyond benefitting just herself, Swift’s new contract states that “any sale of the company’s shares in Spotify resulted in equity for UMG artists.”
Last month, Kanye West began passionately tweeting about fighting for the right to own his masters. He discussed the imbalance within the music industry and how record labels take advantage of artists by owning the masters. West also pledged to fight for artists to get their masters back and to change the future of how deals are done in the industry.
On September 16, 2020, West tweeted a series of screenshots, which appear to be of his contracts with Universal Music Group. Although he was arguing for the rights to his masters, some people felt that West actually “illustrated the imbalances of the music industry in revealing how much more artist-friendly his contract is than many others.”
Although it seems that West is fighting for a good cause, he has been criticized for doing the same thing to artists who are signed by his record label, GOOD Music. In response, West said that he is going to give all artists who are signed by his record label the 50% share that he holds of their masters.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE FUTURE
Some artists, such as Chris Brown and Beyonce, have licensing agreements, which allow them to have “complete control over their sound recordings in the future.” These agreements are different than the traditional record deal. Other artists are building clauses into their contracts that state their masters will “revert to their control after a two to five year period.”
Today, the general standard is that “the record label agrees to pay the artist a royalty (a percentage of record sales) in exchange for selling his or her ‘sound recordings.‘” However, as more artists are speaking out, we should expect deals between artists and record labels to continue on the trajectory of change.