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Do You Really Own Your Master Though ?

With the rise of artists getting independent success and the likes of Pharell Williams and LOX in a recent VLAD TV interview encouraging artists not to sign major record deals unless they have ownership of their masters, this subject seems an interesting discussion.
A "Master" is the term used to refer to the original recording of a song fixed in the form of a Tape, CD or MP3 (etc), or other computer data storage, a way that is tangible from which copies of the recording can be made. As discussed in a previous post, there are several copyrights which come into play when a master (a sound recording) is created. Thus it attracts an array of different intellectual property rights, but often you will find that rights to a master are heavily dictated through contractual agreements.

Who will say they own it?

This is the million dollar question, and as indicated before there are a few variables to consider. The copyrights in a song are in the underlying work i.e. the lyrics and composition, so there could be a number of people e.g. the co-authors who own the copyrights in a song.
The producer

Then you have the producers or sound engineers who dictate the sonic direction and mixing of the song. Producers interest in the masters are usually protected through a contractual agreement, through which they will claim the weight of their owenership and remuneration.

The Recording Studio
In some instances the recording studio will claim rights in the master recording, and stipulate that ownership will not fully transfer unless all costs are fully paid up. They assert this right on the basis that the master is a result of a recording that utilised their equipment, employees and was created on their property. Generally, this is only as a security measure to ensure that they receive payment for the services delivered.
The Artist
Crucially there is also the performer/ the artist, and of course the person who performed the song may not be the author/ composer of the song. The contribution of the performer, however, can not be disputed, whether it is the person singing the song or someone playing an instrument, they have rights to their performances. In a lot of cases performers will also contribute ideas to the arrangement, vocal riffs etc. and thus will feel like they own a biggest stake in the master recording and rightly so.
The Label
For many artists who secure a record deal one of the many demands is that they assign rights in the masters to the label. On the surface it makes sense as it is a record deal, and in order for the label to perform their function they need to be able to exploit their artist's masters for distribution and licensing activities e.g. licensing songs for use on TV and Film. The con is the fact that the artists needs to be able to make back all the money the label has invested in recording, promotion and distribution of the record before the artist is able to enjoy any monies earned from licensing out their recordings (also known as labels recouping their advance). More often than not this results in a situation where the label eats a three course meal, while the artists barely gets a bite of the starter.

Why you should own your own masters?

While songwriters are compensated for the use of their works in records (publishing rights) through the royalties they receive from collection societies, for artists things work a bit differently and retaining master rights becomes essential. The master is what allows artists to earn money. Particularly today with the increase of digital music / streaming platforms, licensing activities have become more lucrative, having your record exploited through the likes of Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora means there is opportunity for more money to be earned and who ever holds the master rights cuts the cheque.

How to make sure you keep ownership of your master?

1. Contracts
When creating the record artists should ensure that ALL third parties involved who may later claim rights enter a written agreement prior to the recording which ensures that they surrender all rights once the master is produced and clearly states that you own the masters.
2. Negotiating with labels
In the event that you sign a record deal, the label will heavily bargain for your master rights, that doesn't mean that there isn't room for negotiation. Here are some suggestions on what you options you could discuss with he label.
  • Revenue share: Rather than assigning your master rights for the exploitation of your recordings you can agree on a percentage share for licensing activities. in other words, when revenue is generated from your records being licensed to film, tv or streaming platforms the label could take a percentage cut e.g. 15% of all earnings.

  • Reversion: Labels and their lawyers are very clever in the way they draft record deals, for many artists this has meant that even once the deal comes to an end the label still own all of their masters (for life), which of course is tragic. As previously discussed in YMB's 'Don't let these labels do you' blog , it is essential that if you are to assign any intellectual property rights that they revert back to you. Speaking of masters specifically, you can agree with the label that you transfer your master rights to them for a select period of time e.g.2 years, and at the end of that time period the master rights revert back to you. This will mean that in the 2 years that the rights are in the labels control they can exploit licensing opportunities on your behalf and earn income from it.

As we've expressed before, in the music business you can't take anything at face value and it is important to know the business and understand it. Just because you pay for something or create something doesn't mean you own it. It is imperative to understand which elements of your creativity are being exploited, to take full control of your intellectual property rights. Don't let big figures blind you to the clauses.
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