Owning the masters: how the legal system fails artists
Updated: Feb 24
"Owning the masters," in addition to being a phrase that feels like Game-of-Thrones-level badassery, is a really, really important concept in music.
This phrase refers to owning the original recordings of a musician's work, the master. In the music industry, it is common for artists to sign agreements with record labels that give the label ownership of the masters in exchange for financial support in recording and releasing the music. However, owning the masters gives the owner control over how the music is used, distributed, and monetized.
One of the most recent, and most public, examples of an artist navigating the complex world of musical ownership and copyright is Taylor Swift. Swift experienced a loss of control over her early music catalog when her former record label, Big Machine Label Group, was sold to the private equity firm, the Carlyle Group. As a result, Swift lost ownership of the masters to her first six albums. This sparked a public conversation about the importance of artists owning their masters and the negative consequences that can come from losing control over one's music catalog. Swift has since re-recorded her early albums and has been an advocate for artists owning their rights and masters.
BEAT IT, EMI
However, Swift was not the first (and probably won't be the last) artist to lose access to their own work. The Beatles, one of the most successful and influential bands in the history of popular music, did not have ownership of their masters during the height of their career.
Like many artists at the time, they signed contracts with their record label, EMI, that gave the label ownership of the masters to their recordings. In the decades since the band broke up, the ownership of the Beatles' masters has changed hands several times through various corporate mergers and acquisitions. Paul McCartney sued Sony as recently as 2018 trying to regain access to his own songs. The music of The Beatles has been wildly popular for decades... and has generated significant revenue for the various companies that have controlled their catalog.
DISAPPEARING A PRINCE
Legendary pop icon Prince also had a complicated relationship with his record label and ownership of his music. In the 1990s, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and became known as "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince." This change was part of a public dispute with his then-record label, Warner Bros., over control of his music and image.
During this time, Prince famously took control of his music and started releasing albums independently. He also reclaimed ownership of his masters, giving him complete control over how his music was used and distributed. This move was seen as a triumph for artists' rights and control over their own work and undoubtedly influenced Taylor Swift's decisions as well.
I CAN'T PLAY YOU THIS SONG I WROTE
Other famous artists have had this fight with labels over the decades. And here's the question: if these superstars, with cadres of lawyers and seemingly endless resources, can fall victim to these companies... what hope do young aspiring artists have?
Even though now there are more ways than ever for artists to get in front of potential fans, getting a deal with a label can launch an artist to famedom faster than they could ever do on their own (if they ever could on their own). But when it gets to the point where you literally can't even perform your own songs, you've got to question the system.
Luckily for many artists, Swift has been vocal in her journey and well-supported by her fans. Her legal battles (and the complete failure of the legal system to give her access to her own work) highlighted the power imbalance of corporations vs artists. As a result, many musicians now strive to own their masters, giving them more control over their careers and the potential financial benefits that come with it.
In episode 2 of Zeitgeist Radio. I speak with emerging artist Jaqal the Hybrid about the challenges of ownership... and what artists may give up by making the choice to own the masters. Listen and subscribe!