Masters matter: Taylor Swift's feud shows why ownership can be crucial to musicians
Original recordings are a blueprint for future reissues, but few musicians can buy them back from labels
They may sound like an anachronism, something out of music's history: With tape rolling, master recordings of musicians performing in studio are made and stowed away in the archives.
But as shown by Taylor Swift's outrage over the sale of her former label Big Machine, and with it the rights to her catalogue, who actually owns these original recordings is still a critical question — even in an age where music is both recorded and distributed digitally.
Add to that the dismay some artists felt over their masters perishing in a 2008 fire at Universal Studios lot, only recently revealed by the New York Times, it's clear that masters are no less important to musicians today than when George Martin rolled the two-track recorder on the Beatles' first Abbey Road session in 1962.
A master isn't just the physical original recording; it's often also the copyright that goes along with that, meaning whoever holds the master also controls the ability to license it to third parties, whether that be a streaming service, a radio station or for use in television, film or commercials.
"It's just the ultimate in creative freedom — and also financial freedom," said Juno-nominated singer/songwriter Emm Gryner.
But it's a freedom that few artists — superstars included — have, as master recordings are typically owned and controlled by music labels, which have traditionally put up the money for an artist's recording sessions.
"The structure of a label owning the master has been in place for such a long time that a lot of people are just used to that," said Erin Jacobson, a Los Angeles-based music attorney who specializes in negotiations between music creators (artists) and music owners (labels or publishers).
Masters mean money
According to Jacobson, when you own your own masters, "you get a bigger piece of the pie."
The primary importance of master recordings is that they serve as the source material for future reissues, remixes or other reimagined versions of original work an artist might want to undertake. Everything from the greatest hits to special-edition vinyl pressings fall under this category, so it can be a big moneymaker for musicians and labels alike.
"When artists record, they often do what's called tracking, whereby vocals will be on one track and different instruments will be on a different track," said Jacobson. "In the studio, that's what the producers and engineers will use to mix them together, to result in a song you hear on the radio.
"And if you ever want to go back and use any of those parts, and remix them or remaster them, you need to go back to the originals."
But it's not the only reason master recordings are a lucrative asset today: Whoever owns the master also stands to make a big profit from streaming.
Every dollar of streaming revenue is divided between the owner of the sound recording (often labels), the streaming company itself (Spotify or Apple Music), and the owner of the song's publishing rights (typically songwriters and organizations that represent them). Artists, on the other hand, typically receive a percentage of the revenue through their royalty agreements with the labels.
In Swift's case, it means Scooter Braun, a music manager whose company acquired Big Machine for $300 million US, will now make money every single time a song from one of her first six albums is streamed.
The sale of her catalogue to Braun cuts deep for Swift, who accuses him of bullying her for years, in particular through her public feud with Kanye West.
In moving to her new label, Universal's Republic Records, Swift negotiated a deal that will now see her own all of her master recordings moving forward, giving her more control over her music and a bigger cut of the profits.
'Now I own everything'
Gryner, who had put out 20 albums by the time she reached her early 40s, calls the day she realized she owned her masters a special moment in her career.
After her first major record label debut with Mercury Records for her 1998 album Public, Gryner was dropped by the label when Mercury was taken over by Universal.
Gryner, who already had her own independent label, Dead Daisy Records, was able to fall back to that and quickly self-financed and released her next record, Science Fair. It meant she also owned the master recordings.
"It eclipsed the sales of my major label album; it got a lot of attention, I was doing repeated pressings of it, and it felt great," said Gryner.
It also signalled to Gryner that she could continue her music career on her own. "Sure, I'm riding a little bit of the fire of the major label [publicity], but now I own everything."
Gryner said she didn't fight for ownership of the master recording for Public because, at the time, she was young and awestruck at the opportunity.
"I was really excited to have a worldwide record deal. It's not that I just signed without consulting a lawyer or anything; I believe [it] was pretty standard at the time."
It's a pretty familiar story you hear from musicians, including business-savvy types. Stories of artists who successfully clawed back the rights to their masters are much less common.
Frank Ocean made headlines back in 2016 for buying himself out of his contract with Def Jam Records, taking his masters with him. And Jay-Z won his masters back as part of the deal he negotiated when he was appointed president of Def Jam in 2004. Prince regained his only in 2014 — a condition of returning to Warner Bros. Records after a highly publicized split from the label more than a decade earlier, when he also famously changed his name to a symbol.
Future of masters
So with all the debate about who owns the masters (and who should), could the situation ever tilt toward the artists' favour? Gryner is hopeful.
"Artists and musicians are really duking it out for their fair share of things," she said, alluding to both the fight over master recordings and the ongoing battle of songwriters for a bigger piece of streaming royalties.
Being an unsigned artist can be a legitimate choice now, Gryner said, in a way it wasn't when she started out 20 years ago. Chance the Rapper even won a Grammy for his self-released Coloring Book in 2017. (He also proudly owns his own masters.)
But lawyer Jacobson says she's not optimistic Swift will be able to wrestle her masters back, now that her former label has changed hands. "If she has a contract with typical language, she has no legal recourse over that," she said.
But Jacobson also says we shouldn't underestimate the pop star's ability to effect change in the long run, just like she did when she held back her material from Apple Music until the company changed its payment policy toward artists.
"Taylor has a way of making things work out in her favour and to benefit artists," said Jacobson. "I feel like she might think of some sort of an idea to turn this into something beneficial for everyone."