Swift lesson to master your own music

NEW YORK • For the record, it is one of the oldest and hardest lessons of the music industry. No matter how successful artists may be, chances are, someone else owns their work.

Prince, protesting how his label, Warner, had control over his master recordings, quipped in 1996: "If you don't own your masters, your master owns you."

Now, pop star Taylor Swift has joined the chorus of artists who have bemoaned that their creative work is someone else's property.

In a Tumblr post on Sunday, she responded bitterly to news that her former label, Big Machine, had been sold to a company run by Mr Scooter Braun, manager of singers Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.

Swift had strong objections to the deal, which included the rights to her first six albums, also blaming Mr Braun for orchestrating "incessant bullying" against her by rapper Kanye West, an on-and-off client.

The episode highlighted the fraught and little-understood industry politics of masters - the original copies of an artist's work - and the copyrights associated with them. The owner of a master controls all rights to use it, including selling albums or licensing songs for movies or video games.

The artist earns royalties from the recordings once associated costs are fulfilled, but controlling the master could bring greater income and protection over how the work is used in the future. These rights are separate from copyrights for songwriting.

The significance that musicians attach to their masters was highlighted last month, when a group of artists sued Universal Music Group over a fire in 2008 that destroyed many original recordings.

Historically, record companies have retained rights to masters in exchange for the financial risks in backing an artist.

"Fundamentally, the business model that most record companies operate under is not unlike the venture capital business," said Mr Larry Miller, director of the music business programme at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

"They make investments in unproven talent," he added. "The trade is that, traditionally, the masters stay with the record company."

Swift signed such a deal with Big Machine in 2005, at the beginning of her career.

Still, her tirade has raised questions about the age-old power dynamic between artists and labels.

"This kind of deal is neither unusual nor controversial," media mogul David Geffen said. "They offered her a deal that she rejected to get ownership of her masters."

Mr Steve Stoute, a music and advertising executive whose new company, UnitedMasters, allows artists to keep their rights, sees the Swift episode as an illustration of what he called "the fundamental problem with the record industry".

"The record business historically runs the same business model as sharecropping," he noted. "You build it; we make you think you own it; you act like you own it; but, at the end of the day, we own it."

The industry's shift to streaming has begun to change the dynamic between artists and labels, which once held exceptional leverage through their ability to market albums and promote songs to radio stations.

Some younger artists have leaned towards autonomy. Rapper XXXTentacion, for example, who was killed in a shooting last year, rejected long-term label deals in favour of one-off contracts for each of his releases. These offered lower payment upfront, but gave him full ownership and a higher royalty rate.

Mr Stoute said the power of Swift's fame has made her message about the importance of ownership a vital lesson.

"If you're an artist today, you must go into the record deal owning your master," he added. "If not, you are basically building an asset that you will not own."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2019, with the headline 'Swift lesson to master your own music'. Print Edition | Subscribe