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What Does It Mean to Own Your Masters? Explained

Owning your masters in music has nothing to do with literal or BDSM slaves. But what does it mean?

Photo by Giorgio Trovato / Unsplash

Owning your masters in music has nothing to do with literal or BDSM slaves — although not owning them can make you one (sort of). If you don’t want to end up like Taylor Swift, read this guide and get definitive answers to these questions:

  • What does it mean to own your masters in music?
  • Why is this matter important?
  • How can (not) owning your masters affect your career as an artist?

What does it mean to own your masters in music?

To answer the question, we need to learn a thing or two about master recordings. A master recording, or a master, is the original recording of a music piece. It’s THE recording that will be copied to physical releases like vinyl and CDs or for other uses like soundtracks or samples. But what does it mean to own them? Aren’t they already yours?

A GIF with two men talking, one of which says “And you’ll have to get me the master recording tapes”
Source: YARN

Owning your masters means that you own the copyright to the master recordings, which means total freedom in using and releasing your music — but most importantly, it directly affects your income. Let’s explore it.

What does it have to do with money?

We mentioned that owning your masters means having freedom over your music — here’s what it actually implies:

  • You can control re-releases. Let’s say, you want to repress a CD edition of an album you released 10 years ago. Or you think of putting out a “Greatest Hits” compilation album with a bunch of your old songs. If you own your masters, you can do all that and more without asking a third party.
  • You can control first releases too. If your master recording is owned by a label, the label can say “No, this one will not be on the album” — and you may end up with one or more songs never seeing the world because of the label’s weird antics.
  • You can license music for other uses. If you want to get your song into a film or a videogame, give other artists the permission to remix, cover, sample, or interpolate your song, you can do it if you own your masters. Or if you don’t want to get your song into a film you don’t like, you can prevent it if you own your masters.
  • You’re less chained to the label. If you consider leaving your record label, it will be a lot harder to do if you don’t own your masters. When you give out the rights to the label, legally, your music doesn’t quite belong to you — so you may not be able to profit off your past efforts.

But most importantly, if you own your masters, you get ALL the royalties. All the revenue from, for example, licensing music for film soundtracks goes to you and not the label, the sound engineer, or any third party. It means that owning your masters maximizes the “passive” income you can get from the already recorded and released music.

Are there drawbacks of owning your masters?

As we discussed earlier, owning your master recordings means getting a full control over your works and getting all the money you can from them. Unfortunately, there is a catch — here are some possible drawbacks of owning your masters:

  • It’s expensive. Aside from production, recording, and promotion costs, you may also need to pay for a lawyer and copyright registration — and, if you’re an aspiring musician, you may not have this kind of money.
  • It may require a lot of negotiations. Owning your masters requires agreements with everyone involved in the recording — session musicians, sound engineers, you name it. You may not have the time or the soft skills to get agreements from all these people. Or some of them may pass away by the time you decide to own your masters, which makes the situation even more difficult.
  • It’s an investment. And, like investments in stocks or businesses, it may not return. Owning your masters can be incredibly beneficial to well-renowned artists who actually can get their music covered by dozens of artists or played in a successful TV show. Meanwhile, young upcoming artists looking for production expenses ROI can’t always afford thinking of long-term consequences. That’s why niche indie bands and artists often sign perpetuity deals — which means that the label will own their master recordings indefinitely. They’re basically doing it in exchange for delegating some of the music business stuff like promotion to the label.
A meme that says “Never ask a woman her age, a man his salary, and an indie musician why their parents’ names are blue on wikipedia”
Yep, not everyone is Julian Casablancas. Source: Know Your Meme

Should you own your masters? Let’s pass the mic to an expert.

"In my experience, advising clients, I often recommend retaining master rights whenever possible. I've seen cases where artists have negotiated deals with major labels without relinquishing these rights, and it's becoming more prevalent in the industry.
"Just recently, I had two clients in negotiations with Sony. One was considering giving away masters and the other holding firm. I advised the latter against taking a deal where they were forced to surrender master rights. It's simply not necessary these days, and it's generally not advised unless there are compelling reasons specific to the situation," says Brianna Schwartz, Partner and Co-Founder of Schwartz & Schreiber, PLLC.

Publishing rights vs. Master rights: what’s the difference?

Okay, now you know what it means to own your masters in music — but it’s not the only way to protect your songs. There’s also such thing as publishing rights. And, by the way, that’s what saved Taylor Swift in her situation and allowed the singer to re-record the old albums.

What’s the difference then? Let’s sort it out — we put it to a spreadsheet to make it easier for you.

Publishing rights

Master rights

The ELI5 explanation

“I wrote this song!”

“I recorded this music piece and I decide what to do with it!”

What do they protect?

The creative core of the music — the melody and the lyrics

The sound recording of the song, which includes the specific sound and arrangement

Who usually owns them?

Songwriters (who are not necessarily the artists performing the song!), sometimes may go to the publishing company.

Traditionally, the label, currently, artists strive to own them. Can also belong to a recording studio or anyone who financed the recording.

Which part of your income is affected if you sign the rights away?

  • Mechanical royalties for each reproduction of the song

  • Public performance royalties for public plays

  • Sync licensing (soundtracks)

  • Sheet music sales

  • Grand right royalties (use in theater)

  • Streaming royalties and record sales

  • Sync licensing

  • Potential royalties from other artists using samples of your master recording

What else do you lose?

You won’t be able to grant or deny permission for others to record or perform the song.

You won’t be able to control how the recording is used, distributed, and licensed.

How do these rights protect your authorship?

You’ll get an advantage in “they plagiarized a melody” type of copyright infringement lawsuits.

However, both publishing and master rights give you an advantage in any kind of IP protection.

You’ll get an advantage in “they used a sample of my recording without crediting or paying me” type of copyright infringement lawsuits.

However, both publishing and master rights give you an advantage in any kind of IP protection.

The most famous case: Taylor’s versions

The story of Taylor Swift and her re-recorded albums is the most prominent example of why owning your masters is good. Taylor signed hers away long ago to her first label, Big Machine, under which she released six albums she didn’t technically own. Even worse, she’s been trying to buy her masters for years but had no chance to do so unless she signed another contract with Big Machine.

If you wanted to know the consequences of signing away your masters, here they are: the label blocked the singer from performing her old songs at AMA and using them in a documentary about herself. Big Machine also put out the live album Live from Clear Channel Stripped 2008 without Taylor’s consent — and she publicly disapproved of the unauthorized release. To prevent the further power abuse from Big Machine, the artist had to re-record her entire old catalog and release it under the new label that let her retain the master rights.

Meme that consists of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) cover and a screenshot of a tweet that says “Taylor Swift is brave because if you asked me to read anything I wrote at 17 I would kill you with my bare hands”
The silver lining is, we got some good memes out of this situation — this one is my personal favorite. Source: Reddit

Wrapping up

Historically, master rights belonged to record labels, which robbed musicians of a decent part of their income. Now, more artists own their masters despite being signed to a label — or strive to do so. While it may involve some extra expenses on legal services, signing your master rights away will cost you a lot more in the long run — not just money but also the freedom over what to do with your recordings. So, read the contracts with labels attentively and don’t let them rob you!