What Are Taylor Swift’s Masters?
In a recent Tumblr post, Taylor Swift said she was blindsided by the news that artist manager Scooter Braun would pay $300 million for Big Machine Label Group, which owns the master recordings for six Swift albums going back to when she was 15 years old.
What Are Masters? A master recording is the first recording of a song or other sound, from which all the later copies are made. Master recordings (usually called just “masters”) can be made on all sorts of storage formats.
Record labels all typically make owning the master recordings part of the deal — even Beyoncé doesn’t own her masters, Columbia Records does. Royalties derived from master recordings are a big way to earn money from a song or album. In most record label deals, the artist is only paid her share on the master side after she’s earned back her advance money.
Swift wrote that Braun owning her work is her “worst case scenario” and claimed “incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at [Braun’s] hands for years.” She said, “Like when Kim Kardashian orchestrated an illegally recorded snippet of a phone call to be leaked and then Scooter got his two clients together to bully me online about it,” Swift continued. “Or when his client, Kanye West, organized a revenge porn music video which strips my body naked. Now Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy. Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”
Scooter Braun’s clients include: Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, and Usher.
Does Taylor Swift Have Legal Recourse to Prevent or Reverse the Sale of Her Masters?
Not really. No. The masters are the record company’s property. Masters are sold all the time. Most contracts don’t have any clause that prevents the sale of masters to another company.
Some music industry observers believe Swift was probably offered the right to buy her masters so long as she signed a new deal with Big Machine, which she rejected.
Can Taylor Swift Ever Gain Ownership of Her Masters?
Yes, but it could take a while. If the new owners are unwilling to sell them to her now, Swift may be able to regain control of her masters after 35 years are up and she requests under section 203 of the Copyright Act to have them returned to her. In 35 years Taylor Swift will be 64 years old!
Some artists are building clauses into their contracts to have master recordings revert to their control after several years. But they must usually decline to take advances for recording their albums in exchange for either a better master royalty split or return of their masters.
What do you think? Is Swift making a mountain out of a mole hill? Should artists always try to own their masters?