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The importance of master recordings in the music business



A recent Tumblr post by pop star Taylor Swift has had the internet buzzing over the past week. Swift wrote the lengthy post after it was announced that Scooter Braun’s company, Ithaca Holdings, had acquired Taylor’s old record label, Big Machine Records, for upwards of $300 million. This essentially meant that Braun’s company now holds the master recordings of Swift’s six previous albums released under Big Machine Records.

Her Tumblr post from Sunday states, “For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work. Instead I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and ‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in.”


master recordings
(pic : Prince and the ‘Symbol’)


Swift is not the first artist to fight with a music label for the rights to her master recordings. In the early 1990’s pop legend Prince had a lengthy feud with Warner Bros Music over the rights to the master recordings of the albums released under the record label. In 1994, Metallica taking advantage of their status as heavy metal gods signed a joint venture with Warner Music Group that returned the rights to all their master recordings in November 2012. The band had sold millions of records for WMG’s subsidiary Elektra Records. The ownership of an artist’s master recordings is a sensitive issue. Most artists are naïve when signing their first record label contract and unknowingly sign away their master recordings right.


Master recordings explained

Why are artists so keen to hold on to them and why do they give them away in the first place?

A master recording refers to the actual original recording, be it a song or album. Traditionally the master recordings are owned by the music labels. If you are streaming a song from a music streaming platform or buying it on vinyl or hearing it in a movie or TV show, it is because the record label granted a license for using their ‘master rights’.
In the west the record labels generally own the master rights and not the ‘underlying works’ that are associated with the song/album. The composition and the lyrics of the song/album are termed as underlying works, also generally known as publishing.

If an artist does not own the rights to the master recordings, the label is free to use them, without consulting the artist in any way. The label can license out the artist’s songs for things the artist would not want their music associated with. This also means that if the label owns the master recordings, it controls the financial gains from the recordings. Owning the master rights means controlling over what is done with the song/album. The valuation of the record labels depends on the ownership of these master recordings.


Master Recordings in India

In India, master recordings are referred to as ‘sound recording’ or ‘master’, the latter being a layman term.

The Indian Copyright Act  :


When a graphical notation of a musical work is recorded in any medium from which sound may be produced, it amounts to Sound Recording.


Role of the record labels

The unfortunate part in India is that record labels go a step further. They also want to own the underlying works i.e the composition and the lyrics, which we call publishing. This scenario ensures that when any third party want to recreate a song, they have to approach the record labels. In an ideal world, the third party should also have to approach the songwriters/administrators of their rights so that songwriters can also financially benefit for their work.

The complete ownership of these rights ensures the record label earns the returns in a song/album it invested, maybe years ago. The artists involved with the song/album are not entitled for any stakes. This makes it unequal playing field.
Can an artist legally fight a record label over rights for their master recordings?

“It might be incorrect to put it that way. It is a willing seller-willing buyer situation. This is also a fairly standard market practice for record labels to own the sound recordings; publishing, on the other hand, is a different story. Unfortunately in India, that too often is a 100% owned by the label that acquires the music,” explained Priyanka Khimani co-founder and lead partner of Anand and Anand & Khimani.


The legal structure

It is an entirely different concept and in India we make a big mistake by mixing it up. The producer of the film will own the film, why is he investing otherwise. The director cannot claim rights as he was paid to do a job and he did it. The writer can claim as he created the original screenplay so they are 2 different things. Sound recording is very different from underline work.

“Artists in India repeatedly keep entering into deals where they give up complete control and ownership of their works. This is often done in exchange for promise of a generous spend on marketing and advertising or cost of making a music video. You would imagine that things would be different in the non-film space. But we have quite brilliantly managed to duplicate the same film-music eco system again,” quipped Priyanka.

Taylor Swift, also writes her own songs and may have rights for the same. In her feud with Big Machine Records she is complaining about sound recording. There are some labels which agree to give the artist a part of the ownership of sound recording but it is very minor. It also depends on the stature of the artist. Some established artists also ask for a part from the labels but that is purely a commercial arrangement. The signing over of master recordings to a label implies a level of trust between the artist and the label.

“Very few artists understand rights to begin with. I would say there is little else to blame when they feel that the system is not democratic,” asserted Priyanka.

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