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Whose master’s voice? Why artists need to take ownership in the age of independence

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In June, a New York Times Magazine investigation into a fire that consumed more than 50 years’ worth of original masters and other recordings sent the world scrabbling to find out not just what music might have been lost for good, but what a ‘master recording’ actually is. Google searches for the term hit a five-year high.

Later that month, Taylor Swift published a lengthy blog post complaining that the sale of her back catalogue rights was the latest incident in a history of bullying at the hands of industry execs. She also wrote that she’d never been offered the opportunity to buy back her master recordings, though this claim has since been countered with evidence to the contrary.

And in a slightly more bizarre case around the same time, online lyric database Genius accused Google of stealing lyrics and publishing them in search results – despite the obvious fact that Genius doesn’t actually own any of those lyrics in the first place: they belong to the artists or publishers who hold the rights to them.

While none of these stories were directly related, they’ve each illuminated a different aspect of a growing conversation around musicians’ ownership rights.

The Swift spat marks something of a watershed moment for the industry and the extent to which artists will be willing to cede control of their master recordings to labels (even among the industry’s most powerful musicians, owning your own masters is still rare). The Universal Music Group fire, and the organisation’s cover-up of its consequences, further eroded trust in the industry’s established institutions. And Genius vs Google served to highlight the increasingly blurred lines around who owns what in the digital era. Collectively, these events have drawn attention to what appears to be a broken and outdated system – particularly when it comes to artists and the ownership of their works.

Who owns what?

At the most basic level, there are two sets of ownership rights for any one song: master rights (the sound recording of the song) and publishing rights (the music and, where relevant, lyrics the song comprises). Master rights are typically owned by whoever financed the recording, and publishing rights will be divided between those who had a hand in writing the song.

“We always advise clients to retain ownership as much as possible,” says Pete Bott, a senior associate solicitor who represents artists at Sound Advice. “It’s almost like Dragon’s Den: if you can convince someone to invest a lot of money for very little ownership or control, then that’s excellent news.”

However, Bott admits, this kind of bargaining power won’t be available to the majority of artists, thanks to a familiar imbalance that’s centred on access (or lack thereof) to capital.

What’s more the legal structures in place to protect these rights do little to support artists. One study undertaken at the University of Glasgow in 2005 argued that “the often-made claim that copyright supports the creative basis of a society is empirically doubtful. There is a suspicion that copyright underpins vastly unequal rewards.”

This is largely due to the fact that the mechanics of copyright have changed little since the 18th century, and that the balance of power has tipped continuously in the direction of the labels and publishers with the tightest grip on the industry’s collective purse strings.

The ultimate conclusion of the paper was that “future copyright policy must be based on a much clearer empirical picture of the role of copyright in creative production.” This is something that many artists operating in the streaming era are arguably still waiting on.

Indeed, despite the assumed democratising power of technology and the digital era’s supposed ability to connect fans directly with the artists they love, this industry structure has barely shifted since pre-internet days.

Cash streams

Spotify launched a year after that University of Glasgow study was published and, in spite of being hailed as a disruptive force, would go on to do little to upset the industry status quo.

Having witnessed the collapse of Napster under a pile of copyright lawsuits, streaming operators knew they would need to balance mainstream listeners’ desires to access their favourite music with the labels’ need to earn royalties from that access. In the absence of an obvious alternative, both the streaming services and the major labels accepted counting on one another for survival – for the moment at least. The result of this relationship is an expanding rift between those at the top and, well, everyone else.

“I think it’s a slightly concerning time,” says Sound Advice’s Pete Bott. “You find that the proportion of income – whether from live concerts or consumption of recorded music – the vast majority of that and the money is going toward a very, very small number of people. Your Ed Sheerans, your Drakes, your Ariana Grandes: the megastars are earning the vast bulk of income. And there’s a widening gap where it’s very difficult to make any sort of sustainable income at the emerging end.”

What’s more, a Citigroup report published last year put a pin to the suggestion that a resurgent music industry would be good for musicians with the revelation that just 12% of the $43 billion or so generated by the industry is finding its way to artists’ accounts. Spotify’s recent decision to withdraw its direct upload feature for artists would suggest the industry’s middlemen have a few years in them yet.

The age of independence

While the task of financing an artistic vision remains unavoidable, Bott is optimistic about the options musicians have for maintaining their independence.

“I think increasingly there are ways of sustaining that sort of ‘middle class’ of musicians that can afford to do it without being a megastar,” he says, referring to brand partnerships in which musicians can trade their cultural capital without having to give up any ownership stake in their recordings. “They just have to think more creatively about their approach to their business and choose different partners to work with.”

It’s an approach based in pragmatism (and deaf to accusations of selling out), but one that does gives artists in need of outside investment a degree of financial independence without having to cede their master rights.

Mark Mulligan of MiDIA Research, meanwhile, has argued that Swift’s public row with her former label served as an advert for so-called ‘label services’ deals, in which artists retain their rights but still work with a label on things such as marketing or distribution. Artists like Stormzy and Stefflon Don have chosen to keep control by establishing their own labels, which are then bought out by a major under mutually-agreed terms.

A report published by MiDIA and music distributor Amuse last month points towards a near future in which artists will be less reliant on labels as they exist today. Its conclusion that “signing to a label is not enough for artists’ financial security” and, perhaps relatedly, that “labels are not a prerequisite” for artists would suggest greater autonomy is the more attractive recourse.

Given the broader range of options available today, Mulligan goes on, “any artist signing a deal now that finds themselves five years from now complaining about not having control of their masters will, to put it bluntly, only have themselves to blame. It will have been their choice.”

More opportunities for artists to retain ownership of the products of their labour can only be a good thing, and the recent, separate, and largely independent blossoming of the UK’s homegrown rap, bassline, and jazz scenes would suggest that non-traditional approaches remain viable in the digital era. Jazz drummer Moses Boyd, for instance, uses his WhatsApp ‘hotline’ to engage directly with fans and plan tours based on where they’re located.

Either way, it’s never been clearer that true disruption won’t come from entrenched incumbents or venture capital-funded tech start-ups – it’ll come from the artists and their fans who have something of real value to lose: the music.

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