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What is the Master Recording?

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In the music business, a master recording is the official original recording of a song, sound or performance. Also referred to as “masters”, it is the source from which all the later copies are made.

Master recordings can be distinguished as tapes, discs, pro tools session files and digital formats such as MP3s. Owning the master recording is smart business; it is an important aspect of a deal you can’t afford to ignore if you want to hit it big in the music business.

That is not to say that without owning the masters, you do not get a healthy income, just not the lions share.

Prince: “If you don’t own your masters, the master owns you.”

Master recording uses

So now we know that owning the master recording and the legal rights to freely appropriate is the key to maximizing your money-making opportunities. Now you are free to claim the lions share of the revenue generated from your megahit songs.

With the master recording, the owner could unilaterally license third parties to use it for TV, film, commercial adverts or even for sampling in other songs by other artists.

The issue now is: who owns the master recording? Is it the artist or the producer? Is it the record label or the recording studio?

It is easy to suggest that the artist would own it since he or she wrote the song and performs it, but in reality, those who also work on it may reserve the right to the masters based on the current contract with the respective parties. Such parties include the record label, the music producer, sound engineer, a featured artist, or even a recording studio. Thus at the end of the day, an artist may be forced to either relinquish his masters outright or share it with any of the people he or she chooses to work with.

Record label power

Forfeiting or sharing the legal rights to the master recording usually happens when for instance, an artist needs the financial support, marketing and promotion of a label for the recording and release of their work. Then a deal is usually made that the artist should hand over the masters until an amount spent by the label (an advance) is earned and recovered or that the label should hold the masters outright for a specified number of years.

The implication is that the label can then use the masters as it pleases without the consent, approval or necessary permission of the artist or producer. All revenues made on the masters go to the label and are shared as agreed upon with the artist.

It has become a popular practice that producers and sound engineers make such deals with up and coming artists to produce and record their songs for a part split of ownership over the masters. For a featured artist, the deal usually is to co-own the masters since they contribute their own intellectual property in the form of lyrics to the song.

Recording studios and production houses sometimes claim the argument that since their music equipment and expertise are used on the work, they deserve some rights to the masters. However, this argument is thought of as weak as studios can only claim their price or fee per time spent. The artists can themselves decide to share or give up some share of masters to them, however, this is rare.

We highly recommend this industry renowned book for further reading.

All You Need To Know About The Music Business.

By Donald Passman


Learn about:

  • Navigating record deals
  • History of the business ecosystem
  • How iPods changed everything

Artist's agreements

Fortunately for artists, there are ways to retain the master recording and its legal rights in its entirety. It all boils down to the terms of the contract with the record label or producer.

An artist should get a lawyer specialising in these matters, to draft a written agreement with everyone involved in the recording and production process – record label, recording studio, feature artists, music producers and sound engineers etc.

If the artist feels strongly about holding the master recording rights in the entirety, then further agreements should be made on how these contributors may be compensated. For example, paying the full recording price to the label and the recording studio, or sharing the revenue instead of the rights.

A lawyer that specialises in sound or music should be able to give you the best advice.

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