“Owning The Master Recording”… What Does It Mean?

This is one topic that has been flying across social media since Monday, 24 February 2020 after DJ Maphorisa mentioned that he has granted talents he worked with rights to own their masters. The term “masters” seems to have caused lot of confusion with many not fully understanding what it meant. This piece is aimed at breaking down the term and the weight it carries in the music industry.

So, what does “master” mean in the music business? This is a term used to refer to the original sound recording copyright of a song. When an artist records a song, s/he is also creating an original sound recording protected under the South African copyright law. Pretty much the finished, well produced, fully polished, mixed and mastered song. The version that you end up putting out to the market for consumption.

To make a more business sense, one may ask how important it is for talents to own masters of their music… Well, the “master recording” is the original version from which everything else stems. A CD printing, a stream on digital platforms such as Spotify, Google Music, Apple Music, an appearance on a movie soundtrack, being released publicly – all of those are licensed by the holder of the master rights.

This also means that the holder of the master has control over the financial gains from the recordings as well. Put simply, controlling the master rights essentially means you have control over what is done with the song or album.

But it’s not that easy to manoeuvre around this… Common sense and matters of principle usually cause most artists to feel they should own their masters because they’re the ones who contributed the performance and are often paying for the recordings. But, oftentimes, other owners can be involved because master ownership can vary based on the law as well as contracts. Some important aspects of copyright law that you should understand have to do with joint authorship and contributions to collective works.

Generally, when you sign a record deal unless otherwise stated, the record label will own all of your master recordings. That’s why it’s such a big deal when you hear that an artist owns their masters.

What can you do to ensure that you fully own your masters?
Artist intending to fully own their masters should have written agreements in place with everyone involved in the recording process: the studio, engineers, producers, and hired musicians. These agreements should clearly state that the artist owns the masters, and also include that the contributors will transfer their rights in the masters to the artist.

These agreements do involve many components and complex language, so they should be drafted by an experienced music attorney. If you’re unable to hire an attorney, DIY templates of the appropriate agreements can be found online.

In conclusion, holding the master rights is the ticket to generating income, and there’s even more to earn with the rise of digital and mobile opportunities.

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