Why Maintaining the Rights to Your Masters Means Everything


For many artists, a major benchmark on the path to success is finding a way to break through the noise and pushing their music front and center. Hopefully, financial stability follows, and they’re able to make music their full-time career. Unfortunately, all too often, that also entails these artists unnecessarily giving up their rights to their master recordings when they sign a record deal.

The good news is that today, more than ever, you don’t need to give up ownership of your masters to “make it.” You can retain your rights and still grow your career. In fact, as an independent artist, your recording masters are extra precious and giving them up could have serious long-term implications for your career. Here’s why you should hold tight to your masters… and what could happen if you give them up.

In many traditional record deals, an artist signs away their master rights — that is, the rights to their recordings — to a record label either for a set period of time or the length of the copyright. In return, the label provides the artist with an advance that’s recoupable against the artist’s royalties.

That may sound standard, even great to some, but in most of these traditional deals, the artist is prohibited from releasing any records elsewhere with another partner, label, or even artist in some cases. And any recordings made by the artist under the contract are owned by the label — possibly forever.

“That traditionally has not been that great for the artist,” explains Silvia Montello, Senior Vice President, Operations at AWAL, “because it means that, in return for the advance that they get, they're having to sign their rights away, often for those particular albums or tracks under that contract in perpetuity.”

Sometimes, she explains, artists get the opportunity to buy their songs or catalogue back at a cost, but if they haven’t recouped their advance, the expense could be prohibitive and unaffordable.

After being dropped by a major label, London-based singer/songwriter Bruno Major lost an entire body of recordings that he says are “still sitting in the basement of a tower in Los Angeles” because he wasn’t in a place financially to buy them back.

“When you sign a contract, you are signing yourself into becoming a commodity,” says Major. “You're becoming a product, and you should understand that. Everyone should understand that, at the end of the day, as much as they'll tell you that they love you, and they'll tell you that you're the next greatest thing, ultimately, there's an Excel spreadsheet somewhere with an incoming and an outgoing column, and if that is not balanced and in the green, ultimately, they're not your friends.”

Why Maintaining the Rights to Your Masters Means Everything

“I've made five records,” said Kobalt client Frank Carter at the BBC Music Introducing presents Amplify event last October. “I own two of them. I probably will never see any of the records I made in Gallows ever again unless I have a hit, and I'm able to buy them back. Because they'll never recoup. The key is to retain your rights.”

“By retaining ownership of your master rights, you keep creative control and you’re free to release your music however you want via whichever channels you choose,” says Paul Hitchman, President of AWAL.

And, he points out, if an artist does ever choose to sign to a label, owning master rights is like having an upper hand. “If an artist owns their own rights,” says Hitchman, “they are in the best position to negotiate with a record company and obtain the best possible terms and controls.”

Rising AWAL artist Verite has been courted by numerous major labels, but the lack of control over her music and masters was glaring in every offer. “What guarantees does a major label contract afford you?” she says. “This idea that I’m gonna sign away my rights, my autonomy, my creative control, and my financial independence...isn’t really a sustainable living.”

So, what are the tip-offs that a recording contract contains terms that result in giving up control and ownership of your masters? According to Hitchman, look out for:

  • A long rights period (i.e., the period in which the record company owns the recordings)
  • Options over future recordings (meaning a record company can automatically get rights over future recordings in return for paying a cash advance)
  • An “exclusive recording agreement” (every recording created during the term of the agreement is owned by the record company)

Montello says the key is to read the contract carefully and with someone who’s familiar with the legal terminology.  “What's really, really important for artists is that somebody that understands music company contracts — so a legal representative of some description — reads it with them and makes it really clear what’s being offered,” she says.

“If they're being offered a big advance and a five-year term to cover a certain number of album recordings or track recordings, then they need to look at what happens at the end of the term of that contract. Do the rights revert to them or do they stay with the label? That's probably one of the most important things to look into.”

It’s crucial to understand those terms because another benefit of ownership is building long-term value that may ultimately pay off more than a one-time advance. Hitchman says, “At the end of their career, if an artist has managed to retain ownership of their recordings, it also means that they can benefit from the value that has been created in those recordings and would be able to sell them if they chose to do so.”

No matter what, it’s crucial to consider what you’ll gain versus what you’ll lose by giving up even a portion of your rights. Also, know what a major label will give you besides a contract and/or an advance, like marketing and promotion plans.

Finally, be sure to explore and evaluate all options. A safer alternative, Hitchman says, is licensing. “I would advise any artist to, if possible, license your recordings for a limited period rather than giving up your rights for the life of copyright.

“We [at AWAL] have seen many examples where artists have signed away their recording rights in exchange for an advance and have later regretted the decision because they would have made more money by retaining ownership and would still have owned their rights.”

Though it might be tempting, after striving and struggling as an artist, to take an immediate payout (i.e., an advance), think of ownership as an investment. If you’re in music for the long haul, keeping those rights will probably build more value over time than any advance you’ll get now.

Consider teaming up with a partner, like AWAL, who can help you access services to release, promote and license your own recordings without taking any ownership of your masters or copyrights. It’s the best way to ensure that your masters and copyrights stay right where they belong — with you.


If you'd like to find out how AWAL can become your partner as an independent artist, become a member today!

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