Label vs. Artist: Who Really Owns the Music?

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

Contracts. Exciting? Not really. Important? Absolutely. The thing about contracts is that we often don’t seem to notice the bad in them until something goes wrong. This valuable, boring document is a key piece in the Taylor Swift/Scooter Braun feud that might have taken over your feed mid-November. It’s far from black and white and it has brought up an important question: who really owns the music? 

What’s the Big (Record) Deal? 

I hope you're ready for a little lesson in music law terminology 101 because it's about to go down! There are two kinds of musicians: Performing artists and songwriters. This means that there are also two different copyrights. Songwriters hold the rights to the lyrics and the melody of a song while performing artists hold the rights to the master recording, a particular recording of a song. A master recording can also be understood as “the original version from which everything else stems.” This means that whoever is the holder of the master rights has the authority to “license it to third parties, whether that be a streaming service, a radio station or for use in television, film or commercials.” Basically, the owner of the masters has control over where the music is used, how it’s used, and the financial gains from the recordings. For record labels, there’s big money in the masters.

What Do Artists Get From Signing Over Their Rights?

Well, traditionally musicians are given an advance and, once they’ve earned back the advance, they receive a royalty percentage from the music’s profits. The problem with deals like this is that it leaves intellectual property in the hands of labels. The label is authorized to use their music as they please, without the permission of the creator. Their music could be licensed for things the artist doesn’t want to be associated with. Think of it like this: Your song becomes the anthem of your worst enemy's cause that goes against everything you stand for. And you just have to sit there and let it happen because legally, they have every right to distribute your creation. Artists often have to jump into contracts like this blindly, hoping that the label has their best interest in mind. It’s a risk that many do take but time has proven that it can come at a cost as seen from Prince, Frank Ocean, and Jay-Z’s legal battles to escape. 

A Vague Timeline of the Swift vs. Braun Feud (Or As Vague As It Gets)

November 2018

Taylor Swift’s 13-year contract with Big Machine Records ends and she joins Republic Records. It was revealed that her new deal would allow her to gain ownership of all future master recordings. Swift, a long-time advocate of fair compensation when it comes to streaming, negotiated a deal that required Republic Records to begin distributing Spotify stock sales amongst all of the artists signed to the label. In 2017, UMG (the company Republic Records belongs to) reportedly made $4.5M every day from streaming revenue, none of which made its way to musicians. Swift thanked her longtime partner, Scott Borcheta, through a statement and expressed her excitement for the future. 

June 2019

News breaks about Scooter Braun's Ithaca Holdings acquiring Big Machine Records for more than $300 million dollars, a deal Swift claims she had no knowledge of. Taylor voices her dismay over Scooter’s purchase of her music stating that when she “left [her] masters in Scott’s hands, [she] made peace with the fact that eventually, he would sell them. Never in [her] worst nightmares did [she] imagine the buyer would be Scooter.” It is also revealed that Big Machine Records made her an offer at the end of her contract: she could buy back her masters by signing a contract that would require her to create an album to replace the ones previously made. 

November 2019:

  • A post by Swift went up claiming that Scooter and her former label’s chief executive, Scott Borchetta, were not allowing her to perform a medley of her music at the American Music Awards or the use of her music for a Netflix documentary. She mentions that her team tried to settle the matter privately. 

  • Big Machine Records releases a statement. They emphasize that Taylor is allowed to perform her music and that they “do not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere.” They state that they have reached out to talk about the situation in private. 

  • Scooter Braum breaks his silence through an Instagram post. He mentions that he fears for his family’s safety and asks Taylor to “understand that [her] words carry a tremendous amount of weight and that [her] message can be interpreted by some in different ways.” He also states that he has tried to settle matters privately. 

The Final Verdict

Contractually, Braun is in the right. He acquired Big Machine Records and has the authority to do as he pleases with his purchase. Creatively, Swift is in the right. Having to leave the fate of something you crafted in the hands of someone who had no hand in the creation of it isn’t an ideal situation. Whether you’re team Swift or team Braun, the conversation started and the awareness brought to the relationship between musicians and their labels is significant. 

It seems that through all of the 'he-said, she-said' of it all, the confusion was over terminology. Swift is legally allowed to re-record and profit from her old songs (due to songwriter rights) starting November 2020. However, the lines get blurry when it comes to defining what counts as a re-recording. Does a recorded television performance count as a re-recording or is it simply a concert? There seems to have been differing answers to this. 

What It Means For Smaller Acts. 

"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"-VERITE

The reality is that Swift’s situation is a rare occurrence. Most musicians aren't insanely rich, have massive influence or have the backing of millions of people. They're the local band playing a house show, the musician playing a set in a coffee shop, or the kid posting a video of them singing online hoping it'll reach people. More often than not, artists sign with labels because of the funding they provide. The advance that a label may put on the table might just be too good to pass up. And obviously, as seen from the number of artists that have risen to superstardom thanks to record deals, these deals are difficult to get and equally hard to pass up. 

Finding a balance between business and art is clearly complicated and only time will tell how this will play out. Will record labels compromise and alter the terms of a typical contract or, with the advancement of technology and the rise of social media, will more and more artists choose to utilize the resources they have and walk away? All in all, whether you’re a wide-eyed 14-year-old chasing the dream or a twenty-something waiting for your big break, “…hopefully [all of you] young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect [yourself] in a negotiation. You deserve to own the art you make.” Please read your contracts.

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