August 6, 2020

How to own your master recordings

master recordings

Just a few weeks ago I was surfing the net until I came across a DJ Maphorisa tweet about “masters”. Of course, I knew what he was referring to. So I decided to read the timeslive article to gain more clarity on how this topic came up.

Maphorisa had claimed that his Industry colleagues, Prince Kaybee and Lady Zamar did not own their master recordings. Most people on twitter didn’t really understand what he was talking about in the first place but it trended for over a week.

If you are not in the music industry and someone starts throwing around jargon such as master recordings chances are you won’t know what that person is referring to.

In this article, I will explain what the term masters mean in a musical context and how you can own your master recordings.

So without further ado, let’s dive in.  

What does master recordings mean?

A master recording is the final or completed project. This could be a single (a song), an E.P (Extended Play) or a full-length project such as an Album.

Each song goes through the same process – Recording, Mixing and then Mastering.

Mastering is the final stage before the recording is ready to be sold either in physical or digital format (or both).

Now let’s get to the interesting part, so pay attention.

There are two copyrights involved each time a song is recorded and made available to the buying public.

For example, a composer or producer can make the beat for a song and while the songwriter contributes the lyrics but they can both own the rights of the song.

But the person who performs (recording artist/singer) over the recordings would own the recorded version (master rights).

The two copyrights, in this case, are as follows: the composition (the music, beat, lyrics, and melodies) and the sound (which is the studio performance or master rights).

Both copyrights generate different royalties namely synchronization and Master Use license. The former is paid to the composers and authors, while the latter is paid to the performer (owner of the master rights).

So how do you own your master recordings? Start with the following…..

Invest in your own music

As an artist, it is in your best interests to invest in your own music. That means you have to make means to pay for your studio time.

Studio recordings are often tedious and the costly side of the music business but this is a good investment on your part especially long-term. You can expect to cover costs for the following:

  • Studio Time
  • Engineer Fees
  • Producer Fees (or you buy instrumentals from beatmakers)
  • Session musicians (Instrumentalists and backup singers)
  • Mixing
  • Mastering

If you were signed to a record deal, the label would invest and cover the above costs to produce your music. But you would have to relinquish your master recordings.

They (the label) fund the recordings but they own the product when completed.  

So what happens if I want to release my single or album commercially?

Opt for a licensing or distribution deal instead

When you own your master recordings you can negotiate a better deal with the labels and you would earn gross margins as opposed to royalty points.

Instead of signing a typical standard record deal you can license your music to a label for promotion and distribution.

With a licensing deal, you still own your masters (you paid to record your album remember?) but you will be giving the label the permission to exploit the recordings for a fixed period (usually a few years).

If you have deep pockets and are risk-averse, you can do a distribution only deal which allows you to earn up to 85% gross margin on each sale (CD, download, streams) but you would still retain 100% of your masters.

Final Thoughts

Most record deals are drafted in favour of the labels and not the artist. The labels prefer to own the master recordings because financially it is more lucrative.

But as an artist, owing your masters is a big deal because you would control the rights and long term you would be better off.

If you have any questions, thoughts and opinions I would love to hear them, please comment below.