In the world of music and ownership, there's lots of legal jargon to learn. One concept, "owning your masters", has been brought into the limelight recently thanks to global music icon Taylor Swift. Owning your masters is a concept that many don’t understand. 

There is quite a bit of legality around the distribution of music. Here, we seek to explain what a master truly is and whether artists own their own masters. Let’s start our music education.

What is a Master in Music? 

Simply put, a master in music refers to the original sound recording of the song or the album. This recording is where all the additional copies are made from. All duplicates are made from the master copy, which is the primary source. Anyone with a professional career in music, at some point should understand this important concept. 

What Does Owning Your Masters Mean?

Owning your own masters as an artist is a big deal because it gives you the legal right to decide how your music is used and distributed. Many artists don't own their own masters, and instead share rights and ownership with record labels and producers. Other artists are independent, and own their own masters.

Do Artists Typically Own Their Own Masters?

Rights ownership of a song is determined by a contractual agreement between the artist and, if they have one, their record label. 

The popularity of the artist, their network, and the funds they have access to are three factors that can determine whether an artist may negotiate use of a record labels resources is in exchange for the rights to their masters. This is especially true for up-and-coming artists who are just getting signed and need the exposure and distribution resources that a label can bring. This is what's known as a "record deal."

Record Labels as Owners

It’s very common for the record label to own the masters of a song or album. This is because record labels are established and can offer valuable resources to an artist. There are a few things for an artist to consider. 

  • Recording music can be costly for most artists as studio time does not come cheap. It also adds up quickly with the recording, editing, and reproduction of the music. By offering studio time for free or at reduced pricing, a record label can negotiate the rights to the produced music. 
  • Bringing exposure to the artist is another valuable perk. Often record labels have a much larger following than an artist. By exposing them to their radio contacts and the rest of the music industry, the artist will gain notoriety for their work. But they must give up how their work is used either partially or fully. 

This doesn’t matter whether the artist sells digital copies, puts their music on YouTube, or sells vinyl records. The term "masters" refer to only the original recording. 

Independent Artists as Owners

What does it mean to own your masters in music? Some artists don’t need a record label. That is why they are called independent artists. Often these artists don’t need the label as much as the label needs the artist. Any work that is individually recorded means the master, and copyright goes to the artist. 

What is the Difference Between Publishing Rights and Master Rights?

It’s very easy to get the master rights and the publishing rights confused because they go closely hand in hand. However, as a musician, it’s worth taking a minute to study the details and understand the difference between the two. 

The publishing rights refer to the song lyrics, composition, and melody of the song. The difference is the masters are the recordings of these songs. The best way to look at the difference is to look at Taylor Swift as an example. 

Taylor Swift did not own the masters of her music collection. A record label owned by Scooter Braun did. This means she didn’t have a say when it was played or how it was copied and distributed. However, she did own the publishing rights, which are the overall melody and lyrics. 

Because of this, Taylor Swift went back and re-recorded her music to create new original recordings. She owns the masters to the new original recordings.

Understanding Royalties and Payments for Master Recordings

When an artist owns their own masters, they are entitled to their own royalties. This means receiving payments from revenue made off of streaming services, radio, and other ways the music is reproduced and distributed. Royalties are a paid percentage that gets agreed upon during contracts that are made for the use of said music. 

When record labels own the music masters, the royalties are often split between the record label and the artist. In some cases, not much of the royalty goes to the artists because they negotiated a deal to help them on the front end of creating the music. Understanding the requirements and terms is key to knowing the payout. 

Copyrights and Licensing in Master Recordings

When artists own their masters, they also own the right to their copyright. This allows an artist to determine how the music is distributed and what different licensing agreements can be used. The artist has full control over the terms that are illustrated in any contractual agreement. 

Knowing Your Rights

As an artist or musician, it’s important to understand the different rights an artist may or may not be entitled to. Artists ultimately want creative control over their music.

Understanding what a masters is in music is the first step. This original recording brings all the raw elements of the first produced piece of work. From here, an artist can decide how it’s duplicated and used, giving them complete control of the work.