Some of you may recall the bitter, highly publicised dispute between pop star Taylor Swift and her former manager Scooter Braun.

When Braun purchased Swift’s former label Big Machine last year, the spat once again hit the headlines, because it meant that Braun effectively owned the rights in the recordings of Taylor Swift’s early albums.

Swift promptly turned to her vast social media following to object to the fact that the rights to her music had been sold without her consent, to a buyer whom she actively objects to.

This is a result of the way in which the music industry has traditionally functioned: when an artist signs a record deal with a label (and especially with a major label) the label will habitually take ownership of the Master rights subsisting in the recordings of all records which are made during the term of this contract.

In short, this means that because of the contract she signed at the time, all of the rights in the recordings which made her a star belong to her label – and not to the artist. Although the labels usually have a contractual obligation to pay the artists a share of the profits they make (usually around the 20% for major labels and around 50% for indie labels), the artist has no control over whether these rights get bought or sold, or who ends up buying them.

While this is a long-established way of doing things in the music industry, it has recently come under fire by other high profile artists including Kanye West, who likened it to a form of slavery. West has been vocal on Twitter about his opinion of the way in which labels take ownership of artist’s masters, tweeting “This “Master” shit is outta CONTROL” and explaining to his followers that “When you sign a music deal you sign away your rights.  Without the masters you can’t do anything with your own music. Someone else controls where it’s played and when it’s played”.

Taylor Swift however chose to take the matter in her own hands, recently deciding to re-record her five first albums entirely, thereby creating new Masters which she owned, and not Big Machine/Scooter Braun. While she cannot prevent her old masters from being played and commercially exploited, she is leveraging the fact that she still owns her publishing rights (i.e. the rights subsisting in the underlying musical composition, which is owned by a song’s writer) to compete with her old label and release new, nearly-identical versions of her songs, which she claims will allow her fans to enjoy her music without allowing Braun or his label to benefit financially.

 Commentary

These two examples should serve as a poignant reminder that the music industry is a minefield of complex legal issues, which frequently ends up with an artist wishing they could turn back time and renegotiate the terms of a deal they once signed.

It is vital therefore as an artist, producer, or manager to fully understand the rights which you are being asked to sign away in a recording deal or publishing deal, and to take appropriate advice from your lawyer to make sure that you are not signing a deal which will come back to haunt you (and your twitter followers) for years to come.

If you need advice on a contract you have signed or have been offered, or just want some clarity about the ownership issues in the music industry, feel free to contact one of our specialist solicitors for a free initial consultation.

Written by Joshua Schuermann, Associate

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