Kanye West’s latest Twitter rant has re-ignited the debate about whether or not it is better to own your masters
Kanye West’s thumbs are at it again. Over the past few days Kim Kardashian’s husband has been tweeting like he’s the new Black Panther and Twitter is his version of vibranium. If you are not caught up here is a quick recap. Yesterday, the 15th of September, North’s dad began one of his customary Twitter rants lamenting his relationship with Universal Music Group and explaining how he was being blocked from buying back the masters to his music by a series of contracts he had signed. He then went ahead and posted 10 of the contracts in question, called himself the new Moses, compared the music industry to a modern day slave ship and posted a video of himself urinating on one of his Grammy awards.
Trust me … I WONT STOP pic.twitter.com/RmVkqrSa4F— ye (@kanyewest) September 16, 2020
The gist of West’s complaint is that musicians pour their blood sweat and tears into their craft only for a company owned by faceless old white men in foreign countries to profit from it. All of this is thanks to contracts artists sign which cede ownership of their work to those companies. When artists try to buy their masters back from these companies, they are met with a whole bunch of obstructions. On the surface of it West’s crusade sounds very high minded and noble but what are one’s masters and what does it mean to actually own them?
In a nutshell, your ”masters” are the rights to the original recording of a song or album. Typically what will happen is that when an artist signs with a record label they will sign away the rights to their master recordings in exchange for an advance or some large upfront sum of money.With the rights to the master recording a record label can make money if a song gets used in a movie or game or almost anywhere else. In addition to that the label will generally also take a piece of revenue generated from things like tours, brand partnerships and merchandising. Add that to marketing and promotional budgets that the label will often require the artist to recoup and what often happens is that the royalties that come back to artists begin to look like pennies compared to the revenue they have generated.
Speaking to the Washington Post back when Taylor Swift was having similar drama with her record label, music lawyer at the UCLA School of Law Susan H Hilderley said the practice of signing over one’s masters as “nothing out of the ordinary… [they’re] the kind of terms … you would expect for somebody who was an unknown artist when she signed,” explained Hilderley.
Swift’s fight kicked off last year when Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun bought the company that owned her masters for $300 million (almost R5 billion). In response Kanye’s frenemy found a loophole in which she could re-record her entire catalogue and thus own the masters to the re-recorded work.
90% of the record contracts on the planet are still on a royalty A standard record deal is a trap to NEVER have you recoup, and there’s all these hidden costs like the “distribution fees” many labels put in their contracts to make even more money off our work without even trying.— ye (@kanyewest) September 16, 2020
One’s masters can be incredibly lucrative which is why companies are often loath to give them up. Disney and others, for example, made millions from Solomon Linda’s Mbube while Linda’s descendents found themselves poor. In a sense, owning one’s masters is a little bit like owning land in that they can be a generational wealth building tool. Just as with land however, owning your masters is not a guarantee of riches.
The idea of ownership often sounds nice when billionaires like Kanye West and Jay-Z are preaching it but ownership is often a rich man’s game. In a piece on Medium.com about the pros and cons of signing with a record label, entertainment attorney and Hip-hop professor Karl Fowlkes makes the point that record labels can play a pivotal role in securing an artist’s success.
“Only a certain type of an artist has the work ethic or patience to be an independent artist or sign an advantageous major label deal. It takes time, fronting your own money and developing relationship equity. Not every artist is built for that,” said Fowlkes.
Radio is still a big part of becoming a successful artist in this and many other countries. Good luck trying to get onto radio without a label. Record labels have a lot of clout when it comes to awards, which almost always boost an artists profile. Record labels invest millions into tour support, recording, artist development and video production and for the label that money is an investment not a gift. Sure you could be like the rapper Russ and build an entirely independent empire but remember his output was also phenomenal and not everyone operates like that.
These are things artists need to consider when deciding on whether or not they want to own their masters. For most new artists, money is hard to come by and being independent is expensive. Furthermore, you may just not care about handling all the admin that comes with being an independent artist. As with working at a company instead of being an entrepreneur, there is a certain amount of safety and support that comes with accepting label money and just getting on with the business of making music. There are dangers with that too and you should always have an independent lawyer scrutinise your contracts.
Owning your masters gives you freedom and ownership of your own work. You get to decide how and when it’s used and who gets to eat off of it and that can be incredibly profitable. Just remember that it took Kanye West around 20 years and becoming a billionaire before he could get to the position to have this debate. Taylor Swift had to sell 10s of millions of records before she could fight with her label about ownership and the fight over Solomon Linda’s masters was only (unsatisfactorily) resolved decades after his death. Earlier this year Lady Zamar weighed in on the debate after some Twitter users speculated that she didn’t own her music.
That said Kanye West has sparked an important conversation, especially for black creatives and for that he deserves all the retweets in the world.