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Can't Shake It Off: A Guide to the Hidden Horrors of the Music Industry

Taylor Swift's master recordings dispute with Big Machine is just one a few easy pitfalls artists can fall into. Here, we explain the others.

by Rhian Jones
15 November 2019, 4:40pm

Taylor Swift at the 2019 MTV VMAs. Photo: Kristin Callahan/Everett Collection/Alamy Live News; Taylor Swift's Twitter post on the 14th of November 2019

Taylor Swift is fucked off. As she revealed on Thursday on Twitter, thanks to a contract clause, she says former record label Big Machine is restricting the use of her back catalogue, in live performances and an upcoming Netflix documentary (they've since responded). You see, the label own her master recordings. And that doesn’t leave very much material to work with, she claims. Like 'master rights', you may have heard other industry terms in news stories like these. As someone who's covered the business for a while, let me explain the basics to clear up some confusion.

First, what are masters?

When an artist signs to a major record label, they’ll typically sign away their master rights. That means any music released under that deal is essentially owned and controlled by the label. Sometimes, if artists have leverage and a smart team, those rights will be returned to them at some point and only licensed by the label for a period of time – the kind of agreement Stormzy was able to get after signing with Atlantic last year. Swift’s deal was clearly not so favourable. Some artists are even less fortunate – it’s not unheard of for new signings to make an album, only to be dropped before the music sees the light of day.

What’s an advance?

The thing that artists get in return for signing away those master rights is usually a nice big cheque, in the form of an advance. It's supposed to be used for living and personal costs (as opposed to an all-inclusive trip to Barbados) and recording and promotion. It’s not free money – advances are offset against future earnings, so an artist won’t get paid any money from their label until the advance has been recouped.

Thanks to the relatively low amount of cash to be made from recorded music, especially in today’s streaming age, the chance of that happening is quite low. Which is why while high advances might be trumpeted in the press as indicative of an artist’s success and potential, it’s usually just a sign of hyper-competitive labels engaged in a bidding war for a horse that may or may not win the race.

What does a ‘five-album deal’ mean?

Contract term lengths also sound exciting but in reality could mean being forced to continue working at a company you hate. A five (or whatever) album deal is at the option of the label, not the artist, so the label has the option to release five albums if they want to, or drop the artist at any point. Whereas the artist can’t clock off after three (or whatever) albums if the deal isn’t really working out for them. It’s almost certainly the reason why Frank Ocean dropped his visual album Endless to fulfil what many assume was a three album deal with Universal, sticking two fingers up to the corporate giant a day later by self-releasing Blonde.

How else can you get screwed over?

One more clause that enrages artist lawyers is to do with the slice of money a record label takes for manufacturing and distribution of a record. Back when CDs were a thing, there were high costs associated with releasing music – pressing plants, plastic cases, and artwork, etc. In the streaming age, there’s none of that. You press a button, you hear the music. But for artists who signed contracts in the pre-digital era, major labels might continue to pocket the percentage of cash that was previously used for manufacturing and distribution, and is now used for, well, lining their coffers. If the deal was signed a really long time ago, no mention of streaming in a contract might even mean that an artist earns no money from the format whatsoever.

Rhian Jones is a freelance music business journalist, and contributing editor at Music Business Worldwide, based in London.

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