Regardless of what you think about who's right and who's wrong in the Taylor Swift v. Scott Borchetta/Scooter Braun family feud, Swift has put in the open one of the key issues for creators the digital era: Artists want to own their recording masters (and the rights attached to them!).
Swift's claim is not new. Over a decade ago, at Midem, Chuck D from Public Enemy was asked what he would say to Jay-Z who had just been appointed President of Dej Jam. "Give me back my masters," was the answer.
So far, most labels have rejected such requests. It's not hard to see why. One of the arguments is that they have helped finance these works and therefore, by virtue of who pays owns, they own the masters and it's the rights to masters that brings value to their companies. However, a more subtle approach would be to say that labels and artists are joint shareholders in the venture, since it was artists' creative endeavours that made these works exist in the first place.
Labels often argue that since most artists have not been able to recoup the investments made by labels, it is normal that said labels hold on to these masters to recoup their investments. Putting aside creative accounting, this is a short-term view. If you have not been able to recoup your investments in 20 years, what makes you think that you ever will?
Artists want their masters
I remember speaking to a veteran executive who used to work for a major company and was trying to help artists he signed to the major in the 70s to reclaim their masters. And the answer was, without exception, 'We don't do that'. It did not matter to them that the recordings were not even available for streaming or download and that they had no plans to make them available. The answer was always no.
He mentioned the case of a specific Nashville-based artist that I happened to like but could not find on any streaming platform -- save for YouTube -- who wanted to re-claim some momentum by re-releasing his recordings on vinyl and make them available to streaming platforms, but there too, the answer was no (the recordings are still unavailable, except on YouTube).
For artists this has become a crucial point of friction with labels. Masters are part of who they are, it's their music DNA, and they want to control their destinies, in addition to be able to earn more than their (recoupable) artist share.
A fair measure
Labels should treat artists like adults in the room and acknowledge their contribution to the value of the companies they have recorded for. And build a different relationship. Imagine the attractiveness of contracts that would say from the outset that after 20 or 25 years of exploitation by the label (or even less), the rights to the masters would be handed back to the artists. Many of the new music companies actually have such clauses. It's a fair measure and it also make economic sense in that they provide a real incentive for the artists.
The other option, which would be like an atomic option, would be to legislate. Take Canada: As part of the copyright review this year, Bryan "Run To You" Adams, made a deposition before a House of Commons committee asking for a 25-year reversion clause to be added to the country's copyright law. WIPO's Convention for the Protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms and Broadcasting Organisations from 1961 could also be amended to include a clause stating that creators will own their recordings after 25 year of exploitation.
There is also another issue that Miss Swift did not raise but would have been perfectly within her rights to do: If Big Machine, her former label, is worth $300 million, how much of that value is owed to Swift's recordings? A big deal I suspect. And how much did Swift get from the transaction? Zero, indeed.
Bring artists to the table
Sounds fair? Probably does in the land of the free market, but at a time when valuations and transactions are multiplying, it is still striking that the economic agents who have contributed to bringing value to music companies in the first place -- the creators -- do not have a seat at the table when the companies they have recorded for or published with get sold.
When Sony/ATV acquired EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV's top executives shared $200 million as a post-transaction bonus. How much of that money went back to the songwriters who "built" the value of EMI Music Publishing? Yes, zero!
Time for a fairer music eco-system.