Earlier this year, full details of a huge fire at the Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles in 2008 were publicised in a new story by The New York Times, who called the event “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business”.
In the fire, details of which had been covered up for 11 years, it’s been revealed that between 118,000 and 175,000 audio master recordings of Universal artists were destroyed for good. These included masters from the likes of Nirvana, Chuck Berry, The Who, Eminem, Joni Mitchell, Guns N’ Roses, Elton John, R.E.M. and many, many more.
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A master tape is the original recording of any given song or album, from which copies are made and distributed either digitally or physically on CD, vinyl and so on. The loss of a master tape – in simple terms – means that any future replication of any of these estimated 500,000 songs will come from a lower-quality copy and the original encapsulation of some of the most famous songs of a generation are lost forever in that form.
It was then revealed, a few weeks after the article was posted, that a number of Universal Music Group artists had sued their record label over losses relating to the destruction of their masters, a loss that they reportedly were never told about. Among those pressing charges are Soundgarden, Hole, the former wife of the late Tom Petty, and the estate of Tupac Shakur.
What the fire saw, then, was some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians losing the only original copies of some of their most treasured recordings. Recordings that belonged to their record label, and ones they would never get back. There’s a whole lot more where that came from, too.
Right around the time that the article disclosing the details of the Universal fire was released, another saga around master recordings was bubbling up, and it’s one that still rages on. In a post on her Tumblr page, Taylor Swift spoke about the sale of her former label Big Machine to notorious music manager Scooter Braun. Included in the purchase were the masters to Swift’s first six albums.
“For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work,” she wrote of her relationship with Big Machine owner Scott Borchetta. “Instead I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and ‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in. I walked away because I knew once I signed that contract, Scott Borchetta would sell the label, thereby selling me and my future. I had to make the excruciating choice to leave behind my past. Music I wrote on my bedroom floor and videos I dreamed up and paid for from the money I earned playing in bars, then clubs, then arenas, then stadiums.”
“This is what happens when you sign a deal at fifteen to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept,” she continued, before forcibly stating the importance of owning your masters. “Thankfully, I am now signed to a label that believes I should own anything I create,” she says of her new home at Republic. “Thankfully, I left my past in Scott’s hands and not my future. And hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation. You deserve to own the art you make.”
Since the deal for Braun to buy Big Machine went through, five new reissues of songs from Swift’s self-titled debut album have been announced, all released on Big Machine.
Obviously all this is perfectly inside the law, but it also highlights a system where young, often naive artists have a wad of cash waved in their face when dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s of their first label deal with no care (or potentially even knowledge) of the importance of who owns their masters, or what that can mean for their future. Unless a deal goes through where Swift decides to stump up what would be an astronomical amount of money for her masters, all manner of reissues, rarities compilations and Greatest Hits albums will undoubtedly pop up across the following decades. Or they could burn in a fire, of course.
It’s a bind Radiohead are also all too familiar with. Before their back catalogue was purchased by XL Recordings in 2016, a ‘Best Of’ album released without their blessing came out on former label Parlophone back in 2008, featuring songs from their first six studio albums, a catalogue that the EMI subsidiary owns all the masters of. It was a release the band were powerless to stop happening.
The seemingly endless tug of war over master recordings has fired back up this week, with De La Soul told fans not to stream or buy their music after negotiations to regain their masters from label Tommy Boy fell through. “Well friends, after 30 years of profiting from our music and hard work… and after seven long months of stalled negotiations, we are sad to say that we’ve been unable to reach an agreement and earn Tommy Boy’s respect for our music/legacy,” the group said in a statement.
“Tommy Boy says they are ‘not in the business of giving artists back their masters.’ We realise, there is a process in reclaiming ownership but we do not trust Tommy Boy in this process after so many years of disappointment. Therefore, our catalogue will not see the light of day by way of our involvement or consent,” they continued.
“This means, if you see De La Soul music/albums available for streaming or purchase anywhere, BE AWARE, all parties involved WILL profit but De La Soul WILL NOT benefit or earn deservedly/fairly. We really tried. More details to come.”
Undoubtedly, these kinds of revelations highlight a need for more accountability and openness from record labels when signing young artists for huge figures, and how the ins and outs of their agreement will affect their future revenue streams, but it’s also a note to new bands and artists about to sign their first deals, to be as aware and clued up as possible in order to not face these kind of painful conundrums if they happen to go on to become multi-million-selling world-beaters. Hey, everyone can dream.
In 1996, Prince was gave a quote about Warner owning his master recordings and it’s one that’s been referenced time and again in recent disputes. In true Purple One form, he said, simply, “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.