What Are Masters and Why Do Taylor Swift & Other Artists Keep Fighting for Them?

Christopher Polk/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Taylor Swift arrives the 2019 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Arena on May 1, 2019 in Las Vegas.

An explainer and brief timeline of other marquee stars — from Prince to Frank Ocean and beyond — who have struggled to gain control.

As this week’s fracas between Taylor Swift and Big Machine label head Scott Borchetta has shown, ownership of an artist’s master recordings is a sensitive issue -- particularly with a catalog is as valuable as Swift’s. But the country-turned-pop superstar is far from the first musician to battle with her label over master rights.

A master is the original sound recording of a piece of music -- as opposed to the composition itself -- and whatever entity or person owns those rights exercises broad power over how that recording is used. Often in tandem with composition rights holder (the songwriters or a publisher who has purchased the copyright from them), the master rights holder has the power to grant third-party licenses for that recording -- from streaming and vinyl records to its use in film, TV, commercials and public performances. Proceeds from those licenses are then split between the owner of the master (who pays out a previously agreed-upon percentage of that revenue to the artist) and the composition's copyright holders.

There are a couple of reasons, then, why an artist would be keen to own their masters, which are almost always controlled by artist's label (in Swift’s case, Big Machine) in exchange for promotion and financial support during the recording process. Not only does that ownership allow the owner to collect on royalties for sales and uses of the master sound recording, but they exercise full control over how and where it is used. As such, labels haven't been known to give those rights up easily.

Just ask Swift. After declining to sign a new deal with Big Machine that she claims would have awarded her rights back to her masters one album at a time -- earning one old album for every new one she released -- the singer said Borchetta failed to notify her about the label's pending sale to Ithaca Holdings, whose majority stakeholders include A-list manager and so-called Swift "bully" Scooter Braun. Had she been informed of the sale ahead of time, Swift indicates she may have been compelled to make a counter-bid for her masters, which make up a significant portion of Big Machine’s total worth. (Borchetta has disputed various elements of Swift's claims here, including the proposed contract terms and when she found out about the Ithaca deal.)  

The history of major artists attempting to regain control of their masters is checkered and success often comes with a hefty price tag. Here are some of the more recent incidents where stars have made a play for those rights, both publicly and behind closed doors.

1993: Prince

Before Swift, Prince was the artist most known for battling with a record label over control of his master recordings. In his case, the label was Warner Bros. Records, which released the iconic artist's first 18 albums, including such monster hits as Purple Rain and 1999. With his frustration over a perceived lack of artistic control mounting, in 1993 The Purple One went public with his campaign by changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol (also known as the "Love Symbol") in hopes that the change would make the terms of his contract unenforceable. Once it became clear that his ploy wouldn’t work, the singer-songwriter began appearing in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek.

Upon exiting his deal with Warner Bros., Prince released his next album -- the aptly-titled Emancipation -- on EMI and his own NPG Records. In subsequent years he would go on to release music on a variety of different labels, from Arista to Columbia to Universal, and he even offered his 1997 Crystal Ball box set directly to fans via phone and internet preorders. After re-signing with Warner in 2014 to release new music, as well as a 30th anniversary edition of Purple Rain, he finally regained the rights to his master recordings released under the label after a more than two-decade standoff.

1996: Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson’s blockbuster deals with Virgin Records in the 1990s were arguably the shrewdest of that decade in music. The multi-platinum star made headlines with her 1991 contract that was worth a reported $40 million, but then doubled down with a subsequent 1996 deal reportedly valued at $80 million. That latter deal was not just worth twice as much in advances, but also awarded her ownership of her masters seven years after the end of the contract, which was fulfilled following the release of her 2006 album, 20 Y.O. Even for an artist of Jackson’s stature, this counted as an exceptionally rare coup.

2001: Courtney Love

Courtney Love’s battle with Universal Music Group erupted in 2000, when the label sued the rocker for refusing to deliver on five albums they'd contracted with her band Hole. The following year, Love counter-sued, claiming that the long-term record contract she had originally signed violated the California statute that says entertainers cannot be tied to any one company for longer than seven years.

That fight broadened when Love filed a second lawsuit against UMG -- as well as Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, her late husband Kurt Cobain’s surviving Nirvana bandmates -- in October 2001 for control of Nirvana’s master recordings. In addition to accusing UMG of cheating the band out of over $3 million in royalties, she claimed that its label Geffen Records was not the same one it had signed with in 1991 due to Geffen’s subsequent acquisition by Vivendi Universal. Love ultimately settled with UMG in 2002 without regaining the Nirvana master rights, though she has most recently sued the label again as part of a putative class-action suit over the Universal Studios backlot fire that allegedly destroyed the very master recordings she had once fought so hard to control.

2004: Jay-Z

Jay-Z’s ownership of his masters was won not through any court battle but rather as a condition of his signing a new contract with his label Def Jam Recordings -- this time as president and CEO of the company. Even though he left that post in 2007 and the next year launched Roc Nation as a joint-venture with Live Nation, under the terms of his employement agreement with Def Jam his masters reverted back to his control in 2014. The next year, he launched TIDAL, as the exclusive online platform to stream his music.  

2012: Metallica

Metallica leveraged their status as heavy metal gods with millions of albums sold for Warner Music Group subsidiary Elektra Records to sign a joint venture with WMG in 1994 that returned rights to all their master recordings in November 2012. Upon announcing that those rights had officially reverted back, the band unveiled their own label Blackened Recordings, which now handles all of Metallica’s releases via distribution agreements with WMG's Rhino in North America and UMG internationally.

2014: U2

In a 2014 interview with Billboard, U2’s former manager Paul McGuinness revealed that the rock icons had acquired 100% of the masters to all their work in a deal financed by Live Nation, with whom the band signed a 12-year deal in 2008.

2016: Rihanna

Following the creation of her own Westbury Road Entertainment imprint under the Roc Nation banner in 2015, Rihanna managed to acquire the masters of all her previous albums from her former label Def Jam. Though no price tag was reported, given the value of the Barbadian singer’s catalog the cost was no doubt formidable.

2016: Frank Ocean

In his own deal with Def Jam to puchase his masters (which also included him buying out the remainder of his contract), Ocean also won the right to self-release his platinum-selling 2016 album Blonde. In a subsequent interview with The New York Times, he described his relationship with his former label as a "seven-year chess game."

2019: David Johansen, John Waite, Southside Johnny, Paul Collins and Joe Ely

In February of this year, two class-action suits were filed against UMG and Sony Music by a number of prominent musicians, including New York DollsDavid Johansen and former Bad English frontman John Waite, for “routinely and systematically” failing to honor notices of termination aimed at regaining rights to their masters under section 203 of the Copyright Act of 1976. Under that section, artists are given the opportunity to terminate a label’s ownership of sound recordings beginning 35 years after their release.

In addition to their own claims, the plaintiffs -- which also include New Jersey blues-rocker Southside Johnny, former Nerves drummer Paul Collins and Joe Ely -- are also seeking declaratory relief that sound recordings can’t ever be considered “works made for hire,” which under the law would give labels rights to an artist's masters in perpetuity. As the plantiffs allege, that is exactly the argument UMG and Sony have made in refusing to honor their requests.