Whether you follow the music industry or not, it has been hard to avoid the ongoing saga that is Taylor Swift. There are hundreds of articles out there about all of the particulars and specifics of Taylor’s ongoing fight with Big Machine, the Carlyle Group and, most publicly, Scooter Braun. (Here’s one.). While relating to a super star who has a catalog worth $300,000,000.00 may be difficult, ownership of your art is infinitely relatable to musicians.
Let’s start with the basics. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on a traditional label recording agreement. When you sign a recording agreement you are agreeing to sell your recordings (the “masters”) to a label. They label will require you to deliver a certain number of records or albums over a certain period of time. In exchange they may pay you an advance (a loan against the money that is earned from those records) and will agree to pay you a certain percentage of the revenue that is earned from the exploitation (sales, streams, licenses etc.) of those records. That percentage will only be paid after they recoup all of the money that they have previously paid to you as an advance as well as amounts paid to record that music and oftentimes, to promote or market the records.
So that is how the money part of a recording typically works (more or less). The term of a recording agreement is a whole other animal.
Let’s use Ms. Swift as an example. Her original deal with Big Machine was to deliver 6 albums. She completed that delivery at some point in 2018. She recouped shortly thereafter (obviously). So she was free to go explore the market as a free-agent. But here is where it gets interesting and where many of our clients get confused. Just because the term of the recording agreement expired does not mean that the label gives up ownership of the records that were already delivered. That ownership is perpetual (aka forever). On top of owning the masters forever, Taylor’s recording agreement (as with most of them) had a restriction on re-recording of the masters. That means that for an extended period of time, Taylor cannot re-record any of the songs from the albums that are owned by the label. This restriction has led to the current and very public dispute with Scooter over whether Taylor can actually perform any of the songs owned by Big Machine/Scooter/Carlyle at the American Music Awards where Taylor is being honored for her legacy as a recording artist. Why would she be prohibited from performing these songs? Scooter and his squad were making the argument that the AMA’s will be recorded so that the re-recording restriction contained in her contract prohibits the performance. This has since been resolved and Taylor will be able to sing her heart out on all of her past hits at the award show.
Again, Taylor’s struggle is not exactly one that most musicians face. Most musicians do not experience a major venture capital firm (Carlyle) headed by one of the most public and powerful music industry moguls (Scooter, who also happens to be sworn enemy of Taylor’s), purchasing their legacy of master recordings for hundreds of millions of dollars. However, anyone entering into a recording agreement should know that they are selling, assigning and transferring the copyright and ownership of her recorded music to a third party. Accordingly, they will not own and certainly will not be in control of their past art.
For some, selling their art is not an issue. It is a centuries old practice that extends beyond music (think paintings, sculptures, movies etc.). However, for others it can be a tough pill to swallow. For those musicians who are aware and informed of the current financial model for the music industry, they know that owning their masters is not just artistically important but financially significant as well. So what is an artist to do?
First off and most importantly, know what you are signing. Find someone who has experience dealing with this fact pattern. Whether that is a lawyer or manager or just a musician friend, consult with them and ask questions. Further to that point, ask the people that you are considering signing with what their intention is. If the language of the agreement doesn’t match that intention, you should probably run away; quickly. Second, know that there is no longer just one type of recording agreement. The days of standard completely one-sided recording agreements are dead. While labels will always try to get the most out of any signing, musicians have options. There are license deals where you essentially license your masters to a label for a set amount of time. Once that time is over, the master revert back to you. There are deals to be struck with distributors. Distributors of music will fund artist projects without taking any ownership and simply recoup off of the streaming revenue that they are earning by distributing your music. There are a lot of carve outs and exceptions that can be drafted into a recording agreement that can solve for the situation that Ms. Swift has found herself.
If you are Taylor Swift today versus Taylor Swift at 15 you not only are ridiculously successful and rich but you are operating without a tremendous amount of leverage. Her new deal with Universal/Republic undoubtedly contains language that allows her to share in the ownership of her new masters or at the very least allots her the ability to buy them back at the end of her term. So while you may not have her catalog and leverage, you can at least arm yourself with knowledge, understanding and a team to help you navigate your way to Swift-like stardom!
Great question. With so many ways to get your music out to the public it should be easier to break into the music scene, right? Definitely Wrong!
We could write an entire book on the importance of your team as an artist. For the sake of brevity and sanity, let’s focus on networking and management for this post.
The number of individuals who post music to Soundcloud, YouTube, Facebook, ReverbNation, HypeMachine, Spotify, Pandora, MySpace (I think that site is still live), etc. is staggering. So while it is definitely easier to get your music on-line where it may eventually (randomly) be heard by the public, it remains just as difficult, if not more so, to actually get traction and make a career out of being a musician.
There is no one or best answer to this question. Unfortunately a lot of what permits an individual to “make it” in music depends on connections. So much of what happens in music is still based on who you know. While there are many stories of individuals grinding it out in coffee shops, selling cds out of their trunk, submitting demo after demo until, finally, someone with some clout (aka money) opens the magic gates to true exposure, the majority of musicians that have made it take a different route. Networking, schmoozing, pestering etc. are as important as great lyrics, production and stage presence. Going to panel discussions, meeting the right people or people that can lead you to the right people is hugely important. Please don’t mistake the necessity of having great music. You can be the best networker in the world and get your music in front of the exact right people, but if that music is not up to par, the door will quickly be closed.
Let’s assume your music is great and you just need the right people to hear it. What should you do? We at L4M consistently advise our clients to pick the best team members when embarking on a musical career. Try to find the right fit and figure out exactly who/what you need. A lot of artists assume they need a manager immediately. If the right manager is selected and he/she is utilized correctly by the artist, a manager can be an essential key for success.
Managers can quickly become a crutch or an excuse for an artist. Why am I not getting any gigs? Why am I not getting a publishing deal? My manager must not be doing something. While a good manager can secure some opportunities, a manager at the beginning of a musician’s career should be there to offer advice, tough love and help set up a plan for future success. Connections are a huge plus but having a level head and understanding the artist and his/her goals is equally if not more important.
Other key team members include a booking agent, lawyer and publicist. We could write long articles about the importance of each person, but in the very beginning of a music career, these people will most likely come with a certain modicum of success. L4M is obviously partial to lawyers being part of the team, but you will know when you need one (first deal, or band agreement or manager agreement). A good manager should be able to make introductions to all of the other team members you need. In fact, a good way to judge the skill set of your manager is to find out who he/she knows that can help build this team.
How do you find a good manager? Ask around. Don’t rely on websites (many of the best management teams don’t even have a website). Find an artist you admire and see who is on their team. Chances are that Scooter Braun isn’t going to take you on, but find out who he is taking on for clients. Those artists did not start with him as their manager. Reach out to people that know. Lawyers, publicists, other musicians should be your target when trying to find the best management fit.
Remember that there are two sides of a career in music: first and foremost the music followed closely by the business of music. If your music is great, your business skills and team need to be up to snuff. If your team is below par, your music will not get to the masses and you will sadly be lost in the (sound)cloud.