What Does It Mean To Own Your Masters? 

Kanye, Taylor, Frank - there’s a lot of talk about the importance of owning your masters these days. Read our guide on how to remain in charge of your music and find out what being signed (to a major label) actually means. 

Written by Leni - October 15, 2020

At Amuse, our mission is to help independent artists accelerate their careers, on their own terms. We remain proud believers that all artists should own their masters and have the opportunity to build their music careers without having to sell the rights to their work. That’s why we letartists keep 100% of their rights, even if we sign them to our label. 

The music industry is broken, for artists of all sizes, and it’s why we wanted to fix it. 

Want to learn more about being in charge of your music career for real? Read on for our guide to owning master recordings and what being signed to a major label can actually mean.  

What is a master recording? 

A master recording is the official original recording of a song, sound or performance. Also referred to as “masters”, it is the source from which all the later copies are made. 

Why is it important to own my masters? 

As an artist, owning your masters gives you the legal rights to freely appropriate and maximize your money-making opportunities. With a master recording, you can license the recording to third parties, like TV shows, films, commercials or even for sampling use by other artists. If your master belongs to someone else, like the record label, the music producer or sound engineer, then they have the right to license out the recording (and collect the royalties). 

"A lot of artists, especially in the early days of their career, don’t realise that signing away your masters means selling the rights to their own work - sometimes for all future,” says Diego Farias, CEO and co-founder of Amuse. “That doesn’t always feel like a priority if you haven’t had your breakthrough yet, but even Taylor Swift and Kanye were beginners at one point in their careers. For Taylor, not owning some of her masters meant losing power over where and how that music was used, as well as kept her from performing songs live."

What is the difference between publishing rights and master rights?

The publishing rights refer to rights in a musical composition, words and music. The master is the sound recording. The difference is, a single musical composition (like lyrics) can feature in hundreds of different sound recordings (covers, remixes etc). 

Traditional label deals vs. licensing deals

In many traditional major label deals, an artist will have to sign away their master rights to the record label for a set period of time or the length of the copyright. This means that the artist is prohibited from releasing music with any other label, distribution partner, or even another artist for the period of the contract. It also means that any recordings made by the artist are owned by the label for this period, which can sometimes be forever. In return, the artist gets an advance on future royalties. 

A better alternative is a licensing deal (which is what we offer artists on our label roster), which “lends” your recordings to a label for a limited period rather than giving up your rights for the life of the copyright. After the license term is over, you regain full ownership of your music. By owning your master recordings, you get to stay in control of your career and work. 

Negotiating your rights

“It’s not uncommon to see new independent artists sign a contract without fully understanding what rights they are giving away,” entertainment lawyer Chloe Martin-Nicolle tells us. “You’re better off taking some time to understand the deal by talking to someone and negotiating a deal so it works for you."

Understand the term: How long are you potentially locked into the deal for? How many options does the label have? How long do they have the rights to your music for?

Understand royalty payments: There is usually an element of recoupment so you won’t see a royalty straight away. Know what is and isn’t recoupable.

What can the label do for you? Are they investing in marketing and publicity? What can they do outside their home territory? Is it worth assigning your rights in an age where you can do this independently?


Got more questions? Read our free 48-page Digital Career Guide for DIY Artists for more pro tips on how to manage your independent music career.

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