A master recording is the first recording of a song from which subsequent copies are made from or derived from. Typically just called “masters”, these recordings can be made up as traditional discs, as data for streaming, or as tapes.
Traditionally, the music industry structures a deal where the label owns the masters of all songs and not the actual artist. In exchange for signing over master rights, the artist is given a stipend and a royalty percentage from all profits from the master music. The royalties will start to roll in after the record label earn back their advance.
Why it’s important to own your masters? For many artists, these record deals prohibit artists from releasing any records elsewhere with another label or partner. Recordings made with the artists on the contract are owned by the label, with some record labels owning them forever. This traditional setup has not been great for up-and-coming artists because it means that in return for the meager advance that they get, they have no creative freedom or rights since the artist has essentially signed them away through their “deal”. Sometimes artists might be able to buy their master songs back if the label has recouped their advance. However, this expense can be prohibitive and unimaginably unaffordable.
By keeping your masters, you keep creative control and you’re free to release your music and collaborate with any entity you see fit. When signing to a record label, put a spotlight on the importance of owning your master recordings. By keeping masters, you keep your rights, autonomy, creative control, and financial independence.