Moses Avalon is one of the nation’s leading music-business consultants and artists’-rights advocates and is the author of a top-selling music business reference, Confessions of a Record Producer. More of his articles can be found at www.mosesavalon.com.
The Mayan calendar claims that the world will come to an abrupt end in 2012. We have all heard the hype and suffered through the movies. But even if that prediction falls flat, the pop-music business may still experience its own armageddon shortly thereafter. Are these just the ravings of another music-industry expert flying off the rails? Let’s see.
In 2013, many classic recordings are scheduled to slip out of the control of their major labels. No, I’m not referring to odd recordings that no one actually collects. This list of records includes some of the top-selling albums of all time (abbreviated list below)!
Even though music-business insiders have been dreading this for years, the New York Times finally decided that it was a newsworthy enough subject and published a piece a few weeks ago about this issue (called “termination of masters”). Unfortunately, the reporter they assigned seemed to a have limited understanding of how the music business really works, as well as of copyright in general. In his article, he kept interchanging the word “songs” with “master recordings,” which littered his post with inaccurate statements like, “artists can claim their songs in 2013.”
Though this New York Times piece may be new info to outsiders, it is a subject that has long been on the minds of those concerned with the recording industry and artist rights. I reported about the subject in a 2008 Moses Supposes article. Here’s the reprint for your perusal:
Mayan meltdown at majors
The hot topic for the American Bar Association conference in 2008 was “termination of masters,” a little raison d’etre in the copyright act that supposedly levels the playing field for authors who are often at a disadvantage to the big, bad publisher (or record company, in this case). The copyright act states that after 35 years, the license or transfer of a work must “terminate” and revert back to the original author.
With so many variances in the law, we really need an iPhone countdown app to determine which master rights are soon to go bye-bye. But due to several exceptions, the albums that are immediately affected are those released in the US from 1978-1979. So in the year 2013, the following albums may no longer be property of their labels:
The Wall (Pink Floyd)
Van Halen (Van Halen)
Off the Wall (Michael Jackson)
Highway to Hell (AC/DC)
Joe’s Garage (Frank Zappa)
Tusk (Fleetwood Mac)
London Calling (The Clash)
Rust Never Sleeps (Neil Young)
Darkness on the Edge of Town (Bruce Springsteen)
Man the Torpedoes (Tom Petty)
The Kids Are Alright (The Who)
Some Girls (The Rolling Stones)
Fear of Music (Talking Heads)
Rickie Lee Jones (Rickie Lee Jones)
Basically my entire vinyl collection.
Oh, I almost forgot — Breakfast In America by Supertramp. (They can have that one.)
As you can see, this is not an insignificant list, and this list is in no way complete.
Though this may sound like a victory for the artists, keep in mind that without the threat of label litigation, we will likely see a de-facto public-domain-i-zation (I made that word up) of these masters. Artistically, this might be cool because now people can do wacky remixes and P2P them free of lawsuits. But it also means a complete deterioration of the one area that labels have been relying on for the revenue that it takes to invest in new artists: catalog.
And artists too?
Yes! To make matters worse, it’s not only the labels that could get the shaft here but the artist as well. You see, anyone who worked on the recording is considered “an author” and can apply for a “termination of [their] rights.” Anyone. Right down to the hanger-on who played the tambourine because he dropped off weed at the studio and someone said, “Hey, want to jam on the record?”
Imagine being a top heritage artist; you get your masters back and you’re looking forward to making a fresh deal for your classic recording, only to have an army of ex-entourage that you left in the wake of ascension shaking you down. Even if you’re legally in the right, the cost of litigation could bury you.
Several arguments have been forwarded to further define exactly who exactly “the author” is, but so far, each one seems to have just enough merit to pass summary judgment. The fact is that no one knows for sure exactly what or who “the author” will be in this context.
For my anarchist readers, who are presently wringing their hands with glee, I’ll say this: it’s one thing to want labels to suffer because they’re such greedy bastards, and it’s quite another to want to see a complete erosion of classic recordings and financial infrastructure.
This is only a small article on what is going to be a very, very scary topic over the next couple of years. Stay tuned.
What would you do if your label, which claimed that, after selling millions of CDs, you still owe them money, was going to lose rights to the masters? Would you take them back or renew your contract with them? I’ll give you some tips in the next piece on this important subject. What do you think is in the artist’s best interest? Post your answer below. Here’s a clue: it’s not the obvious answer.