Earlier this year, Anita Baker did something extremely unusual for a musician. She told everyone to basically stop listening to her music. Yes, someone in a group of people who normally wants us to listen to their music requested we didn’t.
And what was the reason for this seemingly bizarre request? On March 9th this year, she explained it was because she was involved in a battle to get the rights back to her own masters. Allow me to piece together the information I have on this.
These days, a lot of record labels have started signing records for shorter periods of time. This typically involves the artist handing over the rights to their master recordings for a certain amount of time. Labels need the master rights so they can put copies on streaming platforms, download stores and the rest.
But this wasn’t the way in the days of physical media – record labels often demanded the master rights forever. Royalties were split 80/20 or even more heavily in favour of the label, and even breakages in vinyl were recouped from artists. No one complained too much because there was no other choice at the time and putting out music was much more expensive.
Baker would have signed most, if not all, her contracts in the 1970s and 1980s – meaning the old rules apply. Under a little-known US law, artists can obtain their masters back after 30 years – but the process is long, complicated and often doesn’t actually work.
By telling her fans to stop listening, Baker performed a masterstroke. She was reducing the value of those masters significantly. If no one’s listening, the rights to the masters mean very little – which gave her leverage over the label.
She’s now confirmed on Twitter that she’s had the rights to her masters officially returned and is now free to do whatever she wants with them. Which just leaves me with one question. As with the De La Soul debacle a few weeks ago, why do record labels still insist on such long contract terms?
It’s a change which cannot come fast enough…