Controlling the Masters

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This is Celia Hirschman with On The Beat for KCRW.

Multi platinum superstar Garth Brooks announced last week that he's just made a deal to sell his entire catalog exclusively at the retail giant, Wal Mart, and the associated Sam's Club stores. This is the first time a major recording artist has chosen to release all his music exclusively through one outlet. Brooks was able to do this because, when he ended his recording contract with Capitol Records in June, he negotiated for his catalog to revert back to him. So now, Garth Brooks can make whatever deal he wants, with whomever he wants. He walks away with his master recordings, which in the music business, is the whole ballgame.

The new music business objective is to design your own reality. British rock band Radiohead just announced they were going into the studio to record their 8th album, though they were currently labeless. They finished their contract with Capitol several months ago. They're not worried. These guys can write their own ticket. Every rock label in America wants them. Now that's what I call owning the market.

For bands like Radiohead, there are serious advantages to making the record first, and negotiating the label deal afterwards. It's the ultimate music business power position. The artist is assured of complete artistic control. No deadlines hanging over their head, no rush to save a corporations' bad sales quarter, and no one to tell them what to do. Just look at Prince. His last recording was self-financed, and initially self released, with inventive marketing and outstanding visibility. Few labels could have created such a mass of momentum for an artist on their 25th release. The album, &quotMusicology;" was marketed like the true inventor he is. It landed him right back in the drivers' seat of his own career, with a sizeable advance care of Sony Music.

With the record business changing as rapidly as it is, the old contract model just won't do. In the past, new recording artists signed with major labels for the opportunity to record up to 7 records. That would often make their business relationship last ten to eighteen years. But in today's rapidly changing climate, artists are interested in signing shorter deals, with better terms. They see changes in the retail environment, in music marketing and in digital downloading, and they too want flexibility in their business. They want to be on the cutting edge of culture, not tethered to the rules of a large corporation. So many artists are challenging the old contract ideology and attempting to negotiate new deals. They're hoping to deliver fewer releases with shorter lengths involved. They're looking for larger splits of the pie and for their masters to revert back to them, when the contract ends.

The independent labels rare pay significant advances, so they've been quick to adjust their contracts to meet the requests of their bands. And superstars always command contractual respect. The economics dictate it. But it's really the young bands signed to major labels that lack the sizeable power to negotiate a better deal. The best they can hope, is to become as successful as Radiohead one day, to write their own ticket.

With recording contracts ending every day, only time will tell what new cottage industries will be born, with artists' taking control of their own masters.

This is Celia Hirschman with On The Beat for KCRW.