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“Can a label own the masters based on an email conversation?”

Hey there! I landed on your nice blog and started reading. I’m grateful I found some nice pieces of advices! I bother you a bit more, hoping you can help me – that would be so much appreciated if you have some time to give me your opinion. Here’s our story:

I work as an A&R for a new label. We signed in February of this year an artist, with proper contract. The contract transfers us the rights for a vinyl EP. Let’s say, that on this EP the strongest track is called “Karr”. Now we were ready/going into test-pressing on last Tuesday morning. But had to stop it all. Why?

Because a few hours sooner a big known label in the Techno industry *outed* a post on their Facebook page, promoting a digital V.A. in which we were stunned to see OUR main title track of EP being listed as one of the V.A. tracks.

It appears that ‘our artist’ had been in touch with that label during 2015-2016 and had discussed a possible release for 2016. Which never took place. Basically, that label has remained sitten (sleeping on that track they now outed) for two years.

Without any renewed expressed interest after December 2016, four months later and without warning, they sent the masters to our artist per email six days ago! Thing is, neither the artist neither us never planned that previous label would have the balls to do such! That’s crazy!

We immediately emailed that label, stating the artist had signed with us. Their defense line is the following. They state they own the masters because of the fact they had previous exchange of emails (that can be indeed be seen as a kind of an agreement), but they were discussing a release for 2016. Again: never took place in two years.

My question is: can a label state ownership over the masters, basing themselves on fact they had received the pre-master (-6db Etc.) and that, *this*, is considered as “transferring” the copyrights? In my knowledge, that agreement would only be valid on the discussed year (2016!) and not after that. Are they allowed to ‘further’ exploit a file, never saying anything in four months? Just sending it over “mastered” and boom! Six days later they post and promote it?? Not asking for any renewed consent of the artist? (poor dude, he almost did a heart attack.. as he was super happy to work with us.. )

We really care for that artist and the all situation seems clearly abusive. but it’s a big, big label.

We suggested they replace the file and keep the ‘Name’ as it’s only in pre-order on their bandcamp page (for now, will be released on 26th of April). We thought showing them we were okay to try limit the hurt to their image (cuz that’s what they fear – such a big label doesn’t want to be ‘in fault’ publicly. so they don’t want to retire the track.. first people could push play, now this morning i just noticed we can’t anymore.. good sign for us?)

What do you think? We have no money to afford a lawyer, so all we have is state our points and tell them that we think no label can say that they own a track indefinitely (time) if NO contract.. and if NO release in the planned period – in what they state is their “agreement” (exchanged emails...) right? I mean – if so, means that every pre-master we get ONCE = would bind an artist to a label lifelong? WTF?

Sam

Sam, thanks for sharing your story. I’m not a lawyer nor an expert in this field, so before taking any legal actions I suggest consulting with one.

As far as I know, the fact an artist sending a demo saying “I would like to release it on your label” does not allow the label to actually release it. It’s basically just a letter of intent indicating an interest of one party in the deal, but not the final agreement.

Typically, most contracts work this way: “everything that not clearly specified in the contract is not allowed”. This is why we see 20-paper contracts specifying every tiny and obvious detail. A notarized email conversation could have a legal power, but all terms of the deal have to be written very precisely. So unless your artist and that big label specifically discussed having a release on a compilation, I don’t think they had rights doing so.

Don’t start a lawsuit: it might be a long, exhausting, and expensive process with a unpredicted result. And if your and that big label are registered as legal entities in different countries, that means you would need an international court which makes things even more complicated and expensive. It’s just not worth it.

I would suggest trying to solve this situation peacefully. Ask them politely to pull-off the compilation from the stores or to remove that track individually. We at JOOF had to shut down a release once too, so I know for the fact it is possible. Your argument is simple: you have the contract signed by that artist, they don’t.

If for some reason they won’t agree on shutting down the release, ask them to deal a sub-licensing contract. In other words, to pay you and the artist a fixed amount of money in exchange for allowing them to release that track legally. This is a standard deal in the industry.

“Label re-released a track without my consent” 

As a measure of last resort, at least tell people the truth. Share this story (with the real names) in public. This probably won’t change anything, but it’ll bring some justice.

I’m keen to know what other label managers and artists think about it?

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This post is a part of the “Advice” series. I’m happy to advise on such topics as music production, sound design, performance, management, marketing, and career advice in the music industry and beyond. Send me your questions, too.

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