opinion Opinion September 6, 2019

What’s the actual value in ‘owning’ masters?

What’s the actual value in ‘owning’ masters?
Image: Soundgarden / Facebook

Soundgarden were told their masters were not lost in the Universal 2008 vault fire.

They don’t believe it, though, and have filed a lawsuit demanding that UMG give them “key discovery evidence” proving their masters are safe. They are also demanding that UMG hand over information that shows exactly which artists lost which masters.

Lawyers representing Tupac Shakur, Tom Petty, Steve Earle and Hole have also requested proof their masters were not lost.

Interestingly, UMG is refusing to offer such an open book policy, claiming that Soundgarden’s attorneys “have entered desperation mode” in asking for such a thing.

“Now that it’s been established that the fire never affected the availability of their clients’ music nor impacted those clients’ compensation, what exactly is their motivation?,” UMG asked in a statement.

They claim the exercise is merely a meritless fishing expenditure “for a new angle and new plaintiffs.” Basically, the lawyers are asking UMG to provide their accounting and stock taking so they can simply look for other cases to stack on. Soundgarden’s masters may not have been lost, but someone’s were.

Soundgarden’s attorney Ed McPherson explained. “There was a huge fire. It burned something. UMG sued NBCUniversal and its own insurer, recovering what was reported to be over $100 Million for irreplaceable masters that were destroyed. UMG has told everyone that nobody lost any masters. Then, what in the world did they get the $100 million for?”

This is an excellent point, although it does somewhat back up UMG’s claims that Soundgarden are being used as a red herring. McPherson is right in pointing out the discrepancy between UMG claiming no losses publicly, then literally claiming monetary losses through their insurer.

UMG’s own statement that the fire “never affected the availability” of the music nor the compensation afforded the artists suggests that, in real monetary terms, the loss of the physical master tapes didn’t matter. At all. If Soundgarden don’t lose any future royalties from dozens of tapes in a vault suddenly disappearing, then it can be assumed that UMG won’t either. As McPherson asked, what in the world did they get the $100 million for? Even if everything burned. The resale value of the magnetic tape?

This leads to the actual question: where does the value in these masters actually lie? The exhaustive New York Times investigation that alerted the wider world to this vault fire explains the lost from a technical point of view, infusing this with the more romantic view that by losing the purest sound recording of something, you are losing shades and shapes from key historical documents.

This is undoubtedly true. But even if the original tape of ‘Black Hole Sun’ burnt up like a dying star, that song and its commercial value hasn’t changed one bit. Soundgarden are right to challenge the reason for the $100M insurance pay-out, even if they are coming at it from a different angle. Those master tapes have been grossly overvalued.

We’re talking strictly commercial value here, of course. As technology marches forward, various reissues of catalogue music means that what we hear is getting closer and closer to the sonic perfection of the original masters. It’s a shame that, for so many key recordings, this sonic progress will be halted forever by the loss of the master tapes.

But the value, in pure financial terms, of owning masters is being able to exploit them. UMG will still be able to reissue, repackage, repackage the hell out of Soundgarden’s masters for decades to come: digitally, in expensive cardboard boxes with glossy booklets, through some future VR thing being tested in a San Francisco lab somewhere, when CDs become cool again in 2025 – however they wish, really. They have lost nothing, from a commercial standpoint.

Completists will argue that studio outtakes, various embryonic versions of now-famous tunes, and unreleased sessions are, if burnt, lost to time. This is true, and such exhaustive mining often provides a deeper understanding of an album, or of a period in an artist’s life.

The full forty-minute session for the 1965 Beach Boys hit ‘Help Me Rhonda’ is a key document in understanding the band’s broken dynamics at the time.

A drunken Murray Wilson, the domineering father, manager and task-master of the band, staggers into the studio, takes over the session and derails everything. He berates the singing, wrestles Brian for control of the desk, and indulges in, as New Jersey’s WMFU put it, “psychodrama, scat singing and weepy, abusive melodrama.”

Half an hour into the tape Murray slurs, “Brian, I’m a genius too” and his entire psyche splits open like a Cadbury Creme egg. It’s fascinating stuff.

All of which is to say, master tapes often contain important relics other than the music itself. Who knows what nuances will never be explored due to this fire, what information is hiding in these tapes that could have recast an artist and their work in a vastly different light?

This type of lost history is a tragic thing, but unless we know exactly what is lost and what value it contains, it is a pure thought experiment; a hypothetical based on imagination only.

And it’s certainly not worth $100 million.

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