Why the music industry needs to remove the racist term “master recording”.

As protests across the country in the spring and summer of 2020 highlighted the systematic injustices Black Americans faced and continue to face, the music industry was one of many called on to take responsibility and take action on how a group of people were treated seize this is largely responsible for decades of profitability. While the industry’s unfair treatment of black Americans is long-standing and deep-rooted, a seemingly simple course of action is to stop all use of the term “master recording,” which may sound innocuous, but as detailed in diversityThe in-depth interview with Pharrell Williams from August 2020 is derived from the words “master and slave”.

For those who don’t know, the terms have long been used to distinguish between a source recording (the “master”) and copies made subsequently (the “slaves”), leading to ubiquitous use of both terms in many industry contracts Has. While these charged words have been normalized to indicate a dominant/submissive relationship, that doesn’t negate the weight they carry, especially in the context of the music industry.

For as long as the music business has existed, black artists have often been in a subordinate position to label executives, the majority of whom are white, even though their music is the vital resource on which this industry is founded. Digging deeper, considering that most of these performers have no control over or ownership of the underlying copyrights to their music, parallels can easily be drawn to how slaves had no autonomy over their lives as ownership was theirs was. Many of these artists, most notably Prince and Kanye West, have openly said their experiences in the music industry felt like modern-day slavery.

This business has been dominated by white men since its inception, so there’s an even more sinister sting in the already insensitive use of the term “master recording” in conjunction with the well-known exploitation of black artists. Artists like Williams have expressed unease at reading those words in their contracts and have called for changes.

As soon as I recognized the origins of the term, I established a policy within my company to no longer use the term “master” in our contracts, and to implement this change in all agreements we negotiate on behalf of our clients. Sony, Universal, Warner Music Groups and Sound Exchange have either removed or committed to removing this language from their form contracts and license requests; The Board of Directors of the American Association of Independent Music voted unanimously to likely remove this language from their contracts as well. While this is an extremely important step in the right direction for the entire industry, I am dismayed at the reluctance of other attorneys to embrace this change.

Some attorneys feel that removing the phrase “master recording” is unnecessary because few people interpret it negatively that they personally don’t feel the need to stop using it. This blatant and short-sighted disregard for the psychological and emotional impact that phrase can have on others speaks to exactly what many people have marched for in 2020: you can’t pry the word “master” from its roots in American Chattel Slavery, regardless of the other word with which it is combined. Therefore, using the term “master recording”, conscious of its racist beginnings, whether used maliciously or not, is microaggression. Words have an undeniable impact, and the continued use of this racist language reinforces the negative connotation of the term’s origin. There are many words that can be used in place of “master” and still have the same unique meaning, such as:

To be honest, many of my white male colleagues find it easy to dismiss the use of these words as “no big deal” if they’ve never been affected by them.

Whether the phrase offends a handful of people or thousands is irrelevant: it’s a blatantly racist term that needs to be removed from our industry’s vocabulary if we are to continue working to right our past wrongs. Sylvia Rhone, the first African-American executive director of a major record label, put it best when she said, “If even one person is bothered by it, we’ll take it out.”

I hope this sheds light on the problem – enough that more people can and will embrace this impactful change. Removing such language is a simple but meaningful step that can make our industry a more welcoming and inclusive space, and allow us to reaffirm the principle that music is for everyone – regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or background.

Dina LaPolt is the founder and owner of LaPolt Law, PC, one of the industry’s leading law firms and the only firm of its size founded and directed by a single female attorney. Dina is also a member of the Black Music Action Coalition’s Executive Leadership Council and was also one of the recipients of the 2021 Change Agent Award at their Music in Action Awards Gala.

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