Who Owns What?

   I was talking to a new client this week about music licensing opportunities for a song of his. I told him that many music supervisors for film and TV want the instrumental as well as the track with vocals. That’s one of several reasons to get an instrumental mix for any project you’re working on in the studio. Having an instrumental track to practice or perform with are two more reasons.

   The song in question had been recorded at another studio (let’s call them Studio Creepy), and my client told me that Studio Creepy said that they, not my client, owned the instrumental version of his song. This surprised me, since any work I do for clients, whether it’s recording, arranging, or even tweaking the music or lyrics, I consider a “work for hire”. You’re paying me for my services, therefore you own the final result, including the instrumental track. It’s pretty unusual for a studio to consider the instrumental track their possession, but that’s what Studio Creepy did.

   When negotiating for their services, producers often request and get a share of eventual sales, or a share of the song itself. Sometimes this is in lieu of payment, sometimes in addition to payment, but this tends to happen more with big projects funded by labels. More and more, DIY artists are recording at smaller studios like mine. These projects have smaller budgets, often funded completely by the artist. I’ve heard several cautionary tales about artists who were initially told what their project will cost, then find out somewhere along the line that the producer/engineer thinks he owns a portion of the recording. This may happen when the artist has found a licensing opportunity or other way to monetize the recording. I’ve seen sudden ownership disputes cause licensing and publishing opportunities to fall through, and I’ve even seen artists go back in the studio to re-record songs with different musicians/engineer etc. in order to ensure that they own the rights to the recording.

    Another potential problem: sometimes an artist completes a recording, then decides afterward to add tracks or remix at another studio. To do this they need to get the original tracks from the first studio. Finding and sending the original files can take some time, so it’s very reasonable for the first studio to charge you for the time it takes to do this. But some studios simply refuse to send you your files, saying that they own part of the recording, and/or quote you an outrageous price to release your tracks.

    The solution here is simple: make sure before you embark on any recording project that you are clear with your producer or producer/engineer who will own the final master recording, including the instrumental tracks. Many studios and producer/engineers operate like I do: we consider your project a work for hire, so you own 100% of it. But there are a few creepy producer/engineers out there, and you can avoid a lot of potential stress and financial heartache by finding out exactly who owns what before you step into the studio.

© 2015 Tom Manche/Studio X