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What's the value of a master recording? Buffy Sainte-Marie and others weigh in

Buffy Sainte-Marie performs at the Americana Music Honors and Awards show Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. Buffy Sainte-Marie was frustrated when she saw her name among hundreds of musicians whose master tapes might've burned in the 2008 fire on Universal's Los Angeles backlot. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark Zaleski

TORONTO — Buffy Sainte-Marie was frustrated when she saw her name among hundreds of musicians whose master tapes may have burned in the 2008 fire on Universal Studios’ Los Angeles backlot.

She wasn’t so concerned about her own work, but dismayed by the loss of original recordings from other legendary musicians, many who died years ago. It reminded her of how little the music industry respects the cultural contributions of its performers.

“It’s the cherry on the cake of (crap), that fire is,” Sainte-Marie added using an expletive.

A decade after the fire, Sainte-Marie had no idea Universal believed original copies of her work might’ve perished in the flames. Nobody from the label contacted her, she said, and an extensive report published last month in the New York Times was the first she’d heard of it.

“The music business is not about the music, it’s about the business, so I’m not at all surprised that whoever is responsible at Universal tried to hush it up,” she added.

Sainte-Marie said original copies of three albums she made under ABC Records and MCA Records in the mid-1970s are probably gone.

She doesn’t let it get to her though, partly because she’s turned much of her attention away from the music industry and towards social activism, philanthropy and her latest work with the Creative Native Project, a mentorship program that links established artists with Indigenous youth looking to gain knowledge.

She feels worse for other artists who believe their tapes were among the 100,000 masters engulfed in the flames. Canadians Bryan Adams and Sum 41 lead singer Deryck Whibley have said they believe some of their work was destroyed.

Universal says the Times “overstated” the losses in their report, but the label’s CEO pledged “transparency”‘ and “answers” for the artists on the status of their master recordings.

Negative experiences with music executives framed Sainte-Marie’s career in the 1960s. The budding young performer got a crash course in the lack of control most musicians have over their work when she famously sold the rights for her 1964 song “Universal Soldier” to another music industry player for $1 in a contract written on a napkin. The single went on to be recorded by country act the Highwaymen and British pop singer Donovan.

It took Sainte-Marie a decade before she could repurchase ownership of the song for $25,000.

“I never gave away my publishing again,” she said. “Eventually I started insisting that I own the masters, which was unheard of.”

Sainte-Marie began stowing her masters away in a safe place, but she acknowledges not every artist has that power.

A few weeks ago, Taylor Swift drew attention to her own master recordings when she launched a public battle over their ownership. Under a contract she signed as a teenager, masters for her first six albums are owned by Big Machine Records, which is in the midst of being sold to a company owned by Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun.

Swift objected to her masters landing in Braun’s hands for several reasons, including that he’d posses control over how they’re used.

While a label owning an artist’s master recordings is common, Swift’s battle and the fallout of the Universal fire emphasize how little power most artists have over their original recordings or where they’re stored. Owning physical copies of master tapes was even more difficult in the pre-digital era.

Our Lady Peace frontman Raine Maida said masters of the band’s first two albums from the 1990s sit in the hands of Sony Music Canada.

“Back in the days of tape you had no backup so the label made sure to get them — it was actually a delivery requirement,” he said.

“Now only the highly organized are able to locate master files easily.”

Once digital recordings became commonplace around the turn of the millennium, Maida said he made sure to get ahold of duplicates to store himself.

Daniel Greaves, lead singer of the Watchmen, said he was shocked when the Winnipeg-founded band’s name showed up on the Universal list, particularly because he has no idea what might’ve been in the U.S. label’s vaults. He said most of their albums were mastered in Canada.

“They’re supposed to keep that stuff safe and secure,” Greaves said.

“It’s pretty nefarious, but at the same time do any of us expect anything different from the record companies?”

Like many artists trying to manage busy touring schedules, the Watchmen didn’t keep a close tab on some of their earlier masters. Greaves remembers when an employee at Wisconsin recording space Smart Studios called the band because they’d discovered some of their recordings while emptying the building for its closure.

“They would keep a copy, or something like that, I’m not even entirely sure,” Greaves said. “But I do remember having them reach out to us saying, ‘We’re closing… where should we send this stuff?’ which is the way it should work, in terms of people who are holding on to your intellectual property.”

Bob Doidge, owner of Hamilton’s Grant Avenue Studio, believes musicians need to take greater responsibility for their original masters. Over the decades, his space hosted the likes of Johnny Cash, Gordon Lightfoot and U2, but among the hundreds of others who recorded there, surprisingly few gave much thought to their masters.

“I’ve tried desperately to get people to come and pick up their tapes because I have a basement full — so many you couldn’t imagine,” he said.

At most studios, Doidge said original masters wind up collecting dust on a shelf for a decade or more, until they’re tossed into a dumpster.

With Lightfoot’s work, Doidge takes extra care by carrying a duplicate of the original master home with him every night. It’s a practice he embraced years before a 2018 blaze burned through several homes on the block, narrowly missing Grant Avenue Studios, and one he’s using for Lightfoot’s upcoming album.

He encourages musicians to consider taking home a duplicate of their master recordings, too.

“Treat it as precious,” he tells clients.

“It’s not like we spent the afternoon blowin’ up some tunes and here it is. A Gordon Lightfoot record takes a year… These songs are precious to humanity, that’s really what it comes down to.”

Sainte-Marie tries to frame the possible loss of her masters in the bigger picture.

“I have a saying that has comforted me many times in my life: ‘It’s only music and music is replicable,'” she said.

“Maybe a certain recording was absolutely wonderful. This is today and tomorrow is going to happen; let’s just keep on keeping on, make some more great music.”


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David Friend, The Canadian Press