Apr 29 2014, 7:18am CDT | by Forbes
Last week it was all over the news that some Jay-Z master tapes from the early 2000s were at the center of an alleged extortion plot where the holder of the tapes was asking for a significant amount of money to ensure their return. Because Jay-Z is such a major artist, this garnered a lot of national news, but the fact of the matter is that the circumstances surrounding the tapes is something fairly common, and it exposes a lack of musical inventory control that is only going to get worse now that we’re firmly in the age of digital music production.
To recap, engineer Chauncey Mahan, who worked for Jay-Z from 1998 to 2004, allegedly had in his possession the master tapes from some of the rapper’s biggest sellers, including Vol. 3: The Life And Times Of S. Carter, and The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. Engineer Mahan contacted Team Jay-Z and supposedly told them that he had the tapes in storage but couldn’t pay for it any longer and wanted $100,000 to cover his back expenses. Team Jay-Z took that to mean that he was holding the tapes for a $100k ransom. Both parties settled on a fee of $75,000 and when they met up at a storage unit in Northridge, CA, the police were also there to confiscate the tapes, but they made no arrests while doing so.
I have no idea if there are untruths being told or if one of the parties misunderstood the circumstances, but I do know why this might lead to rather murky situation. First of all, back in the days when everything was recorded on digital or analog tape, a project from a major artist could easily run into several hundred reels of 1 inch (digital) or 2 inch (analog) tape. Each tape would store three or four recorded song takes (depending upon the length of the song), and over the course of the six months to a year the project took to complete, every tape was kept and usually none were erased. The resulting number of tapes from several album projects could easily fill up a large storage area that could cost $500 per month or so, especially if it was climate controlled. Multiply that by the ten years that the tapes were stored and you have at least $60,000 in storage costs. While the extra money requested might be for time and labor involved, you can see why that figure might be in the ballpark.
But how does an engineer come into possession of master tapes said to be valued between $10 to 15 million (I doubt that’s the real value but that’s for another post)? The music industry has always been very laissez-faire when it comes to master tapes. Once a project is over, producers move on to the next project and the artist hits the road on tour. The last thing they want to think about is left-over master tapes, especially the ones that have all those takes that weren’t used. Often times master tapes are just left in the studio collecting dust until the studio gets tired of them taking up space and begins to call everyone even loosely connected with the project to tell them that they’ll throw the masters in the trash if they’re not removed, and sometimes that’s what actually happens. Many of the master tapes to some of the worlds greatest hits have been relegated to the trash heap because no one cared enough to claim them.
Record labels sometimes take the masters into their catalog storage warehouses, but that’s never been a sure thing either, as many have been misfiled, mislabeled, mistreated or just thrown away because they couldn’t be identified over the years.
Then there’s the case where the producer will ask the engineer to take the masters or copies of the masters home to edit, fix, or transfer because the costs are less than that of an expensive studio. My late friend Terry Howard, who worked for Ray Charles for years, was arrested for having masters in his possession that he was directed to work on by the late artist, but the manager was never made aware so he considered them stolen.
Given the fact that we rarely use bulky tape in the process of making records anymore, inventory control has become even more precarious, but in a different way. Artists want to hear what a song sounds like in their car, producers and engineers want to work on the project at home, and anyone in the control room with a large flash drive can easily walk away with an artist’s precious digital master files. Once in a while the record label will employ specialized security to make sure that nothing capable of carrying 1′s and 0′s enters or leaves the room, but these measures are sadly overlooked in these days of the do-it-yourself artist, who are more interested in the artistic side of the project than controlling where the bits are going. Add to that the fact that it’s so easy to upload a project to the someone’s partition of the cloud (not necessarily the artist’s) or directly send them to a reviewer or blogger, so song leaks are easier than ever, and this is one of the reasons that it happens so frequently.
That’s what makes Beyonce’s (Mrs. Jay-A) latest release that much more impressive. Virtually no one knew it was going to happen until the day that the album was actually released, which meant some airtight digital security. Of course it also meant some great analog (meaning all mouths were closed) security as well.
Master inventory control is a subject that has many more aspects than have been outlined above, but in these days where a blockbuster release can mean millions of plays, views and downloads, master security is more important than ever. While we don’t know how the Jay-Z “tape extortion” case will play out, we do know that what went down is far from the first time it’s ever happened, and probably won’t be the last time either.
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