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. Read more on Forbes.
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