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Posted under: Culture Opinion

Melissa Harris-Perry's mistake was that she didn’t "own her masters"

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As you must have heard at some point by now, Melissa Harris-Perry is a former host and media personality on the cable network MSNBC. The story arch is too long to get into, but Harris-Perry was essentially fired from the network after four years of the MHP Show, which aired for a couple of hours on Saturdays and Sundays each week. Harris-Perry shared an email to her show staff lambasting MSNBC for what she viewed as unfair or incorrect treatment as a host. Days after her email went (intentionally) public, she was fired.

Many think-pieces, tweets and video commentary on the matter have been published. Many have been focused on whether or not her firing was linked to her being a black woman or whether or not MSNBC is suffering from a move away from it’s typically progressive stance on diverse views and television hosts.

But I see another thing as the primary issue and that’s about the importance of legally owning your work.

Owning your masters

If you were born before 1993, there is a great chance you’re familiar with the concept of musicians owning (or not owning) their masters. Masters are essentially the exclusive right to derive a profit from the playing and other exploitations of an original song or musical composition. Before the Internet and Napster changed the way the music industry worked, record labels were practiced in securing rights to hit songs in advance of their release. They would pay the performing artist a lump sum or 'salary' and go about the business of making a profit from the song the artist created from that moment on.

With music's transition into the digital age, getting a large, lump sum check from a music label just wasn’t enough. Performing artists wised up and realized there was nothing more important than holding the legal rights to the music you create. The number of artists who hold the rights to their music in part or in its entirety is much larger now than it ever was before a musician could become famous from playing covers on YouTube.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis likely own their masters and every dime their songs generate. Despite his self-professed debt, I’m sure Kanye West owns the masters to his music and you better believe that Queen-Bey-Ladies-Run-The-World-and-this-Formation also owns her masters.

In this public spat between herself and a cable network, Melissa Harris-Perry forgot the most important business principle in media or any other area of making a profit from your creative work. She forgot that at MSNBC, she didn’t own a thing, let alone any masters.

Feeling some type of way

There is a lot to unload in this public spat between Harris-Perry and MSNBC, but I want to focus one specific idea.

Harris-Perry has been quoted as saying, ”They wanted us to cover politics in the narrowest sense. I told my team, we can't allow our own show to go off-air and then provide racial cover by having me continue to host the show so people see the little black girl up there."

Harris-Perry believed it was her duty to protect her show from becoming a watered-down version of what it had been in the past and to save the voice of diversity. An admirable goal, and one I personally support. However, at the core of this statement lies an undeniable fallacy. The false portion of the statement was that it was ever “her” show at all.

Harris-Perry didn’t own any part of her show and she never did. She didn’t own the cameras. She didn’t own the set or studio she filmed in each weekend. She didn’t pay her shows staff and doesn’t get reports from an HR department when there’s a workplace harassment issue. She didn’t even own the chair she sat in during the recording of her show. Melissa Harris-Perry didn’t own her masters and, therefore, didn’t own any component of the finished creative product or right to execute control over the show’s or network’s direction.

Harris-Perry fundamentally misunderstood her relationship to the show she hosted and to the audience she served. I can imagine the changes she experienced from above were frustrating, but when you are not at the business head of the show you host, your podcast or any other creative media product, you lose your ability to have a deciding say. When you don’t incur the risks of being on-air and simply take a salary, you become an employee; you serve as a cog in an overall business strategy that sees your value as a necessary component of meeting overall business goals.

There’s no doubt, MSNBC needs to keep it’s hallways clean. I’m sure they hire an excellent set of housekeeping staff members to do just that. MSNBC also wanted a diverse show and so they hired one called the MHP Show. These two things are the same thing. This fact seems to have been lost in much of the discussion.

The greatest shame

The greatest shame lies in Harris-Perry sacrificing her voice and perspective for pride.

Even if there was a change in programming philosophy for MSNBC, Harris-Perry decided it was more important to publicly share her displeasure with what she was experiencing than to remain in a position to contribute her voice to a network she didn’t own. Her pride was more important than my own love of seeing her on television. It was more important than my and others’ love of her insight and point-of-view. It was more important than our love of seeing her rock a protective hair style on national television. (Shout out to Jemele Hill of ESPN… We love you too, girl).

Oprah Winfrey owned a portion of and eventually all of what she helped to create during her decades-long run on 'Oprah.' She turned its success into the OWN network. The co-founder of Blavity, Morgan Debaun, OWNS this site and everything that happens to it. Alexa von Tobel, founder of LearnVest.com OWNED her product and sold it for $250 million.

These women incur the costs of creating and maintaining their own, wide-reaching platform. That means they also OWN the right to make decisions and execute control over what direction their platform takes. These women are true representations of magic happening in media and business.

THIS is the #BlackGirlMagic lesson — own your masters or risk becoming no more than a network’s pawn.


Ben Carter is the Host of Manage Your Damn Money and author of Fictitious Financial Fairytale: A Completely Untrue Story About Money, Friends and Moscow Mules.

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