Published in The Music Network
Brett Oaten has a deadpan opinion on his profession’s place in the music biz. “People don’t join a band to hang out with lawyers,” he quips. Whether musos like it or not, the more successful they become the more time they’ll spend with their lawyer. Since establishing his legal practice in 1992, Oaten has worked with some of the best in the business, a list which includes Angus & Julia Stone, Art vs. Science, Cold Chisel, Emma-Louise, Empire Of The Sun, Eskimo Joe, Lanie Lane and Powderfinger. Oaten is also a founding board member and life member of FBI Radio, where each week he presents Fire Up: an “alleged comedy show,” in Oaten’s words, which has little to do with music or law.
How is a music lawyer’s role evolving?
I’ve always been very happy to be a lawyer and to try to stick to that. I don’t really have ambitions to fulfill another role in the industry. It’s a really interesting, stimulating time. Artists have more opportunities than ever to do different things and conduct their careers in different ways. The conversation you used to have about an artist’s career used to be very defined. Whereas the conversations you have now have much broader boundaries. Our job has stayed pretty much the same over the years, but the issues we face have changed dramatically. We have to adapt and continue to ensure that our knowledge is up-to-date so that we can play an advisory role even as the landscape changes.
Typically in law, that would mean you’ve got your head in the books? Is that the case for you?
It’s not really what a law student would call “black letter law.” We’re not reading cases, we’re not reading judgments. It’s a very commercially, pragmatic-based profession. So the education that we need to do is to understand the technologies and the changes in the marketplace. And understand what’s happening in the industry overseas so we know what will be happening here, what the market looks like and what it’s going to look like. It’s a much more practical educational exercise rather than an academic one.
What are the changes in the deals you’re seeing over time?
The deals are probably the greatest change. And it’s something that has been developing over a number of years. Because sales have declined– and in addition to the 360-deals– you’re typically seeing large record companies investing less, but wanting more rights in return for that lesser investment. I understand why that would be their imperative, but that’s a very different landscape from how deals looked when I started doing this and for a large part of the time that I have been doing it. They’ve got all types of names for it: 360-deals, multi-rights deals, non-recording. Whatever you call it, it all means the same thing.
When reading the fine print on a contract, what are you looking out for?
Before you even get to the fine print, it’s about making sure that the band or the artist and their manager understands the deal that they’re doing and understands what they’re giving and what they’re getting. You certainly have the ability to negotiate those deals based on the client’s bargaining position, and the record company’s bargaining position. You’re trying to put your client in a position to work out whether this is a good thing for them to do or not.
Do you still see deals which bind an artist forever more?
You didn’t ever see deals where someone was signed forever. What you saw were deals where people made records that were owned forever by the record company, even if the record company had recouped all the money they’d invested. That’s basically how the vast majority of record deals work today. Publishing deals don’t work like that. Artists tend to end up getting their publishing copyrights back after a period of time.
Do you ever see dangerous, rip-off contracts?
Yes. You see contracts that are absolutely appalling. And if it’s a terrible deal, you’vegot to wonder about the motives of the person who offered you that agreement and whether you want to be in business with them even if they made it not-terrible. Sometimes clients just want to hear what they want to hear. They want to be told that it’s a really good opportunity, and they don’t want it to be dashed. That’s one of the difficult parts of the job. A lot of people think any deal is better than no deal. Actually, a bad deal is far more damaging to your career than no deal. Because if you’ve got no deal and you believe in what you’re doing, you can keep doing it until someone who is honourable and also believes in you comes along.
At what stage does an artist or small company need a music lawyer?
That’s always hard to answer without sounding really self- interested. Because what else would a lawyer say than, “as early as possible.” But that’s the truth. Sometimes when people don’t use a lawyer because they want to “save money,” it’s a completely false economy. Because the damage that they do trying to do it themselves costs a lot more to fix than it probably would have cost in the first place. Most of the time, a lawyer won’t charge you to sit down with them and talk to you about whether you should be their lawyer or not.