Published in The Music Network
What’s a typical week in your life as a music biz lawyer?
It’s not that exciting, actually. Almost all of it is spent in my office working quite long hours and dealing with the many issues our clients face on a daily basis. The good part is getting out and seeing people, going to clients’ gigs and being exposed to great new music.
How is a music lawyer’s role evolving?
Some lawyers choose to have other things going on such as their own label, publishing business or they may manage a band. Frankly, I don’t know how they find the time. I pride myself on trying to “match- make” my existing clients to each other where I think it could work. Introducing a manager to an artist, an artist to a label or production house, writers to publishers – it’s a labour of love, really.
When does an artist or small company need a music lawyer?
For an artist, the first appointment is usually when they’re presented with some sort of contract that needs signing. Same for a band, although sometimes bands get in early to draw-up a partnership agreement. Small companies need to see a lawyer at the start to ensure their structures and business set-up is all in place.
When reading the fine print on a contract, what are you looking out for?
I’m usually looking out for things the contract doesn’t say. You’d be amazed at how many clients receive a flimsy 2-3 page recording or licensing deal and think it all “looks ok”. When you ask them how long it goes for or how many albums they are required to deliver, they discover that detail has been omitted.
Over the last five or so years, there’s been a great shift in the deals on offer from the majors. What changes are you seeing?
While they are all slightly different, essentially a few years ago when the major labels were “dabbling” in non- recording activities, it was mostly about wanting a cut of merchandise and other commercial activities. Nowadays, non-recording activities can extend to an artist’s live performances, commercial endorsements and even publishing. These issues have almost become the most negotiated part of any record contract. Whether it’s fair depends on who you ask. The smaller indie labels often have less of an investment to recover so the artist may give away less. The more professional music “businesses” are also looking at complete “partnership” type arrangements with an artist and having a share in all income streams.
The trail to today’s music biz is paved by artists who were ripped off. Are there still contracts out there which can, well, bind an artist in servitude?
The really scary contracts are usually those found online or from a foreign country where you often have no idea who you’re even dealing with. The online environment makes it a lot easier to be “discovered” by someone from overseas but some of the contracts that follow are pretty rough. In Australia, I don’t see many contracts which are blatantly ripping off artists; but there are certainly some harsh ones out there. The key is to get advice and know what you’re getting into.
You’ve served as legal rep for contestants on TV talent shows Australian Idol, X-Factor and Australia’s Got Talent. What did you learn from the experience?
Legally – and despite popular opinion – the whole thing is relatively standard. The first thing I always notice working with the contestants is how young many of them are. Most of them have very little, if any, experience in the music industry and rely on you to explain how everything works. It’s usually such a crazy time for contestants leading up to these shows that the “legals” are really of least importance to them. Unfortunately, some contestants think that this new and exciting life they’re suddenly leading is how their lives are going to be from now on. Many contestants come down to earth with a huge thud once these shows end. It can be really hard for them. There are some who remain grounded and focused during and after the process, using it as a stepping-stone for bigger and better things. The clever ones use it perfectly.
When bands split, the dispute over ownership of the songs and recordings often becomes bloody. Any advice?
My message to bands is, work out songwriting ownership splits in advance. Having played in bands and written songs myself, I know it can be an awkward conversation to have. It doesn’t have to be. If you’re getting together with one or more people for the purposes of “writing”, I suggest to agree that whatever is written will be owned by the writers in equal shares. The alternative is going back over the song at the end and working out what percentage of the music and lyrics were written by each member — almost an impossible exercise. With recordings, work out who will pay and how will those who have paid get their money back. After that, the splits should usually be even amongst the band and generally should apply to a member even if they subsequently depart the band.