Building Your Dream Team breaks down the fundamental members of an artist's operation through the 5Ws lens: Who, What, When, Where, Why.
Music lawyers are mission critical to every artist, producer, or songwriter serious about building and maintaining a career in music. Very few receive public acknowledgement, save for album credits or occasional coverage in industry trades. Even still, their influence towers above most, cutting deals and making moves behind the scenes, mitigating risk and maximizing value for those they work with.
The dirty little not-so secret of the music business is that one bad contract can wreck an artist’s career forever. Savvy legal insight, the right relationship - or both - can be the difference maker between getting stuck or moving forward. If managers call the shots behind the curtains, lawyers sit in the backroom, behind closed doors, redlining the paperwork that determines what’s what. Let’s meet ‘em.
1W: Who They Are
Categorizing a music lawyer into a convenient bucket is a mission made for Tom Cruise. That said, good ones share some mix of the following traits:
- Far-reaching relationships within entertainment that can yield information and opportunities for their clients
- A masterful understanding of music law and intellectual property, serious attention to detail, and a healthy sense of risk management
- Persuasive negotiation tactics and, relatedly, a sharp, logical brain
- Fierce dedication to / protection of those they work with
- A honed, hardened ability to detect and deflect bullshit
Unlike managers, lawyers must complete their accredited grad school studies and pass standardized tests (e.g. the Bar Exam) before becoming licensed attorneys. Music law is unique discipline in and of itself, and the best music lawyers are exclusively focused on that -- music. Most other attorneys, while perhaps technically capable, are oftentimes worthless in understanding and deciphering the nuances and norms of the music business. Becoming a good music lawyer requires specialization, experience, and relationships.
2W: What They Do
A music lawyer acts as a compass in complex scenarios, protecting clients’ interests through the lens of the law while connecting dots at a high level.
In other words, if a publishing deal undervalues an artist, the lawyer demands more dough. if an artist has a question about standard master ownership for producers, the lawyer provides an answer. If a singer wants to hold a concert in the middle of a NASCAR race, the lawyer tries to prevent a lawsuit by filing the appropriate release waivers. And if an artist needs a sample cleared in the 25th hour, the lawyer helps knock down that door, on fair terms.
Some music lawyers work for labels, publishers, and promoters as corporate counsel and chiefly exist to (1) protect their employers from liability (2) maximize said company’s earnings when signing or resigning artists and (3) generate and handle negotiations for B2B dealings, e.g. licensing a catalogue to Facebook, renewing an agreement with Spotify, or acquiring another company.
Others, talent lawyers, provide similar services for artists themselves, putting the legal documents in place to maximize revenue generation and collection for their clients. When lawyers do good work, artists don’t have to think twice about anything legal.
It’s also common for discovery-minded music lawyers to play a hybrid manager-A&R role to jumpstart careers, connecting young artists they believe in with other team members in exchange for a stake in that creator’s future endeavors. (In the UK, lawyers are not allowed to work on the basis of commissions of future earnings.)
Much like managers, music lawyers have different strengths. Where one might have a reputation for effectively bullish negotiation in the boardroom, another might attract clients with an unmatched knowledge of the legalities of touring in Southeast Asia.
3W: When You Need One
If something involves money, ownership, or collaboration, chances are there’s room for a music lawyer to add input: manager-artist agreements, royalty split sheets, publishing deals, brand sponsorship requirements, etc. It’s never wise to sign anything substantial without an attorney by your side.
Every so often, stateside artists meet a lawyer early on and sign a long-term agreement. Instead of paying an hourly rate (often 100s of dollars per hour, if not more), the lawyer receives ~5% of an artist’s earnings during a predefined period to cover upfront pro bono (unpaid) work. (Reminder: This doesn’t fly in the UK.) Conversely, it’s also common to hit significant growth milestones with little more than handshakes, loyalty, and trust among collaborators.
It’s worth noting lawyers don’t inherently protect anyone from anything: someone can still sue you, or undercut you, or lock you down. In theory, though, it becomes much harder to successfully do those things when a trained pro closes loopholes and ties loose ends.
4W: Where to Find Them
You’ll find music lawyers in every major music city, from London to Tokyo. In the States, many call New York or Los Angeles home, even as creative communities continue to thrive elsewhere.
Artists and managers tend to meet lawyers via referrals or research. Ask industry contacts for direction or Google recognized lawyers and law firms. You can often find phone numbers, emails, and bios of individual attorneys on firms’ websites, which then makes it easier to send brief, personal notes that include a sample of your music, an overview of your accomplishments, and a closing question: Can we hop on the phone or sit down and meet?
While some attorneys have immense power, it’s worth remembering they work for you. Before solidifying a working relationship, feel things out, vet their state Bar certification — e.g. CalBar.org in California, the Unified Court System in New York, or the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) in England and Wales — and ask around. (Bonus points to those who take a deep breath and step into the world of LinkedIn, where lawyers roam free.)
For emerging and developing acts with mounting buzz but limited cash, it might be harder to win the attention of busy, big league music lawyers. Try to identify notable law firms and reach out to the younger, hungrier attorneys on their roster, or ask big firms to point you toward smaller, boutique firms who can afford to invest more time in folks on the come up.
5W: Why They Matter
It’s rare for an artist to spend extended time with their lawyer. Unlike the artist-manager relationship, your attorney doesn’t necessarily have to be someone you’d want to grab drinks with, only someone you can trust to keep you out of trouble. Be they old school power brokers, backstage schmoozers, or no-nonsense advisors, good music lawyers tend to be...
- Intimately aware of the nuances and changing norms of copyright and contract law
- Command respect from yourself and from others in the industry
- Respond to your urgent questions and contractual needs in timely manner
- Deeply believe in the artistic or commercial potential of your work
- Broaden your network and your understanding of the music business
- Prioritize overall health of artist operation over short-term cash grabs
- Offer navigational, strategic guidance for navigating an ever-shifting business
In sum, the best kind of music lawyer replaces trap doors with springboards. Respect their craft, do your homework, and always remember nature’s immortal music lawyer call: “Let’s do lunch.”
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