The Role of a Music Lawyer

So, what does a music lawyer do?

The music industry is very complicated: there’s so many sources of income for artists, and even more if you write. Every time that there’s some sort of transaction in music, it involves the concept of intellectual property. Something like a song for example, is quite a nebulous thing. It’s not some-thing you can touch and that can become very complicated very quickly. So people generally reach out to someone who can put things in a legal framework.

At what stage should someone look at getting a music lawyer?

As soon as you start getting serious about what you do. The thing about music lawyers is that they are people who understand the business; they know the people involved in it. And a lawyer who has been involved in it for a long time will be vastly experienced and will have had the benefit of learning from other people’s mistakes. When you come into something as complicated as the mu-sic business, you really need all the help you can get. So I would say as soon as you are serious, you need to get somebody on your side.

Should I always expect to pay for a music lawyer, even if I’m just starting out?

I think the worst thing that we often hear said is that people can’t afford a lawyer. But it’s always so much more expensive when you come to us and say, ‘What have I signed?’ It’s a lot cheaper to get it right in the first place, than to get yourself out of something later. That being said, quite often the initial relationship between a music lawyer and an artist tends to be a casual introduction. So it really depends on which firm of lawyers you go to as to how generous they are toward new talent. At our firm, we would generally give a bit of introductory advice and not really start the clock until we’re doing something substantive.

Couldn’t I hire any kind of lawyer? What’s the importance of hiring a music lawyer in particular?

It’s really about hiring someone who has the skills and who knows the industry really well. So no, don’t go to your dad’s family lawyer! A good music lawyer will be savvy as to the technology, the platforms and the apps that are out there. They’ll think to raise questions in contracts about things like income from music streaming. A good music lawyer will also be able to help you recognise when it’s not the right time to do a contract. And the same applies to accountancy as well: you should make sure to use a music industry accountant, as there things to look for which are specific to the music business.

What kind of things should an artist look out for a contract? What questions should they be asking?

Most people want to know that their deal is a fair deal – which is a big reason why someone shouldn’t go to their family solicitor. If someone doesn’t have any context for a deal, if they don’t really know what’s going on in terms of going rates and market values, if they can’t tell you whether the contract is going to tie you down or enable you to grow – then they’re not very much help to you. So there’s a number of factors that go into making a deal feel right.

Do you have an opinion on what effect iTunes and Spotify are having on the industry?

They’re having a massive impact. Mostly it goes back to the whole impact that the internet has had on the music industry. It’s simply wiped out income streams for people. But really, the big problem is not so much with the companies that provide streaming, but with the companies which hold the rights – the record companies. They’re still applying the old-world royalty base to streaming in-comes. Record companies tend to play the more dominant role and so the value of deals is skewed toward the person who makes the record, rather than the person who wrote the song. There’s quite a movement at the moment though to redress the balance, and for songwriters to be credited. These are the kind of things that we campaign for.

What would be your advice, given this world of streaming, to someone writing their own music?

I think my advice would be to know the value of what you’re doing. Be realistic and don’t expect to get rich! The current state of the industry means that the best way to see a return on your films tel-evision or commercials. It’s going to take a little and a lot of pressure from within the industry before songwriters incomes are restored to pre streaming levels.

Is there any other advice you would give someone just starting out in the music industry?

Nothing happens without having a good team around you – you can’t do it yourself. You need to bring in people, and that might mean giving some of your earnings away, but you will end up with something far more valuable, if you have that team around you.

And secondly, sometimes when it comes to meetings or contracts, people are scared to ask a question, because they don’t want to show their ignorance. But that’s usually the most important kind of question to ask! So don’t be afraid to speak up.


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