You know that your music is more than a hobby when someone asks you to sign a contract. Whether its a manager contract, a recording agreement or a license agreement, the moment you have to do more than shake hands and help sort the change from the door, you have entered a different level in the entertainment world. The key, as with any agreement that you sign in life, is to fully understand what it is you are getting yourself or your band into by signing it.
I’ve written about the progression of an artist’s career many times. Some artists make it to the next level in only a matter of days while others grind it out for years before anyone takes notice of their existence. Whichever route you may have taken one thing is for certain as soon as someone with money comes sniffing around, people who you used to ignore you will take a vested interest in you and your music. The same people who you were pleading to listen to your demo or to put your band on the bill will quickly become your long time friend and supporter. Oftentimes, along with that support comes ridiculous agreements that are “mere formalities” according to the bandwagoneers.
I know I am taking a rather cynical approach with this, but I’ve seen it happen far to often. An artist is loosely affiliated with a manager or an independent label (usually just a bunch of guys who have a website/myspace page and know someone who can press up cds on the cheap). The artist creates good music. The public takes notice. Hits start piling up on on the artist’s page. A couple legit A&R guys come to a show. Then, BAM!, the artist’s part time promoter hits him with a nine page agreement which gives away everything but the artist’s soul.
Comments such as: “its a form agreement” or “its industry standard” or “don’t even sweat it, its just basic stuff” usually accompany such an agreement. If the contract is handed to you by a guy who is clearly a joke and never helped you with anything other than coming to one of your shows, you can be 100% sure that the only thing you need to do with the agreement is shred it. Chances are, if it is coming to you from a hungry management group or label, you are going to want to take a long hard look at what it says and then probably burn it. Either way, you should be flattered and thank them and then run fast and far.
But what if, you actually have been working with a management team or promoter and you want to continue to work with them? Now you are faced with an awkward situation. Most likely your manager doesn’t have the cash yet to get the agreement drafted by a competent attorney. He probably got it out of a form book or off the internet. So the manager probably doesn’t even know that he is asking you to assign ownership of every one of your masters over to him for the next 20 years. At this point, you have face the awkwardness and confront your buddy. Ignorance and friendship are usually key ingredients for fighting and failure in the music business. My advice: calmly thank your manager for the agreement and tell him that you need to talk to an attorney before you can sign anything. You may want to suggest that the manger either give you the name of the attorney that drafted the agreement for him or push the idea that he may want to get an independent lawyer to help out with the situation.
The last scenario, the buddy contract, is the most dangerous situation for an artist. No one wants to offend one of their friends. Yet, if your friend/manager/label really has your best interest at heart, he will have no problem, and may actually suggest, that you talk to a lawyer before you sign the agreement. The minute he freaks out when you mention the word attorney, should be sign enough to you that your buddy is seeing $$$ and nothing else.
Not everyone, especially musicians, know or can afford lawyers. This is still not an excuse to sign a crappy one-sided agreement. We are out there. There are attorneys that will help out if they see real potential. Ask your friends and your family if they know an attorney. Check out the net for organizations that help creative types (http://www.law-arts.org/). Worst case scenario, if you absolutely cannot find a suitable attorney, ask your smart or business minded friends or family members to read the agreement with you. Just make sure you understand the agreement or you may end up killing your career before it even gets started.