The Business Side of Music: Legal Basics -
(How Not To Get Screwed)
As an unsigned artist, you probably haven’t had much exposure to the legal side of the music and performing arts industries but as we all know, music is a business and is therefore underpinned by a whole raft of legal frameworks, regulations, and laws.
While this might sound somewhat irrelevant and confusing at first to the uninitiated, it is important to remember the whole reason we have all this in the first place at the end of the day is to ensure that you, the artist, can actually make a living from your creative pursuits and that you are always protected from others either stealing your work or using it without your permission.
Imagine spending hours and hours of your own time, composing and refining a piece of music using equipment you paid for, only for someone else to get paid for it?
Between marketing a new EP release or upgrading old equipment, legal advice is probably the last thing you would think of spending money on, if at all. It’s vitally important though that artists have a basic working knowledge of the legal side of things because while it might not have much of an impact now, it could potentially save you a lot of money in the future.
To give you the lowdown, we sat down with Liz Rogers, a lawyer for Brett Oaten Solicitors who specialises in the Australian Media and Entertainment industry and who has previously worked with the likes of the Mushroom Group as the Head of Legal & Business Affairs as well as Legal Counsel for Laneway Festival, among others.
So, what’s the biggest mistake up-and-coming artists make?
According to Liz, one of the biggest mistakes up-and-coming artists make is to not properly document who owns what when it comes to music.
“Song-writing disputes tend to happen when the arrangement between co-writers isn’t properly documented during the music-making process or there has been a change in circumstances (for example if a band member leaves) which leads to parties reviewing their position if arrangements relating to copyright ownership or income sharing of copyrighted material hasn’t been documented” she says.
What does this look like in practice?
Sitting down with all the band-members and involved parties and simply discussing how things like royalties will be split is a great way to start, and once you have all agreed in principle you can take the next step of putting it in writing and signing your agreement.
For more info and legal advice (including very helpful sample contracts and guides) you can visit the Arts Law Centre who also provide dispute resolution services, a resource Liz highly recommends.
Talking to a lawyer with plenty of experience in the music and entertainment industries is another way to cover yourself as they will be able to advise you on what the best course of action is plus they’ll be able to draft up a contract that specifically suits your needs and situation.
If you’re looking to join a label, how do you make sure a deal is right for you?
“Know what you are getting into and who you are committing to before signing any deal” is Liz’s key bit of advice.
She also explains that doing your own research and talking to other people who have been involved with that company is a great way to get a sense of who you are signing with and to make sure you’re not being taken advantage of.
“Back yourself – don’t sign the first deal that comes along unless it’s the right deal with the right people.”
Liz also says getting a lawyer to review a contract for you is another way to make sure you don’t get short-changed by a label. A good lawyer will be able to take the time to sit-down with you and explain the processes and nuances of the contract so that you’re always fully aware of what you are actually signing – and if the contract you’ve been offered doesn’t give you best deal possible they will be able to potentially negotiate better terms for you, depending on the situation.
How does Copyright work? Do I need to register my songs anywhere?
The short answer – No. Provided your work meets all the requirements, all work is automatically protected by copyright.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t need to do anything though – Liz says that it is good practice to protect your ownership claim “document or keep records of the creation of your work”, should that be a song you have written, an early demo of a track or even some original samples you have used. Basically, if a dispute around the creation of your music were to arise, you need to have some form of proof that it was indeed you who is responsible for the creation of that work. It is also advisable that any agreements with third parties relating to copyright are in writing.
Liz also says in Australia you don’t need to use the copyright symbol (©) in relation to your original work to get copyright protection – you don’t need to use it as your intellectual property is already protected as per the above - it can be a useful way to remind people copyright applies to the material.
In terms of registration of songs, Liz recommends that composers register their works with APRA/AMCOS. Although registration with collection societies does not change the copyright status of the material, in the case of APRA for example, it allows APRA to collect licence fees for the communication and public performance of the material and pay fees to registered owners of the material.
If someone is claiming the entirety of a song-writing/producing credit on a song that you also worked on, what action can you take to get yourself credited?
The first thing you should do Liz says is to notify the other party of your claim which you may do directly or via a lawyer. Importantly, you will need to have evidence backing up your contention which is why it is so important to document the process you went through in making your music.
In addition to attempting to resolve the dispute directly, you can also notify collection societies such as APRA/AMCOS and the PPCA of the dispute who have Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) processes available.
Do you see any changes happening to your role and the industry in the next five years?
Liz sees artists becoming savvier in terms of business decisions and essentially taking a more hands-on role when it comes to things like endorsements, social media, live performances and merchandise.
“I see my role as being to continue to assist artists as CEO’s of their own businesses.”
As more and more artists venture into these unchartered territories many need legal advice and counselling due to their unfamiliarity with these areas which is where Liz and other lawyers specialising in the music and entertainment industries come in.
What's the best thing about your job?
Liz says that it’s a privilege to work alongside artists and creative businesses – as a lover of music herself who attends many festivals and live music events “it’s an extremely rewarding experience being able to empower client by educating them more about the business side of the industry and guiding them to make good long-term decisions.”
Liz Rogers is a solicitor at Brett Oaten Solicitors, a Newtown based legal practice who is one of Australia’s leading entertainment, media and technology firms. For more info check out their website .
Want to know more about the business side of music? Check out our Bachelor of Entertainment Management .