Have You or Your Band Been Offered a Recording Contract?
There’s an ancient music video about a young musician trying to make it in the music business that always used to come to mind when I heard the term “record contract.” The tragic heroine ends up signing a record deal with a greasy record exec – you know the type – the guy with gold chains and chest hair blossoming through a parted shirt. The contract is signed in blood drawn from the artist’s finger and the whole process looks as pleasant as a hot yoga colonoscopy. During the years in which I was writing and performing music I’m sure memories of that video lurked deep in my psyche such that I side-stepped management and publishing opportunities because of “contract phobia,” keeping my fingers well protected in my pockets.
So I get it that bands often want to move through the contract signing as quickly as possible just to get it over with. Obviously now that I am a lawyer by trade, I have a completely different view of contracts. Taking a timid or passive approach can really be to the detriment of the artist and although throughout my blogging history I have identified certain things that musicians can do on their own without a lawyer, signing a record contract is definitely not one of those things.
The threshold question for most is “do we really need this contract?” Record companies are not the profit centers they once were and in an attempt to recoup their losses they have tapped into revenue streams that were traditionally off limits, like merchandising or live performance income. These new contracts are typically referred to as “360 deals.” At the same time, smaller labels have developed a completely different business model, performing only some of the tasks traditionally performed by the big record companies but obviously not offering the big advances or royalty payments. Ultimately there may come a time when a band that has achieved success on its own must look at the numbers and determine if signing with a label makes financial and artistic sense. I know of many bands that have developed either a regional or national presence on their own and have decided to keep most or all of the traditional label functions in-house. Of course this means more blood, sweat and tears and the income is modest but there seems to be a contentment factor that one doesn’t have under contract. Aimee Mann is one artist to have maintained, if not enhanced her career trajectory by forming her own label in 1999.
Assuming your band has crossed that threshold and the contact signing is imminent, there are some general tips that would serve you well in the process. The first is to call a lawyer – and one who is comfortable negotiating the fine deal points. Don’t be afraid to ask for time to find a lawyer – which leads me to another point – don’t procrastinate. Too often I get calls from bands in need of a contract review and they need it today because they sat on it for two weeks. Give your lawyer the time he/she needs to thoroughly review the contract and draft edits. Negotiations can take days or weeks so don’t wait so long so that you’re running up against a deadline.
Understand the contract. Retaining a lawyer is not reason to tune out and sign whatever your lawyer (or your band members) tell you to sign. Know what is in there and why. Ask questions.
Do your homework. Oftentimes, a band will have some contact with the label for months before getting to the contract stage. Make sure you know what kind of organization you’re about to work with, especially considering what the label has done (or not done) for other artists. Too often I hear artists coming back from a meeting with an A&R rep really pumped that the label is going to put everything behind them, really push the promotional dollars, etc. You may find other artists who heard the same thing before signing.
Finally, stay grounded. It’s very easy to get caught up in the super-hyped environment surrounding a contract signing. After years of ringing ears and 3:00 a.m. tear-downs, having your ego massaged by a record company can change your perception of reality, making it very hard to make good decisions. Get excited, yes, but don’t let your common sense evaporate. And don’t let anyone prick your finger.