5 top tips for navigating legal issues within music

Written by Briffa | October 9, 2020

Intellectual Property

Whether you are a musician, producer, DJ, artist manager or anything in between, as a professional within the music industry you will inevitably be faced with a number of legal issues throughout your career.

In many ways, the music industry is very unusual and has its own set of rules and quirks. As a result, while some of the issues you may face will be similar to those you may find in other creative industries – such as film, design, or the arts – there are also some which are only found within music. This is important to bear in mind when you are researching these issues, and when you are looking for specialist advice to guide you through whatever problem you are facing.

With that in mind, I have tried to set out five music industry legal issues that you are likely to face at some stage in your career, along with some tips to ensure you approach these correctly and protect yourself.

1. Get it in writing!

This may sound obvious, but when you are agreeing to a deal with anyone, make sure you have evidence of the deal in writing. Not only will this ensure that people stick to the terms of the deal that you agreed to (which isn’t always guaranteed!) but going through this process will force both sides to actually think about the terms of the deal and ensure that everyone is on the same page. Remember, it is better to have an unpleasant conversation early – before the project is already underway and everyone has invested significant time, effort, and money into it.

This does not necessarily need to be a formal contract – saving a WhatsApp conversation, email chain or Instagram DM can often be enough to give clarity about what was actually agreed between two people.

2. Educate yourself & understand your deals

I often say, there are no “good” and “bad” deals. The key is understanding exactly what the deal is, to allow you to make the decision that is right for you. Sometimes you may be willing to accept a bit less money to make a project work if you are really passionate about it, or you may really want to get a foot in the door with a particular person or organisation today, with a view to working on other projects in the future.

In any event, you just need the tools to make these informed decisions, which you can’t do unless you fully understand exactly what it will mean for you to agree to a particular agreement.

3. Learn the difference between Publishing and Master Rights

This ties into educating yourself. One of the most complex legal aspects of the music industry is understanding the difference between an artist’s Publishing rights in the songs, and the Master Rights in the recordings.

In a nutshell, publishing rights deal with the rights to musical composition and its lyrics. As a songwriter, even if you don’t record or perform your song yourself, each time it is performed somewhere or recorded, you are entitled to royalties, which are collected and paid to you by collection societies like PRS.

Master Rights, or Masters, on the other hand are the rights in the recording, i.e. the specific version of a track as it appears on the mp3/CD/vinyl. This is usually owned by the record label, and you may recently have seen Kanye West kicking off on Twitter wanting to “free his people” by allowing musicians to take back ownership of their masters.

The Publishing and Masters are dealt with very differently in contracts, and so it is crucial to understand the difference between the two before entering into any deals about either (or both!) of them with anyone.

4. Don’t believe the hype

The music industry is notoriously full of name droppers. Anytime you discuss a project with anyone, they will likely tell you how they know all these amazing people who can make or break your career, and how you need to have them on board.

They will also probably make it sound like they are lightyears ahead of you, and the work they do (and the people they work with) is so much better than what you are doing.

Remember never to buy into the hype. Everyone likes to make themselves sound more important and well connected than they are, and social media is a powerful tool to reinforce this.

Never agree to a deal only because you were impressed by the names that were mentioned in a conversation. Instead, make sure that if you have a clear understanding of what both sides will be expected to bring to the table in the deal. Ideally, try to make this quantifiable, rather than having vague promises of making connections.

5. Get advice & surround yourself with good people

Finally, it is important to know who to go to if you do need expert advice on anything. If you feel a project needs to be bulletproof, make sure that you get appropriate legal advice from a specialist, independent lawyer.

You will want someone with experience in music law specifically – as I mention above, music has its own quirks, so you will need someone who understands these, and ideally someone who knows and understands the industry as well. It always helps if your lawyer knows how you work, and what is and isn’t normal.

Make sure your lawyer is also independent – you don’t want your only legal advice to come from the lawyer who is also acting for the other side in a deal, as they may not give you the same level of open advice to allow you to make the decision that is right for you.

I hope the above is helpful and gives you the tools to understand and address some of the legal issues you may face. Of course, if there is anything you want to discuss or need advice on, Briffa offers a free consultation so feel free to get in touch and ask to speak with one of our specialist lawyers.

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