The Music Attorney: The Top Spot on Your Songwriting Team

A music attorney should be one of the first business associates you add to your songwriting team. A music attorney can be your best friend and ally, so hiring your attorney in the beginning will start your team off with the right offense and defense. Good attorneys don't come cheap, but a good one is worth his weight in gold because he can help you avoid the pitfalls so many songwriters fall into and guide you into fair contracts with reputable people. Because of the importance of this person's role, some say, if you choose to handle your own legal representation, you may end up with a fool for a client.

Discovering what a good music attorney can do for you

A good music attorney will have contacts with artists' managers, publishers, song pluggers, record company artist and repertoire (A&R) people, and the artists themselves. With a good attorney, you don't have to worry about not having 35 years experience in the business. A desirable music attorney does all the following:

  • Makes sure that every piece of paper that you are asked to sign is fully negotiated in your best interest and makes sure that you fully understand what you are signing.
  • Puts you in touch with other potential team players, such as publishers, managers, agents, accountants, and other songwriters.
  • Promotes you among her friends and associates and raises your visibility in the music world.
  • Adds credibility and prestige to you as a songwriter — if she happens to garner the respect of her peers in the business.
  • Gets A&R people, record labels, publishers, and artists to listen to your work.
  • Analyzes contracts previously signed for ways to permit her to renegotiate, expand upon, or even invalidate an unfair contract.
  • Upholds and defends your legal rights in the case of a dispute and deals with any "breaches of contract" (when someone fails to live up to their part of the bargain).

If you start your team off with an attorney, the rest of the players will appreciate it. Many industry professionals prefer not to hear from you directly — they'd rather talk with an experienced music attorney.

Hiring a music attorney

For starters, make a list of potential candidate's referrals you receive through other musicians. You can also call one of the performance rights organizations, such as ASCAP or BMI, as they can be helpful making a recommendation on a music attorney to handle your needs. There are also listings of music attorneys in publications. By the way, an attorney need not be in your home town to be effective. Although face-to-face contact is always preferred, with phones, fax, and e-mail, long distance communication has never been easier. Write letters of introduction to those on your list and follow up with a friendly phone call. If they fail to call you back after a few tries, either they're too busy for you anyway, or they lack in the courtesy you're looking for. Keep searching and soon you'll be sure to find the one with the expertise you need who also happens to match your personal wavelength.

Although there are many top-flight, caring attorneys who reach out to bands, artists, and songwriters they've seen perform at various showcases to offer a helping hand (sometimes for free), they'll always ask the person if he already has legal representation. Beware of the ones that try to persuade you away from your current attorney.

After you make a solid connection with an attorney by phone, the next step, if at all possible, is to set up an interview at the attorney's offices. You need to be in harmony with the person who's going to help you make tons of money with your music, so be armed with specific questions when you have your interview. Let the attorney's answers to each of the following questions help you decide whether you want this person on your business team:

  • Is your practice limited to music? A jack-of-all trade's attorney may not be the master of any. (Your dad's real estate attorney who "plays a little banjo," ain't gonna cut it.) Look for an attorney who specializes in music law. Next, find out what his specialty is within that broad category. For example, if his forte is negotiating recording and publishing deals, make sure he also feels comfortable handling copyright issues and royalty questions, or has others on his staff that he can pass the baton to when the need arises.
  • Whom do you represent? See if, on his list of clients, you recognize the names of any big success stories that have inspired you. Also, check for any conflicts of interest. For example, does he represent any publishing companies that may want to sign you to a future deal? That's something you may want to avoid.
  • How much experience do you have? This may tell you how much time he's going to have to spend with you. Find the one attorney who has enough experience in business to make you feel confidant in his services, but also whose workload won't make you feel like you're at the bottom of his totem pole.
  • How strong are your contacts? Let's face it. Networking and access are important aspects to consider as far as what this team player can offer you. An attorney's clients, contacts, and relationships are important aspects to consider in making your choice.
  • How much will your services cost? You can expect a variety of options, and there are pros and cons for any of the following fee arrangements:
  • Retainer: Simply put, this is when you pay your attorney a fixed advance, usually monthly, from which his fees and expenses are deducted.

    Hourly rate: The attorney keeps track of the time spent on your behalf, and you're billed on a monthly basis. You can expect the hourly rate to be $100 to $500 per hour, billed in 15-minute increments. In addition to the billed time, all expenses for phone, postage, photocopies, and so on will be added to the bill.

    Fixed flat fee: Usually, this is a fixed amount that's proposed by the attorney when a deal is being negotiated for your project — like when you're offered a huge amount of money and you don't know how much of your attorney's time you'll need, and you want to call him at all hours of the night! The fee could be $5,000 or even $100,000 depending on the deal.

    Reasonable fee: This arrangement is similar to the fixed flat fee; however the amount is not arrived at until after the deal is completed — which could be sticky and lead to unpleasant surprises. If you're ever offered a reasonable-fee deal, be very cautious!

    Percentage: Now we're talking popular! Here's an arrangement most people would enjoy having. Typically, 5 to 10 percent goes to the attorney who negotiates the deal. This is based on whatever you receive, whether it's from an advance payment or from royalties down the road. With this type of arrangement, you get all the professional advice you need when you need it, and if there's no deal, there's no pay except for expenses — it's kind of like profit sharing with this type of arrangement. The attorney will be highly motivated to keep working with you when he sees big bucks added to his bank account.

    The important thing is to establish a fee arrangement that you feel comfortable with before any work begins. Think about it — surprises are much more fun at birthday parties!

After completing your interviews, asking your questions, and checking up on references, it's time to decide. Look at your notes and organize them into a pros-and-cons list for each attorney. Why would this attorney be good for you? What are his strengths and weaknesses? Take a look at your lists and see which attorney best fits your needs. Perhaps it may be wise at this point to whittle down your choices to just two or three attorneys, and then take some time to digest each of their answers and reflect on their personalities and contacts before making a final decision. With all of this in mind, go ahead and try to make a choice.

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