The Cheat Sheet: Legal Representation for Your New Business

cheat-sheet-logo2by Flip Michaels

Have you ever considered publishing your own music library... or maybe opening up your own agency? Whatever it may be, there's always that one QUESTION: in any music/entertainment career, what factors can our ability to earn depend on?

ANSWER:

1. Our creative output. Of course! The copy, production, jingles, songs, and any other intangible creations that people and companies will commission from us and pay to use or distribute.

2. The ability to collaborate with other creative talents. As we all know, few, if any, can be successful without the ability and enthusiasm to create ideas and finished products on a collaborative basis.

3. The ability to select business and legal representatives for guidance into unfamiliar territory, negotiations, and finding opportunities.

It's vital to focus on the third factor. Picking the wrong lawyer can prove to be fatal. Therefore, it holds the potential of being the most important business decision you make.

SELECTING A LAWYER:

It's quite obvious that the music industry law is a complex specialty. A competent music attorney must know about copyrights -- U.S. and international music publishing, record companies, retailing, contracts, promotions, production, etc.. So, that helpful family-friend lawyer whose daily business is wills and estates, corporate or criminal law, or even patents, just won't do. You need a lawyer with the right background. Oh, also, kill that idea about how you've developed a real talent for understanding the paperwork and feel and that the only time you need a lawyer is for critical negotiations. (sfx: BUZZER) "Wrong!"

Beyond being able to understand deals that are proposed, a lawyer's job is to know the body of existing law and jurisprudence concerning all the entertainment industries. Yes, jurisprudence. (What's the word mean??? I didn't even know how to spell it!). Jurisprudence is the aggregate of all the opinions of judges and juries on a given subject, usually rendered when exact interpretation of a law concerning that subject is questioned or challenged in court. WHEW! No law can cover every possible situation. So, when someone files a suit, the courts interpret what the law means in a specific instance. Therefore, laws are always changing to include or exclude new situations; this is very common in industries that change as fast as the music industry does. A lawyer, with the proper background, automatically keeps up with recent entertainment jurisprudence, while we do not.

So shop wisely. Take a few baby steps, save yourself time, aggravation and obviously, money!

BABY STEPS:

1. Since negotiation is a large part of a lawyer's job, you may save yourself some legal fees by discussing the main points of a proposed deal-responsibilities, timetables, compensation. But, before making a commitment, ask a good lawyer to certify the legality and advisability of the whole deal, flesh out protective clauses that can be added, and draw up the final paperwork. If the lawyer thinks you should try for more or less, advise and explain your reasons. My point being, a calm, cool negotiation on your own behalf is not only better for a working relationship, but more effective and less expensive.

2. Ask each prospective candidate how his or her office bills. There is sometimes a fine line between an informal call, a twenty minute "educational consultation," and an $80 bill for the same time. See if you can establish ground rules for time spent with the lawyer. You, after all, are the customer. You were careful about prices and guarantees when it came to purchasing that R-DAT featured in RAP, and you should be equally businesslike with lawyers. In fact, most lawyers have second thoughts about representing clients who are so careless as to not inquire about rates and billing procedures.

3. More important than billing procedures is the candidate's range of expertise and contracts. What's this lawyer's reputation like? Does he or she negotiate and write publishing deals, recording and management contracts, endorsement agreements on a daily or weekly basis? Is he or she regularly on the phone to the business affairs departments of important names in the industry? And don't forget...just as we do, lawyers read trade publications. It's as easy for any lawyer to rattle off names and labels as it is for us with equipment. So TEST THAT LAWYER! Ask for the names of several current and recent clients, and CALL THEM!

It is imperative that you select someone who will present the right face, one for which you will need not apologize or make accommodations. It's your money and your purchase, so use it wisely.

REFERENCES: Before I jump off the page, I found two incredible reading materials on this topic, and I'd like to share them with you. If you have an interest past this column, your answers will probably come from these books. Enjoy!

BUSINESS LAW, by O.J. Anderson
(Totowa, NJ: Helix Books, 1983)

MUSIC BUSINESS HANDBOOK AND CAREER GUIDE, Fourth Edition by David Baskerville
(Denver, CO: Sherwood Co., 1985)