8 Red Flags Artists Should Watch for Before Signing any Agreement

Unfortunately, I’ve recently been reminded about the predatory behavior of some in the music industry. Quite regularly, artists reach out to me for my opinion on an agreement offered, a private message they received on Instagram, or something someone said to them that confused them. So I decided to put together a list of some common “red flags” that you should be aware of that can help you make better decisions. Of course, you should never sign an agreement without having a music attorney WORKING FOR YOU (meaning, they have YOUR best interest in mind and not the other party) look it over for you or make a decision without at least having a consultation with one. Did that make sense? In other words, hire a music attorney before agreeing or signing anything. And also, I am not an attorney so these are just my own opinions and thoughts.

We don’t do contracts

They may say it in a warm fuzzy way. Something like, “We totally trust you. We have a good feeling about you. Let’s not worry about contracts or any of that crap.” The contracts are usually to protect YOU, the artist. If ever there was a scenario that exploits an artist’s ignorance, it is this. Not having a contract will certainly complicate everything should the song blow-up and now you have label interest.

We don’t need lawyers and neither do you

If anyone acts offended that you would “bring a lawyer” into the negotiating process, then they are not people you would probably want to do business with. Of course, you need a lawyer.

Bait and Switch

If they say one thing in a phone conversation or text and then present you with a contract that says something totally different, then be cautious. Honest mistakes can definitely happen or misunderstandings or miscommunications. So it might not be a total dealbreaker. How they react to your calling them out can tell you if this is someone you want to do business with. If they get defensive or flat-out lie, you should consider walking away. If it was an honest mistake, then perhaps continue the conversation cautiously.

Pressuring you to feel rushed to sign

As soon as they throw out something like “we just made the same offer to another artist but we can’t sign both of you, it’s really who signs the agreement first” or anything making you feel pressured or rushed, just step away. Tell them you will need more time. If they aren’t willing to wait for you to carefully review the agreement with your attorney then perhaps this deal is not for you.

Offering an exclusive contract for a lengthy period of time

Exclusivity isn’t always a bad thing but make sure the risk is worth the potential reward. Talk to your music attorney.

Name dropping that can’t be verified

Name dropping in and of itself is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, this business is built on reputation and credits, and relationships. What IS bad is dropping a name and then there is no verification of it being true. “I worked with Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jay-Z…” search the person’s name on google which should lead you to a site like AllMusic.com You can search their name where you can verify what exactly they did and with what artists. If they were the caterer at Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s private party, that obviously doesn’t count so you want to be sure the work they did with their famous artist can be verified in some way. Another site to check is discogs.com or sometimes good ol Wikipedia will have the info you need.

Old School Record Deal

If you (the artist) are paying for all production, either upfront or recoupable from back-end royalties, why on God’s green earth should anyone or any entity still own the master recordings other than YOU? This was typical of a record deal back in the day. All you need to do is watch a documentary about any of the bands or artists from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s or even 90’s and this is so typical that it is cliche. It’s like buying a house. Most of us don’t have $250k+ in our bank accounts which is basically what one might need to buy a middle-class home in the good ole USA so we take out a mortgage. We “borrow” the money and pay interest. Once we are finished paying off that loan, we now own the home. Well, many record deals are like borrowing the money (from the record company) that is needed to create your album, promote it, and give you money to live on (an advance). You pay it back with album sales, publishing splits, percentage of merchandise, percentage of tour revenue, etc., all depending on the agreement. Then when you are done paying it off, your record label could possibly still OWN that master recording. What?! It’s crazy but this is usually what they will try to negotiate. Sharing a portion of the master recording in exchange for their capital might be worth it to you but if you are paying back every red cent with interest, tell me why that is even slightly tempting? The other issue is that there are many different record label business models these days. Some never front any capital at all. You are paying them a monthly fee to pay for their services and the product. In this case, you most definitely want to own everything outright when the album is finished. If the business model is more of a “work/time” in exchange for a royalty split on the backend, that can certainly be a fair deal. Just be sure to have your music attorney look any agreement over for you before signing.

Changing terms after work is done and holding product hostage

If you did not sign an agreement before working with a producer but you “believed” the terms were “work for hire”, meaning, you paid said producer a set fee for their recording and production services with no co-writing agreement or publisher splits agreed to beforehand, but then they hold the final master “hostage” and demand co-writing or co-publishing ownership, this is bad. I saw it first hand. Sitting in a studio, listening to a finished mix of a song for an artist that I was coaching. After everyone is happy and congratulating one another, the producer says, “Ok, now let’s talk about publishing. I would like 50% publishing on this song”. The agreement was clearly upfront money, work for hire. And yet, here he was, holding the final wav file hostage until the artist was willing to give over 50% of publishing royalties. How to handle this might be a case-by-case basis. You can simply remind them this is not what was agreed to and then hopefully they will say “yeah you are right” and then promptly send you the master wav file. If they push it and demand it or they won’t let go of the wav file, you can bring on your attorney to handle this.

The bottom line is….hire a music attorney to review any contract you are considering signing. Yes, this will cost you money. But not much if you consider how detrimental signing a bad deal could cost you (in money but also time, emotional stress, and trauma).

There is no need to be cold or defensive when communicating with people about potentially working together. You don’t even need to be paranoid. Not everyone is out to get you. There are good, honest people in the industry. However, there are enough bad ones lurking around (who usually don’t seem bad and can be very nice on the surface) to warrant you’re being careful. Be educated, cautious and gracious with those you have conversations with, and…hire a music attorney. 😉


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