Disclaimer: The information provided below is not to be considered legal advice. Songtrust cannot provide legal advice or assistance, but does encourage you to do as much research as you can, ask questions, and review all contracts closely.
As soon as you’ve reached the stage in your career where you’re being offered contracts - whether for recording, live performances, sync representation, or music publishing, you will need legal support, from a professional who knows the music industry. A music lawyer’s role can be critical to an artist’s career - from guiding their trajectory, making strategic introductions, and brokering their first deal, to maintaining their connections, acting as a confidant, and supporting a productive manager/artist relationship. Hiring a trustworthy legal representative with depth of experience can be a true asset for any artist or songwriter’s growth and success.
Understanding the basics of what a music lawyer does and doesn’t do are essential to know before you consider working with one. In this article, we’ll break down the role of a music lawyer, when you might need a lawyer, and what to look out for when entering a lawyer-client agreement.
What are the responsibilities of a music lawyer?
Typically, a music lawyer is a contract specialist who represents artists and brokers, and negotiates their deals for them with third parties like labels (or distributors), publishers (or administrators), managers, agents (live, sync, brand), merchandisers, brands/sponsors, and sometimes platforms like YouTube or Spotify.
They assist artists in understanding the myriad concepts that drive the music business, conceiving strategies designed to procure the best deal possible.
A music lawyer should be your first point of contact when building a team as they are the linchpin that will bring it all together. They are the first line of defense and consultation when it comes to various career-related matters. Your lawyer will present you with all the information you need to make an informed choice when a deal comes up.
Halina Wielogorska, a partner specialising in music and entertainment at Level Law, says publishers (and most businesses) will have a fleet of lawyers representing them to make sure that every last nuance of the deal is considered to protect the publisher’s interests. “It is incredibly important that the talent has a lawyer to counteract that imbalance, support them to understand all the small print, and improve their position,” she says. “All your power is focused at the point just before you sign and having a good lawyer will give you the best possible chance of getting a good deal.”
At what point should a creator consider adding a music lawyer to their team?
The answer may vary based on who you talk to. For some, it’ll be when you need legal advice. Others will say to contact one as early as you possibly can, whether you’ve landed a deal or not. The more realistic answer is it depends on your situation, your needs, and your goals.
Nick Weaser is a partner specializing in music and entertainment at Keystone Law. He often finds that emerging artists come to him with problems because they haven’t appointed a lawyer early enough. “They’ve signed something which they thought was innocuous and wouldn’t have an impact on their future career but it’s more serious than they thought,” he says. “In some cases they can be unpicked, but in most cases they can’t.”
“It’s important to get all your ducks in a line as early as possible in terms of getting producers and mixers signed off, samples, and so on,” Nick adds.
If you don’t know where to find a good lawyer, tap into your own network and ask for recommendations. Post on social media and you’ll often find that friends in the industry will be willing to share the names of lawyers they recommend. You can also do a simple online search for a music law firm and cold call them.
What should creators know before hiring a music lawyer?
When you formally engage a lawyer, they will send you a letter of engagement and their terms of engagement. That document outlines the lawyer-client relationship, what the charges are, how to complain about the lawyer, the lawyer’s insurance, and how the lawyer records time or, if it’s fixed fees, what the fees are. This is generally a non-negotiable terms and conditions document, similar to what you’ll get with an accountant.
Fees and billing
Music lawyers are expensive, but fees are negotiable. Make sure you don’t accept the first quote you’re given if it doesn’t match up to your budget.
Billing practices vary from firm to firm and lawyer to lawyer. Some may allow time to accrue and request payment in bulk, others may bill at regular intervals. It’s at the discretion of the lawyer, so be sure to clarify this before you sign with them.
You should consider paying roughly 5-10% of your deal value. What’s key here though is that legal fees are generally added to the payment the artist receives when they sign on the dotted line, in other words, fees will be covered by the company trying to sign you.
Building out your team
Music lawyers operate at the center of an artist’s career, so it's essential that you choose someone who is a good fit for your vision and personality, whether you prefer tough and ruthless, or friendly and supportive.
The very best music lawyers marry a conscientious attitude with legal expertise, a deep understanding of the industry and a bountiful network of contacts, and, of course, a passion for music.
Remember that getting your music career set up for success involves more than just building your team or creating new songs. You also need to get yourself set up for short and long-term success, including how you’ll make money from your songs. Download our Royalty Checklist to make sure you’re covered, at least, for global royalty collection.
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We created this guide to answer a simple question: How do songwriters support themselves?
The answer is not as simple as we’d like, but our goal is to make it as clear, transparent and understandable as we possibly can.
Songtrust is more than just a rights management platform and publishing administrator - we’re a team of experts in the music community who strive to educate, support, and provide thought leadership to creators, representatives, and businesses across the music industry.
Our hope is that you’ll finish this guide with an better understanding of the business behind songwriting and have actionable resources to help you be successful.