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When & Why to Hire an Entertainment Attorney

We’ve all heard stories of artists who sign a contract only to regret it later. They couldn’t afford representation. They thought they understood the agreement. They didn’t want to ruin a relationship. They didn’t want to miss an opportunity.

It’s no wonder these stories are common. People are uncomfortable talking about business. They rush into decisions. They may not have a representative. They may wish to avoid “insulting” the other side or fear making themselves look unprofessional. They may feel coerced.

Regardless of the reason, if you’re presented with a contract to sign, it’s time to find an attorney.

When we think of lawyers, we think of contracts. Meant to govern transactions involving substantial value and flexible terms, contracts define a relationship between two parties by laying out the rights and responsibilities of each, making it easy to understand and remember what was agreed.

Most would not think of making a major purchase, such as a house, without being represented by an attorney. Expensive, complex, important transactions are made easier when a third party is enlisted to offer advice, read over the fine print, and negotiate the details. Such deals seem too big not to involve a lawyer, even in places where form contracts are allowed, and an attorney is not required by law.

The entertainment business is different. First, it’s a rights business, and US copyright law expressly states that no transfer or assignment of rights can be made without a written agreement. Essentially, the entertainment business generates a lot of transactions requiring contracts, making entertainment attorneys prevalent and important.

Second, while rights have value, the music business is unlike, for example, the housing market, where it is easy to identify and appropriately price a transaction, the value of an early-career, untested artist’s rights may be unclear. While the rights they seek to exchange remain identical to those of a seasoned veteran, the value of those rights may not be immediately known. Perhaps the artist will build a lucrative career; perhaps they will never get off the ground. It’s difficult to predict the future, but it’s possible to give up one’s rights too easily or for too little money while in the early stages of a career.

For developing artists, this is especially problematic, because they may find it difficult to rationalize the cost of an attorney when considering the revenue generated by a transaction. They may not know that the law requires that transfers of intellectual property require written agreements. They may not have the foresight to understand the value of their rights or have the connections necessary to find an attorney to represent them, much less the money to pay for the services. Regardless, having an attorney available to review a contract ensures one’s rights will be protected and offers peace of mind about the decision to sign. Being forthright with any financial concerns is important: many attorneys will find a way to work things out.

Each artist’s career is unique, but the initial draft of a form contract won’t reflect that. An attorney can review the language and tailor it as needed. An attorney can spot language that is more favorable to the other side and can offer revisions that make the deal more balanced. Having seen many similar agreements, legal representation knows what is generous, what is standard, and what is out of line. They can also serve as a buffer between the parties, preventing their client from making rash decisions, helping to keep emotions in check, and managing the process so that negotiations don’t damage the relationship.

Despite all of these considerations, many aspiring artists think they only need to speak to an entertainment attorney to determine if a contract is fair or unfair. And that might be the biggest mistake. Narrow thinking means missing out on lots of other advice.

While the question of when to find a manager is dependent on many factors, the moment to hire an attorney is quite clear. Often, the first member of an artist’s team isn’t a manager, it’s an attorney.

Beginning such a relationship means protecting oneself from making an ill-advised decision, but it shouldn’t be a one-off situation. Having an attorney means taking advantage of other opportunities for advice that go beyond okaying a contract. Attorneys offer much more value. They can provide advice on structuring deals and how to close them. While their job may appear adversarial, they actually want to get the parties to an agreement, so it’s always in their best interest to help find common ground. They’ve seen far more deals than most managers and have advice to share about all aspects of the process. Many offer personal management services, and given the wide range of their contacts, they may be willing to provide referrals meant to connect their clients to other industry professionals.

An attorney is a trusted confidant, able to give advice and counsel different from other members of one’s team. Don’t sell them short. Utilize them early. An attorney is likely to be needed as soon as an artist generates some business, and they can help navigate that business even if they are the only member of one’s team.