Music lawyers do a lot for little credit. If managers put deals on the table, lawyers vet the paperwork. Some help sniff out opportunities. Others function in a more advisory role, offering counsel without sifting through redlined documents. A select few function like A&Rs, ushering in new talent. Regardless, law governs industry, and attorneys make sense of it all.
In hopes of shedding light on legal experts, Stem spoke with seasoned lawyer Larry Katz, who brings two-plus decades of entertainment experience to the table. Keep scrolling to learn what’s worth thinking about before working with a music lawyer.
Know what you need from music lawyers
One artist might need a music lawyer to find their first deal, whereas another artist might need legal support to try and nullify a bad one.
“Even if an artist might not yet have the ability to compensate a lawyer, preliminary conversations would be great to seek out regarding the basics,” he tells Stem. “Even if the artist might actually have to prep some simple docs, like a song split agreement.”
A general rule of thumb: If a scenario involves negotiation, collaboration, or paperwork, a lawyer can help, even as companies like Stem make song ownership easier with digital splits for collaborators.
Ask for recommendations
Business has no room for blind trust. Leverage an internet connection to unearth background info on lawyers. Research their credentials before agreeing to work together. Cordially request references from the professional in question. Katz agrees: You can never be too careful.
“The best way is to ask others involved in music,” he says. “Try to get a personal recommendation from someone who has worked with a specific lawyer and had a good experience. Look for an engaging personality, and check online for evidence of any previous complaints.”
Understanding industry norms can help make the right choice as much as a friend’s cosign. Katz has worked long enough to spot a red flag when he sees it.
“Watch out for a lack of significant direct music business experience working on music deals. Look out for immediate requests for a ‘retainer’ that seems like too large of an amount. Excessive hourly rates (anything above $500 an hour), too. A real warning is hearing or seeing a lawyer immediately pass off an artist to a lesser associate because they’re too busy with higher-profile clients to actually give that artist proper personal attention”
Come to meetings prepared
Artists might benefit from thinking about legal meetings like studio sessions. Prepping for attorney talks is akin to writing a song before visiting the vocal booth. Productivity rises and project costs fall when you work ahead.
“Any and all information on the artist’s own songs, recordings, releases is helpful,” Katz confirms. “Artists should have the names and contact information for their contributors or collaborators. The same goes for samples, producer agreements, and and any prior documents signed by the artist. If a creator or company is looking to enter into an agreement with that artist, that should be voiced too.”
Attorneys value organization and curiosity. The better equipped you are to talk shop, the easier your lawyer’s job is.
Recognize “lawyer” doesn’t equal “qualified”
Not all lawyers are made equal. Music rights might dizzy the most renowned criminal justice attorney. When we asked Katz if any Bar Exam survivor could offer value to artists, he made his answer clear.
“Absolutely not! An in-depth understanding of the customs, practices, deals, standards, etc., coupled with significant experience is essential for a lawyer to be able to advise an artist or any other creative person in music.”
While non-music lawyers might have music lawyer friends, it’s best to rely on attorneys who live and breathe your industry of choice. Publishing deals, record deals, producer agreements and copyright protection will likely confuse those unexposed to their nuances.
Learn the norms of legal fees
No one ever appreciates a ripoff. It’s crucial to set accurate expectations for yourself before discussing money with an attorney. Lawyers normally receive five percent of a client artist’s net earnings (money an artist takes home after distribution fees, label fees, collaborator splits, etc.) from a project they work on. Katz explains:
“If a lawyer is simply vetting a deal, the five percent fee applies. But it could be closer to 10 percent (or higher) if the lawyer actually procures the deal, in a commission-based arrangement. If it’s not commission-based, a lawyer might request $1,500 for vetting a small deal, to as high as $50,000 for a major deal. This is often paid by the label, as an additional advance to the artist.”
When it comes to dollars, cents and percentages, never shy from a second opinion. Long-term attorney-client relationships tend to allow for trust, but diligence doesn’t hurt.
Music lawyers often play a major role in their clients’ lives. Just as the right artist-manager match can yield entire careers, the best attorneys will watch your back, maximize your value and guide you through the ups and downs of entertainment. If you enjoyed this article, we recommend additional research on music’s legal landscape. Get a high-level walkthrough of the publishing industry and demystified music rights from your friends at Stem.