Deputy Director - Arts Law Centre of Australia
If you want to earn a living from your music, it’s important to know your rights and how to protect them. If you’re thinking about making music your career, that means you’re thinking about it as a business and that means you have to be business-like and commercial.
If you’re a songwriter, your most valuable asset is the music you create and the lyrics you write. If you’re a performer (and you may be both), your most valuable asset is the way you perform and the recordings that can be made of those performances. Those are the assets which might be able to generate income and build your reputation so you need to put yourself in a position where you’re not giving them away, or making them too freely available on the internet, and you’re generating as much value as possible.
Being business-like means only signing contracts you understand and making sure you are not giving up more than you get – in other words, making good deals for your music. If you get sent a publishing agreement or recording agreement or anything like that, get advice from a lawyer before signing. Arts Law has a cheap document review service that gets you access to some of the best music lawyers in the country! Musicians can also find sample agreements on the Arts Law website that are structured in a way that‘s commercial but fair to both sides.
The Western Australian Music Industry Association has a really practical section on its website called WAM GUFF written by a music lawyer. It’s got all sorts of practical legal and business advice about band managers, playing live gigs, insurance and recording deals and other contracts.
There are lots of laws that apply to running a business, but the single most important one for musicians to know about is the Copyright Act. Copyright is what gives you control over your music and – hopefully - earns you income.
There are lots of free resources that explain the Copyright Act really well. You can go to the Arts Law website and look at one of our information sheets or read real life case studies about musicians, or there’s the Copyright Council website, which has also got lots of information about copyright and music.
It’s worthwhile setting out in writing how your band is going to work. Your band agreement can deal with things like ownership of songs and equipment, who operates the band bank account, how to share expenses and earnings and what happens if someone leaves the band. Experience shows that if this stuff isn’t written down at the beginning, it can really create headaches later.
Usually when the band starts up, everything is based on trust and friendship and no one really wants to get too legal or specific, but things change over time. For some it’s the beginning of a serious commitment to a musical career, for some it’s a bit of fun until they get a ‘real job’ and for others it’s a hobby and a way of hanging out with mates. Writing things down puts everyone on the same page, which is important because often different band members have very different expectations.
If you don’t have a written agreement, you may have problems later recording and licensing songs that someone who’s no longer in the band helped to write. Sometimes that issue doesn’t come up until a band member is long gone and the recording company is knocking on the door, looking to sort out copyright. If you haven’t got permission from the old band member, you can put a recording deal in jeopardy. But if you’ve got it written down, something that says you’ve all worked on these songs together and if anybody leaves the people who are still in the band are allowed to perform and record – well, you’ve sorted that problem.
Band break ups can be consensual – or they can be acrimonious - and issues like ownership of the band’s name and repertoire can be easier to manage if a solution was written into your agreement at the beginning.