Recording Agreement Explained Part 4: Power to the Artist

Sometimes it may feel like ALL the power rests with the label in recording contracts. The artist is bound to the label for what seems like an indeterminate time and restricted in exercising their creative muscles. You have rights in the entertainment industry to practice your trade and there is a help in law, it is called the Restriction of Trade doctrine.

The recording contract can not specify requirements which are imposed overly harsh or are unreasonably restrictive on an artist and their musical aspirations.  ‘I am in an exclusive recording contract and I just got a call from Kanye West and he wants to duet with me!’  Never fear dear artist, the law will usually look unfavourably on a label denying you this opportunity. Generally, there is a clause in your contract which will allow you to do certain things with the label’s permission and acknowledgment.

There are also limitations on how long and the nature of the commitment a record company can tie an artist  to the label. Courts in some instances have found it to be an unreasonable restraint to bind a band to a company for say 6 albums or 10 years. In California, the Labor Code Section 2855, forbids the enforcement of personal services contract against employees beyond 7 years from the commencement of services under it. The courts in the US have applied this provision to the music industry but note that contracts lasting over 7 years are not actually ‘illegal’ but just ‘unenforceable’ beyond the 7 year limit.

Now, don’t rely on the fact that if the contract is unreasonable you will sign it and then go to court to get out of it. BAD MOVE (yes, I am talking about you Gareth Evans -former Stone Roses Manager). While the court procedure takes place you may still be prevented from recording with anyone else until the matter is resolved. Before you know it, 3 years have passed, you are working at ASDA and you may not win at the end!

This is a tricky area of law and not straightforward. Just ask George Michael. Truthfully these issues are unlikely to arise, but it is important to know your rights!

So the checklist:

  1.  When you get it, do not, I repeat DO NOT sign it right then and there. It may seem basic, but you will surprised how many people would treat such an important contract like their basic mobile phone terms and conditions form. You need to read it from beginning to end. If you don’t understand something, ask. If you are not happy with the answer, ask someone else. Remember, this is important. You do not want a Stone Roses moment.
  2. Be aware of the requirement for “Prior Written Notice”. You cannot just tell people at the label in these instances. You have to write to them to say ‘you have not released out album within the release commitment period’ or ‘we do not approve of the use of this recording in this advert’. The door swings both ways, they also have to write to you. Legal cases can fall apart simply due to a lack of a letter.
  3. Be conscious of the time requirements. Specific dates are important, the last day to complete the recording etc. I recommend getting a wall year planner, outline all the dates clearly for all yours and the label’s responsibilities.
  4. Be aware of your rights, when the label must get approval, when your royalties are due etc.

Oh, and why the Stone Roses? Because they rock people and what happened to them SUCKED!

by Julia Bell and Juan Lopez.

Image source: Yale Law Library

For quality recording contract templates please visit The Music Law & Contracts website

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