MYOB: Little legal things for bands

A good band works hard on the music it makes, but a smart band also focuses on the other stuff – important stuff like band names, copyright, licensing – things that ought to be discussed and clarified before they can spell trouble.

This photo was shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr Photostream of Seattle Municipal Archives
This photo was shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr Photostream of Seattle Municipal Archives

Now while there’s no disputing the fact that trust and respect play a huge role in the functioning of a band, it’s just as important to remember that your band wants to be a part of the music business and keeping this in mind, it’s always good to remember a few pointers – suggestions that might save you a world of trouble later.

How important is getting things in writing?

Sometimes, especially if you’re starting out or if you’re working with a network of musicians and organizers who are friends, it can be hard to stick to the idea of entering into a formal agreement. However, it’s always best to insist on some kind of written communication. The proper communication of event details, technical requirements and monetary compensation between the band and the event organizers/venue owners really helps to avoid any miscommunication – getting it in writing just drives that point home with greater force and clarity. From a legal/business perspective it’s important to remember that it’s always harder to prove the existence of an informal oral agreement.

Do we really need to talk about who owns the rights over the songs?

Well, you don’t have to but it wouldn’t hurt. Sometimes all the band members are involved in writing the songs; sometimes there’s someone who writes the lyrics, while there are others focussing on the music or composition of the song – whatever the arrangement, it’s important for the band members to sit down and discuss who gets to own the songs. It could be one or two band members or the entire band itself but sorting out song rights ownership early on is really important. Figuring out who owns the songs can influence many things like

(1)  When someone leaves the band – does the leaving band member still get to play the songs, especially if he or she wrote them?

(2)  When someone chooses to license your song – who do the royalties go to?

(3)  Someone wants to do a cover of your songs – whose permission do they need, the band’s or just an individual member’s?

(4)  You wrote most of the songs, but now that you’ve left the band, do they need your permission to play those songs?

It might seem like the kind of stuff to ignore today, but not being clear about these issues can lead to grisly legal battles.

Why worry about the band name?

Believe it or not, band names have always proven to be a huge bone of contention to people in the music industry. A band name is important – it’s your unique identifier and so it goes without saying that it ought to be thought about and protected. It’s always advisable to get your band name registered as a trademark, and it’s also important to discuss who gets to use the band name and for how long. Some band members agree to use the band name even with the departure of a member or two, while others decide that the band name stays with a certain key member of the band. It’s really upto the band but being sure of who owns the band name is important because

(1)  A band name is like a brand name and so will you get gigs based on what you are known as – at a time like that, you want to be sure about who gets to keep the band name. For example, the Pakistani pop band Jal had a huge legal dispute about who gets to keep the name, after one of its members, Atif Aslam decided to leave the band.

(2)  So you left the band on amicable terms but you want the posters of your new gig to mention you as the ex guitarist or the ex drummer of your previous band – its best to discuss if that’s ok with your previous band members, who might be able to argue with you (both legally and otherwise)

(3)  Take steps to protect your band name or you might get into trouble – alternatively, you can also sue another band that might be using your name. Case in point – the current legal dispute facing the boy band, One Direction.

So I have this great business proposition…?

It’s good to know that you can take decisions as a band, but as you get bigger, you may have to express that a bit more clearly. This is especially true when you’re negotiating with third parties – make sure that they know that any decision has to be run by all the band members/ key members, whichever is a comfortable arrangement for you. A band can earn its revenue through different avenues – tours, merchandise, endorsements – its best to clarify how the band, and its individual members want to go about splitting up these revenues both among themselves, and to figure out how and when to pay those people working with the band; like the manager, the sound engineer, the lawyer, the PR person, the stylist – what have you. Sit down and discuss the economics of being in the band – better yet, get it in writing for future reference.

So what’s the most important thing to remember?

Get things in writing and be very careful before you sign anything. Be wary of copyright transfers or assignments, endorsement deals or any other formal and informal written agreements you enter into. A good step towards making organizers and venues more responsible is to get things from them in writing. Most of all, everything is negotiable including the legal stuff. Invest in a good manager, PR person and lawyer – they really do help you get the most out of a situation.

These were some really basic pointers that were largely inspired by conversations I have with musicians in India. This is nowhere near comprehensive a list, but if there’s something you want to add or ask then go ahead and leave a comment or get in touch.

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