This Article Originally Published December 1999

by Kenny Kerner

A good, honest, knowledgeable music attorney is an invaluable asset to an artist, and an important part of his Pro Team. Music attorneys serve many functions, the least of which is shopping tapes to the record companies. And because nowadays the top attorneys in the business (you know, the ones who charge $450 per hour), will work for a fee of 5% of the artist's gross income—why, anyone can afford them! Hold on a minute—I'm not being sarcastic.

Start Shopping Now

Just recently, this band that I know, decided it wanted to release its own indie record and sell it at shows and on consignment in local record stores. To do this, and get the necessary UPC (Bar) Codes, seller's permit and resale number, the band needed partnership papers and hours of time to fill out applications for the State Board of Equalization, the Uniform Code Council and other government-related offices. This would have cost them thousands of dollars in attorney fees.

At the same time, the guys also decided to have someone shop their CD in foreign countries, but that meant drafting a service contract. More attorney time and charges. Fortunately, the band signed on with a top-level music attorney who is now working for a percentage of their income. After reviewing their press package and listening to their music, the attorney decided that this was a relatively safe gamble—that sooner or later, this band would be signed and would be making money.

By doing this now, when the band is unsigned, both the artist and the attorney have time to nurture a relationship. When presented with a recording contract, the attorney is already in place. The advance money received by the band will be commissioned by the attorney, but the process will not be held up because the band is poor.

The music business is abuzz with tasteless attorney jokes. Many attorneys deserve to be ridiculed, but the many honest ones (OK, OK, the handful of honest ones) deserve a lot of credit for helping artists stay out of contract troubles.

Finding an attorney who is willing to work with an unsigned artist will take some doing. Like doctors, you need to meet with them in person and come away with a good feeling. But before you waste your time, consider that 95% of the music business attorneys today do not shop tapes to record companies. They consider it a waste of time—not to mention an exercise in futility.

Now just you wait a second, Kerner. Are you trying to tell me that managers won't work with unsigned talent because there's only potential and no actual earnings, and now attorneys won't shop tapes because it's a waste of time? How are we going to get signed???

Slow down, buddy. There are many attorneys (the less expensive ones) who specialize in tape shopping, but these guys usually require a retainer (a fee, paid in advance, to cover their services). Also, you must meet with them in person to find out exactly how they go about their business of shopping. Since they provide the same services for many other clients, you want to be clear about not having your package thrown in with those of other artists. You want your tape shopped under separate cover—meaning, by itself!

Attorney Checklist
Here's another one of my famous checklists to help you in the selection of a music business attorney:

  • What other clients does your potential attorney represent?
  • Is he aware of the contemporary music scene?
  • Does your potential attorney network and hang out or stay home, alone at night.
  • Have others heard of your attorney?
  • What has he done within the industry?
  • What are his strongest points?
        Deal Making?
  • How accessible is he?
  • What are his hourly rates?
  • Will he give you a client list?
  • Will the attorney work for a percentage of your income?
  • What won't he do for you?
  • How privy is he to "industry insider" information?
  • How well-connected is he?
  • Do you feel comfortable when speaking with him in person?
  • Most importantly: what's your gut feeling about him?

In the state of California, the law dictates that if you are working with an attorney and his fee will exceed $1,000 for a particular project, he must provide you with a written document itemizing and explaining his fee structure. If he's working on a percentage basis, this does not apply. Good luck.

Excerpted from the book "Going Pro" written by Kenny Kerner and published by Hal Leonard.

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