This Article Originally Published November 1999

by Donald Passman

Isn't it nice how all the superstars seem to be playing instruments and singing background on everybody else's records? These nonfeatured appearances are known as sideman performances, and there is hopefully a trend toward calling them sideperson performances. Now that you're educated, don't you wonder how this is possible? Doesn't it violate the exclusivity provisions of the superstar's agreement when he sings background for his pals on another label?

The answer is that there is a strong custom in the industry (and indeed you can have the provision inserted in your contract just by asking), that sideman performances are freely permitted, on the following conditions:

  1. The performance must be truly a background performance, without any solos, duets or "stepping out."
  2. Your exclusive company must get a "courtesy credit" in the form of--"Artist appears through the courtesy of _______ Records." Before I started in music I always thought they did that just to be nice.
  3. You can't violate your re-recording restrictions for any selection, even as a background performer.
  4. If you're a group, no more than two of you can perform together on any particular session. This is because your record company doesn't want your distinctive sound showing up on another label.

There is an exchange of correspondence between the record companies giving sidemen clearance in each specific instance, but this is usually just a rubber stamp process (unless one company is having a fight with the other about something unrelated to the sideman). After all, if one of the companies makes an issue of it, they won't have such an easy go the next time that the other company's artist shows up as a sideman on their label. The process is something like porcupines dancing carefully with each other.

Donald Passman is a Los Angeles-based music attorney with the firm of Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown. Specializing in music business law for over 20 years, his clients include major publishers, record companies, film companies, managers, producers, songwriters, and artists such as REM, Janet Jackson, Quincy Jones, Tina Turner and Green Day. On a regular basis, we will be excerpting from Mr. Passman's best-selling book, "All You Need To Know About The Music Business."