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Beginner’s Guide: Dodging bad label deals

Copyright, indefinite ownership, artistic rights – signing a label contract without prior scrutiny can lead to protracted, complicated scenarios for artists at any stage in their career. In her latest Beginner's Guide, E.M.M.A. explains what you need to consider before signing your music to a label

If you’re at a stage where you’re hoping to release your music on a label, now it’s time to make sure you don’t get done over by a dodgy deal. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, but I have sought legal advice and completed the TV show Suits. No-one talks about this. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of my music friends talk about a contract, ever.

When you’re new to the game, the old guard says things like: “There’s no money in music”, “You make your money from gigs”, “It’s 0.000001p per stream!” Coupled with a blasé attitude to contracts — “I just sign them! No-one reads them!” — you could end up signing away your rights. It might seem like small stakes now, but who knows where your music could be in five years?

It can feel awkward bringing rights up, if you’re worried about annoying a label who is showing good will by releasing your tunes. But anyone who’s any good would welcome a transparent conversation. It’s easier to get this sorted upfront rather than after releasing. 

“Here are my ten Universal contracts... I need every lawyer in the world to look at these” – Kanye West, Twitter, September 2020.

Lawyers can be pricey, but you do have options. The Musicians’ Union has a contract advisory service for members on their website, which offers one hour of specialist advice per contract. They also have standard contract templates so you can get an idea of the clauses you should be looking for.

Some law firms have an interest in helping new artists (after all, everyone was new once) and may offer more affordable rates. Check out the Law Society database at here — head to the Media and Entertainment sector and look for music specialists from there.

Here’s some things to be aware of when forming an agreement with a label: when you produce work (let’s assume it’s all you and you have no samples to clear), you automatically own your work. There are two copyrights that are applied: the copyright for the composition — i.e. the notes, chords and lyrics — and the copyright of the ‘recording’ or ‘master’ i.e. the audio itself. The composition copyright should always stay with you. This is what you would licence to a publisher in a publishing deal — but that’s another kettle of fish. Sometimes the label has a publishing arm, so make sure you seek clarity on that and what exactly their connections are.

Generally, the label will pay for the ‘master’ (recording). They might contribute to production costs and want to form an agreement with you to licence the master to them for a period of X years. Gone are the days of them owning your shit for life and leaving artists penniless in old age. Never sign over anything to anyone indefinitely. 

Progressive labels know they need to adapt to survive. Many of our favourite artists self-release, but there are good reasons to release on a label, such as marketing and PR. If you are entering an agreement with a label that involves them licensing the master for some time, the question is: what are they doing in exchange? How does their platform benefit you (and your community)? What costs do they want to recoup before paying your royalties? What is their plan to promote your work?

Do your research on labels and speak to their artists. Please don’t hand your work over to labels with a handshake and a hope that you are dealing with a ‘friend’ or a ‘nice person’. Protect your interests.