As an artist or creator in the entertainment industry you do not need to know everything about the business in order to succeed, but you should hire people who do. When I was a teenage recording artist back in the late 70’s, I can remember being intimidated by the “suits”. Now that I am on the other side of the desk, I have a broader perspective. I am here to tell you that those “suits” can help you; provided, however, that like any other aspect of your life, you use your instincts in making your selection.
The best place for you to start building your “team” of representatives is with a competent lawyer who specializes in entertainment law, which is a combination of contract, intellectual property (copyright and trademark) and licensing law. Eventually, your team could possibly include a personal manager, an agent and a business manager/accountant. Your lawyer can assist you in assembling your team. He may then function as the linchpin in coordinating the activities of your team and insuring that these people are acting in your best interests.
A good lawyer will navigate you safely through the minefield that is the entertainment industry. Entertainment contracts can be extremely complicated. Proper negotiating and drafting requires superior legal skills as well as knowledge of entertainment business and intellectual property practice. Your lawyer can explain the concepts of copyright and trademark to you and assist you in securing proper protection for your work. In addition to structuring and documenting a deal to maximize the benefits to you, some lawyers also actively solicit deals for their clients. Moreover, if you are not properly compensated in accordance with your contract, you may look to your lawyer to commence a lawsuit to enforce the terms of your contract.
When looking for a lawyer, you should not be afraid to speak with a few before retaining one. Some lawyers are with large firms but many are solo practitioners. Lawyers have various personalities and legal skills and you should seek out a situation where the “vibe” is right. Although your first contact may be on the telephone or online, most likely you will have an initial consultation for which there may be a modest charge, although some lawyers may not charge for that first meeting depending on the circumstances. Remember, your lawyer’s time is money, so be prepared and be on time for your appointment.
It is not necessary that your lawyer like or even understand your creative endeavors be it an app, a book, music, your film or TV pilot idea. It is more important that you feel he or she is a trustworthy and competent advisor. The lawyer/client relationship is known as a “fiduciary” relationship which means that a lawyer must always act in your best interest and not his own or that of anyone else. Your lawyer is also under a duty to keep your conversations with him confidential. It is often in your best interest that it stay that way.
Keep in mind that a lawyer with other big name clients is not necessarily the best lawyer for you; if it comes down to taking your calls or those of a superstar, which do you think will get preference?
You are probably wondering, “How much will this cost?” Well, remember that the only thing a lawyer has to sell is his time. A lawyer, much like a doctor, is selling services, so if you go to him for advice you should expect to pay. With the odds of success in this business being what they are, very few lawyers will agree to work for you and wait for payment until you are successful and can pay your bills. A lawyer specializing in the entertainment field usually charges an hourly fee or a percentage of the money value of your deal. Hourly rates generally run from $300-$500 and up. Percentages on a pending deal are based on the “reasonable value of services rendered” in connection with a particular contract and generally run around 5-10% of the deal. A few lawyers may charge a set fee, such as $1,000 or $5,000, to review and negotiate certain documents. Check around to see if the fee arrangement proposed is competitive. Most lawyers will require a payment of money in advance or “retainer”, which can range anywhere from $500 to $10,000 (and more for litigation matters). Even those who take a percentage of the deal as a fee may require that you pay some amount as a retainer. In addition to the hourly fee or percentage, you are usually required to reimburse your lawyer for his out-of-pocket costs, including long distance telephone calls, photocopies, postage, fax, etc.
You should realize that in retaining a lawyer you are making a contract even if your agreement is not written. In return for a fee, the lawyer promises to render legal services on your behalf. However, some lawyers may want a fee arrangement in writing (specifically in connection with a percentage deal) and/or a payment direction letter. A cautious lawyer will advise you that you have the right to seek the advice of another lawyer as to the propriety of a percentage fee arrangement.
You should consult a lawyer if you are asked to sign anything. Too many aspiring creative artists want to get a deal so badly they will sign almost anything that promises them a chance to do it. Even successful careers have a relatively short life span, especially when it comes to careers in music, movie and television. Therefore, it is important for you to get maximum returns in the good years and not sign away rights to valuable income.
Do not rely on anyone else (or even their lawyer) to tell you what your contract says. Your lawyer will “translate” the deal for you and explain to you exactly what you are getting into. Do not let anyone rush you or pressure you into signing any agreement. There is really no such thing as a standard “form” contract. Any such contract was drafted by that party’s attorney to protect that party’s interests; your lawyer can help negotiate more favorable terms for you. Everyone needs someone to look out for his or her interests. That is why you need a lawyer. If you believe in yourself and your talents, give yourself the benefit of the doubt, invest in legal representation and do not sign anything without consulting your lawyer and making sure it is the right deal for you.
As a final piece of free legal advice, never sign anything – other than an autograph - without having your own lawyer review it first.
Wallace E.J. Collins III is an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer with more than 30 years of experience based in New York. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before receiving his law degree from Fordham Law School. Tel: (212) 661-3656; www.wallacecollins.com