Music law is a complicated niche, and like all legal niches, it comes with its own challenges. Below Lawyer Monthly gains insight on the music industry’s legal personalities through the eyes of Tony North, Co-founder and CEO of Centtrip Music.
Whether you are an A-list client or a fledgling artist, when entering into any kind of deal in the music industry where money and contracts are involved, you will likely be putting your fate in the capable hands of a music lawyer who will help you make sense of complicated legal matters and an accountant to crunch the numbers.
Like the roadies and lighting engineers who set the stage for the band out of the view of the public eye, lawyers and accountants are some of the music industry’s lesser-known stars.
From managing rights to top-selling singles and multi-million estates to navigating international tax issues and representing artists in high-profile copyright infringement cases, these individuals are arguably their most important partners as they ensure artists and their representatives get a fair deal. While their work rarely comes under the spotlight, it is becoming more valuable than ever before as the music industry undergoes unprecedented change caused by digital transformation.
Through my work with Centtrip Music, a specialist division of Centtrip dedicated to helping touring artists and their crews cut down on foreign-exchange and international payments costs, I have seen many truly talented lawyers and accountants in action.
Without a shadow of a doubt, their work is crucial, yet it is full of unique challenges. They negotiate record deals and touring contracts for their clients, helping them steer clear of clauses that could prove punitive or cause future legal disputes and saving millions in potential damages.
They also work hard to keep on top of changes to legislation prompted by the rapid pace of technological advancement in the music industry. And they do all this while keeping to very tight deadlines and managing often unrealistic expectations.
Not only do they need to be patient and sticklers for details, they should also be skilful at negotiating intricate deals with clients who have little understanding of the law and even less time to spend reading the ‘small-print’.
“My role is to make sure our clients always understand the minutiae, as well as the big picture,” said Chris Phillips, a partner at the London-based Trainer Shepherd Phillips Melin Haynes LLP specialising in corporate, media and entertainment law. “We are there to guide and help artists, big and small, to avoid existing and potential pitfalls, and ultimately to make sure their creativity gets acknowledged publicly and financially.”
They are also called upon when things go wrong. And complications, for various reasons, are extremely commonplace. Sometimes artists and labels hack out deals and sign long-term agreements without seeking any proper legal advice, only to later discover a clause they did not quite understand is now working against them. Inevitably, this can lead to complex disputes and court cases.
Another big area that has been put back into the spotlight is the issue of copyright and its hazy boundaries. Over the past couple of years, a series of high-profile legal battles and most recently over the ownership of the melody from the aptly named hit ‘Blurred Lines’, have hit the headlines as re-shaping the industry and setting a potentially controversial precedent.
Technological advancement is a challenge faced equally by accountants, who are contending with threats posed by cloud technology, the rise of streaming and the ever-increasing global nature of the music business, which requires expert knowledge of international tax systems. Both professions can also find themselves having to break down industry stereotypes so that artists and others in the music world understand what they do and begin to view them not as a cost, but as an asset.
And to cite one of the finest, Ann Harrison, a consultant solicitor at London’s SSB Solicitors who represent many of the country’s top artists, those who make it in the industry must be humble and approachable.
“My first boss Laurence Harbottle drummed into me that I should on no account be in a signing photo because ‘it’s not about me, it’s about the client and their successes’.”
That success though is in no small measure a tribute to the work of Ann and her peers – work that we want to recognise and celebrate. That is why earlier this year we launched The Legal & Accountancy 50, acknowledging the top lawyers and accountants in the music industry, upon whom some of the world’s biggest stars rely. It is high time we recognised their huge contribution to the industry.