Indie Musicians: Is it Time to Retain a Lawyer?
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am sharing my perspective. The following is not legal advice.
Because you are not only a talented musician but also a shrewd business person you plan to create an entity for your band (e.g., Limited Liability Company, Corporation). As you compose new music and lyrics you will want to protect your work through copyrighting. You may also pitch your songwriting to be licensed. For these legal matters (and others that arise) should you go it alone or hire a lawyer? If you decide to retain a lawyer, can one person/firm satisfy all of your legal needs?
DIY (Do it Yourself) vs. Hire a Professional
As an independent musician, money may be a commodity that is not as abundant as you would like it to be. As a result, out of a sense of frugality or perceived necessity, you may want to go it alone. Consider the pros/cons before doing so.
- Potential DIY. If you have the time to research and understand the intricacies of copyrighting and trademarks, you can absolutely file these registrations without the assistance of a lawyer. The associated fees will be less expensive without a lawyer, but you will probably spend more time understanding how to file these registrations on your own. Someone who specializes in these areas of law can assist you in filing these registrations more quickly and due to their expertise, more accurately. Unfortunately, neither of these registrations is intuitive, so filing mistakes are common.
- Always Hire a Lawyer. You should always hire a lawyer to create and/or negotiate contracts (e.g., legal entity operating agreements, music licensing, work for hire agreements). Each state and the federal government have statutes that govern legal agreements. You can research all applicable statutes and read books to clarify applicability. However, a professional will have templates from prior similar situations that he/she can draw upon to create a contract, which will make the process more expeditious. Additionally, retaining a lawyer who understands how similar contracts have been challenged or litigated in the past will make your contract stronger.
You would not see a podiatrist (foot doctor) if you had a sore throat. Similarly, you should not retain a lawyer who specializes in an area of law unrelated to the music business (e.g., elder law) to help you negotiate a music licensing agreement.
Large multi-national corporations (in the music industry and in other industries) have lawyers on staff and on retainer to negotiate their legal matters. As an indie, you should take a similar approach. I encourage you to retain the same lawyer/ law firm for various legal matters where it makes sense, but most likely you will need to retain more than one lawyer/law firm and you should know when to seek additional counsel.
You need to understand each lawyer’s practice, so you know whom to go to when you have a specific need for legal assistance. Most lawyers will be very clear with you regarding what type of law they practice, and what lies outside their area of expertise or desire. If you are unsure what areas of expertise your lawyer brings to the table, ask him/her. Some lawyers enjoy contracts of all kinds, but do not have any desire to be in a courtroom. Some lawyers focus on business entity creation, but do not have any desire to deal with copyright or trademark law. Some entertainment lawyers also have a legal entity creation area of practice, some do not. Some lawyers like to focus on small businesses and have a varied practice that includes legal matters that small businesses typically encounter.
Each lawyer and legal firm is unique. Educate yourself regarding who you should retain for each legal matter. Again—it is possible that you will only need to retain one person/firm, but it is more likely that you will need to retain two or more lawyers/law firms to meet all your legal needs.
How do you find a lawyer?
- Word of mouth. Ask other bands for referrals. Ask your recording studio who they know.
- Professional Associations. Lawyer associations generally list members on their website. In Colorado, consult the Colorado Bar Association.
- Research their licensing credentials. Every state has some from of licensing oversight. In Colorado, it is the Colorado Supreme Court. Research whether the person has ever had any complaints filed against his/her license and if so, the action that was taken.