Ethical Music Contracts:
Introduction — Why Am I Writing This?
In the twenty-three months since I earned my Master of Music and started working in the industry I have realized there are two main groups of people who write ethically questionable contracts. First there are the people who intentionally write contracts designed to maximize their own profits at the cost of other people; these people are not to be trusted. They often exploit the labor of people early in their careers, for reasons I will cover in one of the following articles. The second group of people who write ethically questionable contracts, and by far the larger of the two groups, is people who write ethically questionable contracts out of ignorance. These people mean no harm, but write contracts that can negatively affect others or themselves purely by accident. These people are either new to the industry or have had so many experiences with the first group that they have a skewed view of what goes into an appropriate contract. Both of these groups taken together show one thing; inexperience can be dangerous for young creatives.
I decided to write these articles after realizing that I, a Slytherin who prides myself in my ability to write good contracts and see business pitfalls, have signed a couple of rather dodgy contracts in the course of my career. One of these was during my undergraduate degree before I took any music business classes. I entered into a competition with the goal of getting exposure for my music. (Feel free to pause in order to roll your eyes.) Having absolutely zero knowledge of music business, I paid a fee to enter the competition and signed a form giving the choir hosting the competition full ownership of the music I submitted to them. Let me repeat that. I paid to give somebody else ownership of music without even a guarantee of a premiere. I did not win the competition, did not have my music performed, and am now bound by a legal contract that stipulates I must ask that choir for permission to have that music performed. That’s honestly kinda cringy. I would like to note that I do not fault the choir for this, as this is a fairly common practice. Many composing competitions are, by their very nature, predatory. It is difficult to design a fair competition if you do not have a well-known example of one. Regardless of intention, it was still a bad deal for the composers who submitted.
The second dodgy contract is one I can’t use the excuse of not having a prior knowledge of music business. I scored a short film with a fun team several months ago as part of a competition. After this competition was over, the director asked the team to sign a short additional contract as they wanted to film to go to festivals. I added a short clause to the contract sent to me specifying that I retained all ownership to my music and recordings of my music for the film, signed it, and sent it back. A while later, the film was recut, and, in the process, the director incorrectly claimed that they owned my music. After unsuccessfully trying to convince them to sign my regular contract, we parted ways because they misunderstood a term in my contract and falsely assumed I was trying to swindle them. Presumably, they are still under the impression that they own the music I wrote for the film. As with the choir competition, I do not fault the director involved in this situation. They were very new to the industry (this was their first short) and they had very limited knowledge of contracts, especially music contracts. This was another situation that could have been easily avoided if everybody had been through an adequate music business class.
All of that being said, I think there is a way to remedy these business issues. The next three articles in this set each cover something important to creating more fair and ethical contracts. They are as:
Ethical Music Contracts Pt I: Why Should We Write Ethical Contracts?