Think Before You Sign

I figured, ‘If I ever get offered a chance to sign a deal, I’ll only do it if I got to do it how I want.’ So my contract is structured in such a way that I’m really protected. – Regina Spektor

In the first article published here we shared information on the financial impact piracy has on musicians as opposed to the industry as a whole. The obvious conclusion from that article was that paying for music from a legitimate vendor is the best way to support the music you love. Unfortunately, given a couple of articles that have come to our attention in the past couple of months, this isn’t always going to be true. There is another filter your money has to get past before the band can see it. The Label.

Signing to a label, large or small, is almost universally the next step for an up-and-coming artist. These groups will work to spread the word about your music and help you tap markets that would otherwise have been nigh untouchable. The vast majority of the time (almost entirely, in fact, so don’t let this article completely cloud your judgement) this is a positive and progressive step that will get your career, if not to its destination, well on its way. Unfortunately, as in all things, there are those willing to take advantage of those new to the game. What follows are two accounts where the trust a young band had in the alleged professionals at their labels was profoundly violated.

Colin Buchanan of Paper Lions at The Mackenzie Theatre. Copyright mynameismoe.

You would easily be forgiven if you have never heard of Paper Lions (check them out here). If you’re not from Canada you may not even have heard of Prince Edward Island, our smallest province, which they call home. Two and a half years ago they created Trophies, their 4th recording, entirely on their own dime. Shortly thereafter, the EP attracted the attention of a label with whom, after a period of negotiation, they signed and Trophies was published. Fast-forward 18 months to the present day. The record has been selling for a year and a half. The band should have earned a decent amount of money to put towards their next album (not to mention rent and food). That’s ‘should have’ because, as the band wrote in this open letter, they have not yet seen a cent from the record’s sales. Nothing from Amazon, iTunes or even regular old walk-in-the-door stores (those that still exist, anyway.) So what is a young band to do? They would likely win a court case but where’s the money for legal fees to come from? Instead, they took a different tack. They’re taking their story to the people and giving away their record in the process. (You can get it in the open letter linked above.) By doing so, they’re generating more buzz about their music than the label was ever able to provide. After all, everybody loves a scandal.

Something like this couldn’t happen to a better-known, more established band, right? You’d hope so. OK Go learned otherwise, though. The band that made a big splash with this video have had their share of successes, including a million dollar deal with Chevrolet wherein the band was granted a free rein to do what they pleased. So where did things go wrong? In their brief period signed to EMI (who unceremoniously dropped them when they deemed they ‘weren’t a commercial proposition’) the label created a music video for them. The budget for this video? $505,000. Who’s paying for it? OK Go. Due to a fancy bit of legal wrangling, EMI is claiming all revenues from the video as ‘unrecouped expenditures’. The publishing expenses of this video are independent from other expenses and revenues and the label is allowed to reclaim them. So the band will likely forever be in debt to EMI for this video (which they originally pitched with a budget of just $65,000, we should add.) As their manager puts it, ‘you won’t get rich just by having an internet hit.’ Fortunately, OK Go has several and they’re making every one count.

So what does this mean to you and I as music fans? Well, Paper Lions did state that they did get all the funds from sales of their record at shows so, as we said in our first article, that is still far and away the best way to ensure your money gets to the band. Otherwise, this is more of a cautionary tale for new artists (and everyone else, for that matter.) Be aware. Carefully read over anything before you put pen to paper. If it’s something of real importance or if you don’t understand the legalese, get a trustworthy lawyer to look it over.

Unfortunately, Paper Lions did not mention who the label was that they were dealing with. So, while we could speculate on who the guilty party is, we shall refrain from naming names. If you are an artist and want to know whom to avoid we can only suggest you contact the band directly.

Also, a brief reminder that there are still 2 weeks left to get in your entry to win a copy of Arkells’ Michigan Left. Send us your independent music story (topofourlungsblog@gmail.com) before the end of March and you’re entered. That’s it.

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