Just Sign Here: The Art of Protecting Yourself As a Musician

(Image credit: Melville Crump/Mad World Enterprises)

One important topic for musicians is the world of written agreements and how one’s services relate to the industry they work in.

Let’s get the first thing out of the way: Most musicians hate talking about business and money. Or, should I say, they hate talking about it publicly, because when you get a couple of musicians together in private, one subject that usually pops up is business.

They don't like to talk about it publicly because they're afraid others might consider them difficult to work with or demanding when it comes to getting paid on tour, when recording, etc. Some simply don’t know what they want or what their work is worth. Either way, read on because it gets more interesting.

If you take "music business" and split it up, you get two words—music and business. We often do our best to take care of the music part, but we're still lacking the other half. Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry once said that whenever you mix money with art, you're playing with the devil. It's true on several levels. However, Joe clearly understands that without the business, most professionals (people who depend on their art to make a living) wouldn't be able to make art.

It’s a necessary evil that all musicians should embrace and learn to manage.

If you, like many artists, aren't comfortable negotiating, find someone who can do it on your behalf. I've found out that many professional organizations welcome written agreements when hiring you for a tour, an album project or whatever. It protects them as well.

One of my favorite lines in the biz is "Friends don’t need contracts." Well, maybe. In reality, however, they do. One thing is certain: You'll wish for one if/when you're no longer friends. What happens to the work you did together? Who owns what?

Here is my favorite: What if the work you did together is beginning to generate a lot of money? Another reason for a contract: Both parties understand clearly what one and the other is willing to do for each other. It removes the guess work and the tongue biting, and it allows you to concentrate on the music. You have to be responsible in any situation, and a huge part of this is being comfortable with the terms you want to work with.

It is silly to expect anyone in the music world to take care of you just because they love you. That’s what moms are for. I'm going to go a step further and say that others will try to exploit your biggest weaknesses. This is not only in the music business, of course, but it certainly applies here. In some ways, this called being human. Your weakness could be a fear of not finding another gig so you stay in the same situation.

We've all heard musicians' stories as to how one got screwed, ripped off or what not. These things are real and do happen. Just remember, if you allow people to exploit your weaknesses, someone will exploit them. It's ultimately up to you to educate yourself, know what you want to get paid and how, or negotiate a proper deal. Otherwise, you have yourself to blame. There are countless books out there that give you tips on better negotiating techniques and how to position yourself for a better outcome.

l'm not saying everyone in the music business is a shark waiting to rip you off. Also, some things are truly beyond our control. Just take whatever you want from this article and maybe see things from a different perspective. I've been in positions when I negotiated agreements before an engagement took place (a tour, recording, etc.) and have also been in situations where things were done on looser terms.

It was still an understanding that as soon as anyone isn't happy, we just part ways with no strings attached. This can be beneficial in several ways, but I only take on these situation when I feel at ease with the other party—or only when necessary. There's nothing wrong with it, and many things in the industry are done via this laid-back system. I want to stress that contracts are necessary, accepted and expected in reputable circles.

All professional bands, managers, labels, clubs, promoters, merchandisers and other entities work within the framework set up through agreements. Keep in mind that not all contracts are for something that will last a long time, such as a record deal. Some can be for a personal appearance that lasts a couple of hours. I even lay out some simple terms of how I would split songwriting copyrights when I write a song with someone—ahead of getting to work.

These don't have to be huge negotiations, but it gives you a framework to agree on. The agreement even can be a handshake in the beginning, but I love to work with a clear idea of what is expected of me and what I can expect in return. It makes things much easier. Think about this and see how you feel about the points above. Good luck!

Polish-born Metal Mike Chlasciak has recorded or performed with heavy metal greats Rob Halford, Sebastian Bach, Bruce Dickinson and Axl Rose. Mike is the long-time guitarist for Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford's solo endeavor, Halford. Mike's new album, The Metalworker, is available at metalmike.net. For more info, check out his official website and visit him on Twitter.

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