It’s no secret that the music business can be challenging to navigate. Every other day, it seems like an artist puts their label on blast because of a deal that left them exploited or shelved. Just look at Lil Uzi, JoJo, Tinashe, Kash Doll, Lil Xan and Hot Girl Meg. Success in the industry all comes down to the contract. Remember that most of our favorite performers have been signed to a label, and not every singer or rapper wants to be independent. TSL got to chat with Jeff Dillard, an entertainment lawyer with over 20 years of experience and who knows all about contracts. Here’s what the Janeff Media expert wants Chicago artists to know about scoring the best record deal.
TrueStar.Life: Tell us about your role in the music industry.
Jeff Dillard: I’ll get a call from a music artist who gets a contract from a manager and they want me to review it. Other times, I’ll get a call from a manager who needs a contract because they want to sign an artist. I’ve worked with people who’ve signed record deals, publishing deals, distribution deals, songwriting agreements and more.
TSL: Who are some of the artists you’ve worked with?
JD: I’ve worked with artists like Kanye, producer/music executive No I.D., Jay-Z and Common.
TSL: These days, more young singers/rappers are choosing to stay independent. But some of the biggest superstars have been signed to record deals. What’s the value of signing a deal?
JD: Normally, who you sign with will have the resources to help get your career from point A to B. Money for recording, distribution, marketing and promotion. The relationships that they have can get their artists’ songs in movies, on TV shows and in commercials. There’s also help with clothing lines and shoe lines. You name it.
Many times, people are not able to truly stay independent. You may be independent of a label; but any time you take someone else’s money, they want a return on that.
TSL: Once an artist is presented with a record deal, what should they do next?
JD: They should understand what a point is, what copyright is, what publishing is and what a 360-degree record deal is. They should seek out an artist who’s gone through this before. There’s so much information online. Do as much research on your own. That helps you ask more intelligent questions.
After that, they should hire a professional to advise them.
TSL: “Read your contract!” is the narrative these days. How often would you say new and established artists actually read one hundred percent of their contracts?
JD: Not often [laughs]. It’s one thing to read for school. To read a magazine or a newspaper. With something that can affect your career, you shouldn’t glance over it. I tell people that they may not understand it, but please read what you’re being offered.
TSL: Trusting a record label’s lawyers has been very controversial in the music industry. Can you tell young singers/rappers in Chicago the pros and cons of using a “label lawyer?”
JD: I wouldn’t use a label lawyer. You need to have someone whose only interest is yours.
TSL: What benefits should an artist strive for when negotiating their very first contract?
JD: 1) The terms of a contract. Is it a single deal? Album deal? Multi-album deal? Do you make an album every six months? Every year?
2) Who’s paying for what? If the label is paying for production of the music, how are they recouping that? When are you getting an advance? How much are you getting from the sale of each song and album?
3) Are you signing away any of your publishing rights? Traditionally, labels will ask for ownership of songs and masters. That could be a big deal for you 5-10 years from now.
TSL: How much should artists negotiate for themselves in terms of money earned from concerts and tours?
JD: As much as they can!
TSL: Tell us about the difference between advance money and royalties.
JD: Advance money means, “I know you got to live and make records.” It’s like a loan that’s going to be paid back with your future earnings. You get that advance before you sell anything. Royalties are what you make from every song that is sold or streamed.
TSL: What are some terms and key phrases an artist should look out for that may indicate they have a bad contract?
JD: It’s more than just terms. You have to get into the specifics of the contract. They can be written in a way that doesn’t signal a bad deal. That’s why reading is so important.
TSL: How do artists get out of bad contracts?
JD: Sometimes they can’t; but, take artists like Megan Thee Stallion and The Lox. They go public and try to shame the record label into letting them go. Labels don’t like to look bad. Use that to your advantage. Mase just did that with Puff. I’ve gone to a label and explained that letting an artist go was just the right thing to do. That has worked.
Sometimes they have to buy out of their contract. The highest I’ve seen that cost is low seven figures.
TSL: To get the best deal, share with us the questions artists need to ask before signing.
JD: Why should I sign with [ex: Atlantic Records]? How will my life be better with Atlantic Records than if I stay independent? It’s all about self-empowerment.
TSL: Is there a time limit to review, sign and submit a contract?
JD: It can be very time sensitive. Especially when you’re a hot artist. But if you’re 16 years old and you need to find legal representation, the label usually understands that takes time. Major label contracts with the Interscopes and Universals of the world can be 65-70 pages. That’s just the recording contract!
But the contracts with smaller labels that are 3-4 pages, those can be more dangerous. They leave so much out.
TSL: Do any artists ever get good deals the first time around?
JD: It depends on what you call good. But I think the publishing part is most important. More than the terms and the royalties.
There you have it. Knowledge? Consider it dropped.
By Marilyn Koonce, Northern Illinois University Alumna