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When Should My Band Handle Legal Contracts?

Having “The Talk”

Getting a band together is a lot like starting a relationship. You meet, start hanging out, decide you like each other, and start dating (rehearsing). Things are going well, and you start telling your friends and family you are together, and go out in public as a couple (start playing shows).

Eventually, before things can get really serious, you need to have “the talk”. While a couple may start discussing finances, moving in together, getting married, having kids, etc., a band starts having serious conversations of its own, often on the same topics. Maybe not having kids, but some of the same topics.

What is a Band Agreement?

Bands will at some point have to sign what’s called a “band agreement”, which is a simple contract that is just a written guide of how things work in the band. There are many things you need discuss before you can write one out, but the basics are who does what, who is going to get paid for what, and what happens if things don’t go quite as planned. Take a look below at the full list.

The format of the agreement is not as important as the fact that it happens. Don’t let the word contract scare you, it doesn’t need to be formal. But it should be a written document that is signed by all members.

When Should We Sign a Band Agreement?

The best time to discuss and sign an agreement is as soon as the band has something that could be worth money, like an original song, copyright, recording, gear or anything else. You should definitely have one before any members get involved financially, and before the band starts making any serious money. The contract will protect what people have invested, financially or creatively, and plan for the things that will come, good and bad.

What’s in the Contract?

Who writes the songs?

This is pretty straightforward, but needs to be discussed for every single original song the band has. Let’s say your band writes a great song, and it gets used in a movie. Who will be collecting the royalties as the songwriter? According to the law, only MELODY and LYRICS can have a copyright. The bass part? Nope. Drum patterns? No. Chord changes? No again. Just the melody and lyrics. If songs are co-written, that’s fine, but who wrote what percentage of each song? Did one write the melody and one write the lyrics? Paul McCartney and John Lennon split songwriting credits for every song they did with The Beatles, regardless of who wrote which song. A bit unusual, but it was decided beforehand and written in a contract.

Who is investing money?

If anyone in the band is paying money out for gear, recording time, rehearsal time, copyrights, or anything else, it needs to be accounted for. Will the person investing be paid back, or is it going towards the band? Who pays for CD and T-shirts to get printed, artwork or equipment rentals?

Who owns band property?

Let’s lay out another scenario. All band members bring their own equipment to a gig that pays money, and the bass amp is broken during the show. Does the gig payment buy a new bass amp, or is that the bassist’s responsibility? What if it was the bassist who broke it? Bands can also have digital property, like the name, website, images, and more.

What do you do with money the band earns?

Okay, enough with the negatives. Let’s say the band gets offered a big show or tour, how will you spend the money? Will everyone get paid the same, or will it go into a band fund? Plans should also be made for any recordings that are going to be sold. This is, although different from the songwriter conversation, is as important. Royalty payments may seem too insignificant to consider at the beginning, but you never know when a song or album is going to take off or get licensed for a good amount of money.

Who Can Make Decisions?

In some bands, the lead singer is the person who started the band, wrote all the songs, invested all the money, and decides everything. Sometimes it’s four friends who used to live together and all have equal say. What about new additions to the group? Voting power is important when considering new opportunities like record deals, tours, or branding opportunities.

Members Leaving and Band Breakup Strategies

Okay, this is the one that nobody wants to talk about, but is crucial for the band agreement. First of all, what do you do with the name in this situation? This could have been discussed during the band property conversation at point #2, but it holds different meaning in a break-up or if members are leaving. The members of the famous band Sublime were not allowed to use the name after their singer Bradley Nowell died, they reformed in 2009 but eventually had to change their name to Sublime With Rome to avoid legal troubles. Add the break-up scenario to the discussion all of the points above, including future royalties, band owned gear and assets, and money invested that hasn’t been paid back yet.

Wrapping It Up

As you can see, there is a lot that goes into a band agreement, but none of it is too difficult to understand or plan for. And while it may present some awkward situations, the sooner you can lay all this out the better. To cover all your basis, have a lawyer look over the agreement after it’s signed. In any situation, having talked about and written down all these important points is a great thing for the group, and can avoid tough situations as the band grows.

Has your band signed a band agreement? When did you do it? Share your story below in a comment.