As more acts record and sell albums themselves, lawyers are taking on more non-traditional duties, such as assisting with online distribution, royalty collection and tour routing.
LOS ANGELES--As more bands veer onto a do-it-yourself path, their music attorneys are morphing into business consultants.
Dwindling label revenues has made the road to getting signed treacherous for many bands. As more acts record and sell albums themselves, lawyers are taking on more non-traditional duties, such as assisting with online distribution, royalty collection and tour routing.
During better times in the record industry, lawyers say their traditional responsibility was to assess label deals. Now, they are becoming more immersed in their clients' livelihoods.
Chris Castle, an attorney with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Los Angeles, describes himself as more "consigliere" than lawyer.
"Bands are more reluctant to jump to a major label. A&R could leave and the band would be stranded," says Castle of labels' recent financial difficulties.
"What you now have to do is advise bands more on the business side of things...keep track of them, work with them and try to make people aware of them."
Nikki Rowling, executive director of the Austin Music Foundation, regularly holds seminars for upstart acts. She agrees that many DIY bands are asking more of their attorneys as they give up or hold off on finding label homes. The Foundation also spends a lot of time, she says, referring people to legal contacts.
"Indie artists are relying on legal advice, business advice and strategic decision-making. Don't know if that always used to be the case," Rowling says.
"The channels that (many) bands are coming from are outside the label system. Everyday there are more examples of indies forgoing the label option to build their own team. Lawyers can become a critical point," Rowling adds.
Famously, she notes, Pearl Jam decided to self-distribute its albums after fulfilling its contract with Epic. Its last Epic album, "Lost Dogs," was released Nov. 11.
Castle is currently helping clients like Austin-based Endochine on a wide range of deal points. For the band's latest recording "Day Two," Castle first negotiated consignment arrangements at local record stores in October 2003. Castle also eventually won the album a regional distributor, Crystal Clear, in January 2004.
Oftentimes not part of major retail chains, online distribution is especially attractive to DIY bands. Castle says this means he makes sure his clients sign up for royalty disbursement society Sound Exchange, which accounts for Web-based royalties not currently covered by BMI or ASCAP.
Wofford Denius, a L.A.-based attorney who works with indie acts, says "You have to educate yourself with online distributors. I have been negotiating things with iTunes, Listen.com-we're seeing more of these contracts cross our desks."
Besides staying active in distribution decisions, Castle has become more closely involved with the band's touring operations.
"What you find when you're working in this (indie) part of the food chain, you're more geared towards things like live events. You introduce them to booking agents. You act as the liaison," says Castle. Granted, a number of these responsibilities might be picked up by the band's manager, he admits.
However, Castle adds, "Either there isn't a manager because they don't make enough money, or the manager needs some help too."
Trevor Hance, manager for Castle client Endochine, agrees that lawyers play a key role in DIY bands surviving without traditional label support.
"We've asked (Castle) to do everything: Get a show in a certain market, look at an online distribution agreement. It's not just: 'Shop us to a label,'" says Hance.
Endochine is also looking at licensing music to films. Castle has come in handy, says Hance, in assessing what royalty payments should be due the band.
"He has laughed at how much money (some filmmakers have wanted to pay). But there is one that will be distributed by Miramax in pre-production with recognizable stars. Gave that to Chris, and he said, 'Wow, that's a great opportunity,'" says Hance.
But signing with a label is still the ultimate goal for most bands, notes David Stein, who runs his own N.Y. based law firm. But in order for bands to build up the fan base to catch the label's attention, lawyers must step up their involvement.
"I think (DIY acts) are looking for more advice, because they are covering more bases. They want to know about a certain CD replicator. They need help with a copyright form," says Stein of tasks normally performed by a label.
A couple of DIY bands under Stein's wing include Straylight Run, which recently toured with pop/punk band Brand New.
THE NAME GAME
One issue that he finds himself resolving for young DIY bands is disputes over band names. "Almost every band name that comes up, someone else has," Stein says. He suggests that all bands register quickly with the U.S. patent and trademark office.
"Sometimes bands agree that they are in such different markets that it's a non-issue," says Stein. "But I suggest that my bands deal with the issue immediately. Once you start building a fan base, you don't want to start changing your name. That's very difficult."
Castle adds: "Four to six years ago, a band would play three gigs and get signed. There wouldn't be these questions. (On a major label), they would have money and have a manager that would take care of all of this stuff. That just doesn't happen very much."