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So You Wanna Be in a Rock Band?: Let's talk legal when it comes to music

Rose Cora Perry | Interrobang | Opinion | January 24th, 2011



Editorial opinions or comments expressed in this online edition of Interrobang newspaper reflect the views of the writer and are not those of the Interrobang or the Fanshawe Student Union. The Interrobang is published weekly by the Fanshawe Student Union at 1001 Fanshawe College Blvd., P.O. Box 7005, London, Ontario, N5Y 5R6 and distributed through the Fanshawe College community. Letters to the editor are welcome. All letters are subject to editing and should be emailed. All letters must be accompanied by contact information. Letters can also be submitted online by clicking here.
A few months ago, a close girlfriend of mine was offered a potentially career-changing opening slot for a major label artist in the GTA. Ambitious and actively seeking her "big break," like most serious indie talents, she and her band accepted the gig without hesitation much to her later dismay.

Days before the big gig, the show's promoter, realizing the band's talent (and therefore also the potential cash-grab of the situation), contacted my girlfriend and began making extremely unreasonable demands on the act, including a substantial cut of their merchandise sales, in order for them to remain a part of the show. Regretfully, but sticking to their guns (something for which I commend them), they had to pull out last minute; of course, their fans demanded an explanation here's where things become of personal interest to all of you:

When my girlfriend attempted to publicly disclose exactly what had occurred (no more, no less) between her and the promoter of said event, the promoter began to aggressively message her and her band insisting that she had committed the crime of slander and that she was to remove all related postings immediately, otherwise he would slap a lawsuit on their asses, thereby blacklisting them from ever having another equally potentially career-changing opportunity in the future.

This sadly, is not the first nor will it be the last of these sorts of situations because as soon as you start talking legal "mumbojumbo" with artistic types, well, it pretty much scares the shit out of most of us. Accordingly, we'll comply.

The aforementioned true story highlights the centrality of two essentials one needs to wrap his or her mind in order to pursue professional musicianship:

1. The importance of paper documentation for everything.

2. The ongoing need for unionism. Let's start with number one. In the world of business, irrespective of the industry with which you're involved, an agreement between parties has little to no likelihood of holding up should a situation merit legal intervention, unless it is in some kind of hardcopy format which reflects the agreedupon terms, affected timeline and signatures of the involved individuals along with those of an objective witness. Now, I'm not saying you have to become a candidate for law school in order to rock out with the world's finest, but you do need to learn a thing or two about contract reading and contract writing.

Many an artist, including one of my personal favourites, Aerosmith, has lost ownership over their own material (and accordingly have to pay royalties in order to perform certain songs live) from being nave and not crossing their t's and dotting their i's properly. Likewise, many an artist (myself included in my early days) have been granted socalled "amazing" performance opportunities with supposedly lucrative pay only to promote their asses off, show up with shitloads of fans in tow, do their thing and have the promoter "mysteriously" take off in the middle of their set with all of the door cover charge cash stuffed in his/her pockets.

While the art of writing loophole-free contracts can be developed and improved upon over time, I am a firm believer that certain things should be left up to those who specialize in a given field. Without a solid foundation of the politics and business side of the music industry, as well as all of the legislation that could be potentially involved in a given matter, you likely will miss something. Lucky for you, back in the mid-1800s, as the world was becoming increasingly industrialized, factory work prevailed and when instances of worker exploitation and maltreatment occurred, not to mention a lack of any safety or health protocols abounded, workers came together to form what would later develop into trade unions.

Not merely reserved for those involved in construction, plumbing and the like, professional entertainers of all sorts (from musicians to actors to foley artists) have at their disposal their very own unions which seek to serve the needs and protect the interests of their membership. One of the many perks that the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (our local affiliate being The London Musicians' Association) the AFM offers its membership is access to court-approved touring contracts, free legal council and even emergency financial support (should an "unfair treatment" scenario arise).

Considering that regular annual membership dues are nominal in comparison to hiring a personal entertainment attorney, if you're ready to take your gig on the road, becoming an AFM member is really in your best interest. It's also something I'm not only recommending to you, but also strongly suggested to my friend (the one whose story I opened this piece with), after hearing of her all-too-common sad tale.

The thing is, however, that unions are only able to maintain collective bargaining power and effectiveness in the marketplace if they continue to maintain and generate membership. Sadly, the young aspiring musician demographic, while growing, continues to rank low in terms of representation in the AFM. I don't know about you, but I sure as hell don't want to even conceive of how much worse this industry could potentially get without the existence of our union (read as: it's already cutthroat!). In other words, here's a lesson in protecting your ass and your future: join the AFM.

Other benefits of AFM membership include its pension program, booking referral service, specialized insurance options and immigrations assistance in regard to touring foreign markets. For more information, check out the AFM's official website at www.afm.org or the official website of our London chapter at www.londonmusicians.com

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