Producing and editing a masterwork of recorded music is obviously a specialized art form. But so is the entertainment lawyer’s act of drafting clauses, contracts, and contractual language generally. How might the art of the entertainment attorney’s legal drafting a clause or contract affect the musician, composer, songwriter, producer or other artist as a practical matter? Many artists think they will be “home free”, just as soon as they are furnished a draft proposed record contract to sign from the label’s entertainment attorney, and then toss the proposed contract over to their own entertainment lawyer for what they hope will be a rubber-stamp review on all clauses. They are wrong. And those of you who have ever received a label’s “first form” proposed contract are chuckling, right about now.
Just because a U.S. record label forwards an artist its “standard form” proposed contract, does not mean that one should sign the draft contract blindly, or ask one’s entertainment lawyer to rubber-stamp the proposed agreement before signing it blindly. A number of label forms still used today are quite hackneyed, and have been adopted as full text or individual clauses in whole or in part from contract form-books or the contract “boilerplate” of other or prior labels. From the entertainment attorney’s perspective, a number of label recording clauses and contracts actually read as if they were written in haste – just like Nigel Tufnel scrawled an 18-inch Stonehenge monument on a napkin in Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap”. And if you are a musician, motion picture fan, or other entertainment lawyer, I bet you know what happened to Tap as a result of that scrawl.
It stands to reason that an artist and his or her entertainment lawyer should carefully review all draft clauses, contracts, and other forms forwarded to the artist for signature, prior to ever signing on to them. Through negotiation, through the entertainment attorney, the artist may be able to interpose more precise and even-handed language in the contract ultimately signed, where appropriate. Inequities and unfair clauses aren’t the only things that need to be removed by one’s entertainment lawyer from a first draft proposed contract. Ambiguities must also be removed, before the contract can be signed as one.
For the artist or the artist’s entertainment attorney to leave an ambiguity or inequitable clause in a signed contract, would be merely to leave a potential bad problem for a later day – particularly in the context of a signed recording contract which could tie up an artist’s exclusive services for many years. And remember, as an entertainment lawyer with any longitudinal data on this item will tell you, the artistic “life-span” of most artists is quite short – meaning that an artist could tie up his or her whole career with one bad contract, one bad signing, or even just one bad clause. Usually these bad contract signings occur before the artist seeks the advice and counsel of an entertainment attorney.
One seemingly-inexhaustible type of ambiguity that arises in clauses in entertainment contracts, is in the specific context of what I and other entertainment lawyers refer to as a contract “performance clause”. A non-specific commitment in a contract to perform, usually turns out to be unenforceable. Consider the following: