Entertainment Law Practice – Don’t Ignore the Small Clients

Lawyer and ManOnce upon a time in Tennessee I got my first client that was paying me six figures in legal fees every year.  My firm consisted of me, an associate and an assistant.  I didn’t have a strong desire to get much larger – I like the solo and small firm life.  I proceeded to aggressively represent my number one client and along the way learned a few lessons.  One such lesson is undoubtedly common sense to many of you but apparently not to me.  Or perhaps I just forgot to slow down and think.

The first lesson I learned was to approach my practice with this in mind:  Everything Changes.  Isn’t that a law of nature itself?  But there are things that I can do to increase the chances of change being in a positive direction rather than negative.

I had some wonderful years with that big client and a respectful number of others.  However, what I did not foresee was that the client, a music business legend, would begin downsizing.  And as he divested himself of companies and stress causing activities, I too began to downsize — but not on purpose!  Eventually the annual fees paid to me by that client leveled off at about twenty percent of what they had been at the highest.

I remember setting in my office one day and thinking that I didn’t have much to do.  And there was a lot less money left at the end of the month.  My associate was handling the bulk of the work and my main job had become reviewing and revising his work.  I was discussing the situation with an advisor.  I have never forgotten what told me.  He said that I had been focusing totally on the needs of the large client and had ignored the smaller clients.  Then when the large client fees dwindled I did not have a good stable of other clients keeping the business healthy.  He spoke as though I was not the first to stumble into this trap.  This all immediately made sense to me.  I did not need convincing.

I took action. I no longer needed an associate.  I let him go.  I also no longer needed a full-time assistant, a luxury for most solos.  I let her go and hired a part-time assistant.  I began to pay attention to all clients big or small.

Today my business is healthier than it has ever been.  If I don’t believe I can give a prospect the needed attention and service then I do not accept them as a client. I have large and small clients.  My assistant is still part-time.  I engage independent contractor attorneys to assist with the work load on an as-needed basis.

Again – the lesson:  I remember when things are going well that everything changes.  However, the change can be for the better if I pay attention to all aspects of my business.  And take care of all my clients – large or small.

Songwriting Agreements and Signing Bonuses

Money in HandI received a call from an attorney who is negotiating his first exclusive songwriting agreement. I’ll get the shameless self-promotion out of the way first! He told me that he found the answer to every question he had in my book “Negotiating Exclusive Songwriting Agreements.” However, he had two concerns about the negotiation process. One I discussed in the book and one that has more to do with negotiation “style” and experience.

In this post I will discuss the matter I covered in the book, only in less detail. The agreement that the attorney was negotiating was offered by a strong independent publisher. The contract provided for periodic advances during the Term of the contract. However, the offer did not include an “execution advance”, sometimes referred to as a “signing bonus”.  This concerned the attorney as it should.  But pleas read the next paragraph twice for emphasis!

Just because the deal offer or the first draft of an exclusive songwriting agreement does not include an execution advance does not mean that it is time to walk away from the deal. Nor does the absence of this advance in the initial offer mean that the publisher is not willing to give it. Ask for that advance and ask for it with confidence. If it is not initially offered I usually will ask for it in my first mark-up or sooner if I am not familiar with the practices of the particular publisher. Why sooner? Because not only do I want to do the best job I can for my client, I also want to know that the writer will be able to pay me!

Signing bonuses are often provided in the contract so the writer will have the funds to pay his or her attorney for negotiating the deal. Both the writer and the attorney want this to be in addition to the writer’s periodic payments so that the writer’s essential income will not be reduced the first month of the deal. These advances are usually recoupable from the writer’s royalties but not in all cases. It all depends on the bargaining power of the writer.  Even in these days of relatively poor album sales, most publishers will still advance the writer’s attorney fees.  And most of them will pay this advance direct to the attorney when the contract is signed.

Other reasons that publishers pay execution advances are 1) as payment for “Schedule A” songs (existing songs being brought into the deal); 2) as payment for Schedule A demo recordings paid for by the writer; and 3) as a true “signing bonus” to entice the writer to sign with this particular publisher.

In summary, when negotiating the exclusive songwriting agreement, ask for the execution advance. And if that advance is to be used in whole or in part for attorney fees, get this matter settled early.