In the ever-changing landscape of the music business, music attorneys are still some of the most powerful movers and shakers there are. Connecting artists with the people who can make things happen for them, Sharon Reavis Woodson is one of those people. She’s dedicated, passionate and a true advocate for artist’s rights, whether it’s making sure their contracts will support them into the future, or helping them navigate challenging situations. Sharon is on a mission to guide and protect her artists, and she thinks they ought to know a thing or two about the music business. I sat down with her recently to talk about what she does and to ask her if she had any words of wisdom for all the independent musicians, songwriters and producers out there who might be wondering what a music attorney could do for them. Her answers were very interesting and informative …
Q. MRCPROMO: Hello Sharon, how are you and where are you from?
A. SHARON: Hello LaMont, I am doing well.. I am a military “brat” (father served in the Air Force for 23+ years), so I have roots in many U.S. states and in Italy. However, most of my youth was spent in Virginia. I moved to Nashville in 1999 after college to attend Vanderbilt University Law School. I have been in the area ever since.
Q. MRCPROMO: When starting out, what kind of things should an artist hire an entertainment lawyer for?
A. SHARON: An artist should hire an entertainment attorney for counsel on the artist’s personal music business matters, as well as to review and negotiate any contracts offered to the artist. Lawyers are able to counsel and advise the artists with respect to contracts, trademark matters, copyright, etc. Choice of lawyer would also depend on whether the artist needs a transactional lawyer vs. a litigator (lawsuits). An artist should choose an knowledgeable entertainment lawyer as early on in the process as possible. At the very least, an artist should hire an entertainment lawyer before signing any contract.
Q. MRCPROMO: What’s the roles and responsibilities of an entertainment lawyer?
A. SHARON: In addition to counselor and advisor, an entertainment lawyer’s purpose is to help clients navigate the complicated world of entertainment. Lawyers are able to counsel and advise the artists with respect to contracts, trademark matters, copyright, business decisions, etc. Artist’s are faced with lengthy contracts and wording/legalese/”fine print” that is often difficult to understand. The lawyer’s role is to sift through the words and make sense of the deal being offered. Many artists and musicians believe they do not need a lawyer in order to understand a contract; however, understanding is just the first step. You need to know what’s missing. You need to know what terms are standard vs. terms that take advantage of you. Good lawyers are trained for this. They are also trained to think about the “what ifs” and clarify the ambiguities.
Q. MRCPROMO: What would you say are the most important things to look out for in an entertainment lawyer?
A. SHARON: The lawyer should be knowledgeable, experienced, approachable, and transparent with respect to the artist’s business. An artist should feel comfortable with the lawyer as part of the artist’s team. The artist should make sure that the lawyer has room to take on more clients. Also, for an artist who is seeking or has been offered a label deal, it would be great to find a lawyer who has experience on both sides of the equation (i.e., label side and artist side).
Q. MRCPROMO: What are the right questions artists need to ask in an initial consultation?
A. SHARON: 1. How much experience does the lawyer have in general, and how much experience does he/she have with the specific matter concerning the artist? For example, if you are a songwriter who has been offered a publishing deal, you need to find out the extent of the lawyer’s experience with publishing deals. 2. What types of clients does the lawyer represent (for example, artists, songwriters, publishers, corporations, etc.), and does he/she have the space to take on artist as a client? 3. What is the lawyer’s fee, and are fees based on a flat rate or hourly rate?
Q. MRCPROMO: How does the payment structure for an entertainment lawyer work?
A. SHARON: It works the same as for any transactional lawyer. Some lawyers charge only by the hour, some offer flat-fee arrangements, and others offer a mix of the two. Contingent fees – where the lawyer is paid only if and when a deal is secured – are rare to nonexistent in my field. Most lawyers require a retainer for new clients, which means full or partial payment in advance. FYI, lawyers are required to place any retainer funds into a separate bank account, so there should be no worry that the funds will be used in a manner that’s not intended, in connection with the particular artist’s matter.
Q. MRCPROMO: What is a 360 Deal?
A. SHARON: There’s no real simple answer to that question, because such a deal can take on so many forms. The general idea is that a label will share in revenue earned by an artist from all “entertainment-related” activities (for example, from endorsements, music publishing, book deals, etc.). These provisions are often heavily negotiated, so it is imperative that an artist seek wise counsel before entering into such a deal.
Q. MRCPROMO: How does an artist protect their name brand and image?
A. SHARON: If you are referring to their trademark, an artist should register their mark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. An artist will need to include the date they first used their mark in “interstate commerce”, so it is important that they keep records and samples of every time their mark is used.
Q. MRCPROMO: Besides signing to a record contract what are some other ways a musician can make money? Would you advise music sync licensing?
A. SHARON: The advent of the digital age and social media opened many more avenues for musicians to make money on their own. Artists and writers do not have to rely on record label advances and songwriting to make a decent living. Artists can sell their own music online. Musicians can also build their grassroots fan base in large part from their home by connecting fans to their music content, and then building tours and performance dates based on the location of their fans. Whether an artist has a record deal or not, they need to tour and need to have good content. Those elements are what keeps their fans engaged. With respect to sync licensing, if the artist owns/controls his/her own music and can find an outlet to license their compositions (and the artist is not opposed to the intended use of their song), then I’d say “why not?” Just have an entertainment attorney review the license agreement before you sign!
Q. MRCPROMO: Any words of wisdom for artists?
A. SHARON: Don’t be afraid to approach and learn the business side of the music industry. It is to your benefit to understand the business behind what you are doing, the agreements you are signing, and how to make a living doing what you love.
Q. MRCPROMO: Shout outs?
A. SHARON: LOL. First to my Heavenly Father, for life and breath…He’s the most important. Then to my husband, Stacey Woodson, and the rest of my family both in Tennessee, Virginia and the Washington D.C. area. They are the best!!
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INTERVIEW: MRC Promotions
EDITOR: La Mont Reed
IMAGE: Sharon Reavis Woodson