What contracts can I sign as an artist?

Reading time: 9 min

As an independent artist, it’s essential to be mindful about who you work with, especially if you are considering turning your activity into a career, or at least a paid occupation. There are many people whose job is to help you take that step, but for every partnership there is a contract, and before signing any contract, you must make sure it protects your interests. To give you a heads-up on this, here is a list of the main artist contracts you might need, along with their advantages and disadvantages. 

Record deals 

What is a record deal exactly?

Record deals formalize a partnership between the artist and a record label. Often seen as the Holy Grail of the music industry, this is the most binding of all contracts because it can encompass all the other services described in this article, from band management to publishing to sync licenses. However, there are as many artist contracts as there are careers, depending on the clauses on the paper.

The record company's first and most basic job is to finance your recordings or masters. In exchange, they become the owners of these masters, as well as the musical rights attached to them. You share the master rights that protect your recording depending on the number of label services you ask for. The most common distribution is 15-20% for the artists and 75-80% for labels but it can go up to 50-50 with indie labels. For example, if you sign a 360° contract, your record label manages all aspects of your music project, from manufacturing to distribution, from marketing to publishing to sub-licensing, and more.

Your label also pays you an advance to give you time to work on your projects until they are released, as well as a global budget for promoting your music, buying equipment, your stage outfits...

The duration of an artist’s contract is defined either by the number of projects you commit to in collaboration with your label, or by a period of time – usually one renewable year. If it’s an exclusive deal, you can’t work with another producer on the music you created during the period of time specified by the contract.

How do I know I need a record deal?

It can be to your advantage to sign a record deal to finance your project and to be surrounded by people whose job is to make their clients grow. The (dis)advantages of this contract depend variously on your financial situation, where your career is at, the kind of music you want to make, the income you already get from your music, your ambition, the standard of living you are looking for, and more. There are no ultimate rules.

We can only advise you to get a law professional to read your contract and ask your label exactly what it will support you with. For example, ask your art director which other artists he/she already manages to get an idea of the kind of music he/she already knows how to work with, as well as his/her availability. You must feel comfortable with your team, already have a trusted circle before you sign (a manager and a beatmaker or other co-creator is enough), and hold a clear vision of what you want to do in order to be able to communicate it well.

If you sign a 360° contract with your label, it elaborates, executes, and finances all aspects of your music project. This can be a very helpful partnership, both financially and creatively speaking. There are no absolute rules to make sure your interests are protected, as every situation has its specifics. The key is to pick your team mindfully and be assertive when it comes to sharing your vision of what you want to do. Before inking a contract, get a pro to read it and make sure you have a good feeling with the record label’s team.

Distribution contracts 

What is a distribution contract?

Distribution contracts formalize the partnership between the artist and the distributor, the intermediary between you and record stores or streaming platforms. In exchange for this service, you give your distributor master rights for a specified number of recordings, over a given period of time (usually, 1-5 years), and in X territories.

Many digital music distributors work like DistroKid or CD Baby: you upload your sounds for them to share on streaming platforms in exchange for a monthly fee, and you keep 100% of the royalties issued from the master rights. Other digital music distributors take a percentage of your royalties.

Why do I need a distribution contract?

A digital music distributor allows you to release your music projects whenever you want, on the biggest streaming platforms and across hundreds of countries: you can’t do without a basic distribution contract. If you wish to professionalize your artistic activity further, you can look into music licensing contracts or a record label contract. It’s up to you!

If you are leaning towards a basic distribution contract, there are two advantages: 1/ thanks to the distributor’s expertise, your tracks are put online quite fast and 2/ you are in control of your artistic line (as long as you comply with the standards of the streaming websites).

You can’t do without a distribution contract if you want to make your music available on streaming platforms. The question is whether this service suffices you, or whether you need more comprehensive contracts. In any case, with a basic distribution contract: 1/ your tracks are put online fast and 2/ you have artistic freedom.

Publishing contracts

What is a publishing contract?

As a songwriter, you can partner with a publisher, whose job is to promote your creation to third parties. In exchange for that, and once the publisher starts selling, it gets royalties based on how many music tracks the contract covers, for how long, on which territories, the duties of the publisher and author, and synchronization rights. In most cases, the publisher gives you an advance to assist you while you make music it will sell later on.

When do I need to sign a publishing contract?

The role of your publishing company is to promote your song; it’s THE partner that manages your copyright and synchronization rights. As the publishing contract concerns songwriters and comes just after the creation of the lyrics and/or the composition of your work, it is often the first step in the professionalization of an artist.

Signing with a publisher can help kickstart your career thanks to the publisher’s professional network, financial resources, and expertise in copyright. Moreover, your publisher knows how to get your music into commercials, series, movies, video games, playlists, and more. Additionally, you can leave the management of the synchronization rights generated by all that activity to experts, which gives you more time to focus on making music.

If you wish to go a step further as an independent artist, hiring a publisher can be very helpful. This worthy partner will help sell your songwriting work in exchange for a split of the related copyrights and an advance.

Production contracts

Although producers and record labels are often seen as the same actor in Europe, they are two different entities in the US. They offer similar services but function in different ways, as producers usually work on their own while record labels are companies working with large teams. 

Moreover, independent music producers in the US are in charge of artistic direction, whereas record labels are mostly in charge of funding and other business-related aspects of music production. Here, we focus on the American definition of a music producer.

What is a production contract?

A production contract seals the collaboration between an artist and an independent music producer. A producer manages everything that happens in the studio, such as the selection of songs, instruments, musicians, and the studio itself. In exchange, the producer may be paid with a single compensation or with a share of the profits in the form of royalties. The contract determines the producer’s duties and the affiliated compensation. The producer may also be an investor.

Why should I partner with a music producer?

Collaborating with an independent producer can be advantageous if you want to keep more control than is possible with a record company contract, as the latter is usually more substantial. If you’re still unsure what music production means, please see our article about it.

Independent music producers are like artistic directors; they are responsible for the production process, picking songs, instruments, musicians, and the recording studio. Production contracts seal the collaboration between producers and artists to determine the producer’s duties and the affiliated compensation.

Management contracts 

A management contract crystallizes your collaboration with your manager, who generally does not get more than 10% of your income. In any case, there are no rights to give up here – only a financial arrangement where everything is negotiable. Thus you must discuss everything before putting clauses on paper.

The contract has to outline the relationship between you and your manager and specify the manager’s duties and compensation. Moreover, the document should say what you cannot do without violating the contract and agreement. It’s usually one year long and renewable.

A manager can help strengthen your music career. He/she acts as an intermediary between you and all the other people working on the development and promotion of your music. It is therefore vital you feel perfectly aligned with your manager, as he/she represents you, advises you and negotiates everything for you. You have to be sure that your manager understands you and that you can trust him/her.

A manager can help strengthen your music career. He/she acts as an intermediary between you and all the other people working on the development and promotion of your music. It is therefore vital you feel perfectly aligned with your manager and can trust him/her. The contract should specify your manager’s duties and compensation – usually not more than 10% of your income.

Music licensing contracts

What is a music licensing contract?

Licensing contracts, which bring together clauses from record deals and distribution contracts, are signed by an artist and a record company that is also a distributor, for one record only. They are typically short-term and signed after the artist has recorded his or her music project and is looking for a label to promote and distribute it.

In this case, you get more revenues than with a record deal contract, as your label only comes in once the recording is done (usually 30-40% of the royalties). Keep in mind that you can negotiate every aspect of the partnership: you don’t have to give away the ownership of your master in exchange for the distribution service, but you can split the income from streams and sales. It is, for example, common for labels to pay artists an advance, enabling them to maintain their lifestyle until the music project generates enough income.

Why sign a licensing contract?

Here, the record company helps you with the promotion and marketing parts of your music project, such as concerts, press and online media, distribution, video expertise, partnerships with social networks, streaming platforms’ playlists, and more.

In the name of artistic freedom, it can be to your advantage to stay independent when recording your music and then look for professional advice when releasing and promoting it. In short, a licensing contract is a “premium distribution contract”, in which your partner designs and supports your marketing strategy without necessarily putting it into execution, as would be the case with a record deal contract.

Music licensing contracts seal an agreement between an artist and a record company that also functions as a distributor for one record only, and are typically short term. This contract is usually established after the artist has recorded his or her music project and is looking for a label to promote and distribute it. This can be beneficial if you wish to stay 100% independent while recording your music before seeking help with releasing and promoting it.

Collaboration contracts

If you are an independent artist working with other artists on a specific music project, it is vital to discuss how you are going to split your revenues before releasing – or even recording – your team’s work. This matters as much as agreeing on your artistic strategy, because it will avoid future disputes or any other bad surprises. The collab contract should last as long as the project requires, meaning not longer than a year.

One last tip: when reading a contract or discussing a professional collaboration, remember the “LOMO” rule, which stands for Length, Obligation, Money, and Ownership. If you follow this, you won’t forget to check the most important clauses first.

What do I need to remember?

When it comes to artist contracts in the music industry, everything depends on what you envision for your career, your personal preferences, and which skills you feel you need help with. Behind each signature there is a partnership and access to experts from which you will benefit only if you choose them mindfully. The only rules: feel 100% comfortable with your business partners; start small with a solid first circle (at least one manager and one other musician); take time to define your artistic vision; and get a pro to read all contracts before signing them.

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