Musicians at Work Forum Recap: How to Run Your Business

This month’s Musicians at Work Forum offered some very practical information for any musician or artist who actually wants to get paid. A panel of lawyers & licensing experts offered tips on copyrights, contracts and other intellectual property issues. Here are some highlights…

Panelists Paul Natkin, Peter Strand, Shawn Murphy and Marci Rolnik

“He who owns, controls” – Peter Strand

  • Members of the band/group should understand who owns what. That means talking it out and having it in writing.
  • Tip: use a spreadsheet to keep track of ownership
  • Use a split sheet. This is a one or two-page document where songwriters agree on splitting rights, listing “ownership will be divided as follows…” per song
  • Figure out copyrights when there’s no dispute and theres no money. No one fights over an empty pot.
  • Apply for a legitimate copyright so that 1) people can find you and you can make money through licensing your work and 2) to legally enforce your right to the work
  • There are three elements to a song copyright: the music, the lyrics and the sound recording
  • But don’t forget to copyright other properties like cover art, music videos, etc.
  • It’s advisable to consult a lawyer your first couple times filing for a copyright, but after that it’s something you can pretty much handle yourself
  • First and foremost, go to – it’s really easy to navigate and has tons of up-to-date resource regarding copyrights. The office also responds very quickly to questions submitted through the site. There’s also a toll-free line you can call.
PROs (Performing Rights Organizations)
  • ASCAP: the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers protects the rights of its members by licensing and distributing royalties for copyrighted work. It’s only $35 to join as  a songwriter.
  • BMI: also collects license fees on behalf of songwriters, composers and music publishers and distributes them as royalties. It’s free to join as a writer, and I believe it’s $200 to set up a publishing company.
  • SESAC: this PRO is designed to represent songwriters and publishers and their right to be compensated for having their music performed in public. The organization is more selective, so you have to apply to “get in.”
  • Sound Exchange: collects royalties from satellite radio (such as SIRIUS XM), internet radio, cable TV music channels and similar platforms for streaming sound recordings.
  • Harry Fox Agency: not a PRO, but a mechanical licensing, collection and distribution agency for music publishers.
  •  You can trademark your band name, also a band logo
  • Trademarks are more complicated than copyrights, so you will need a lawyer to help do this right
  • As a first step, do a search to see if anyone else is using the name you want to trademark, anywhere in the world. Search Google and other search engines, but also try resources like All Music Guide and the US Patent & Trademark Office.Then, consult a trademark lawyer and have them do a search as well.
  • There are various categories of trademarked goods/services including entertainment, merchandise and sound recordings. The cost for filing a trademark application alone is $325 per category.
Words of Wisdom
  • It’s smart to know your business. But it’s smarter to know who you’re doing business with. If you’re gonna do business with a crook, a contract won’t matter. – Peter Strand
  • Control your content. – Marci Rolnik
  • Make sure your metadata is complete on ALL your music! – Shawn Murphy

The panel also discussed several other topics, from streaming music online to work for hire situations. There are lots of technicalities with these important business issues, so I won’t try to break that down here.  For those details, you should definitely check out the full audio recording of the panel on the Chicago Music Commission website later this week. You should also check out the Lawyers for the Creative Arts who provide free legal services to eligible artists.

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