Do I Need an Attorney?

Part 1: When to Expand Your Team

by Russ Miller

I was recently in a difficult situation with a business I was doing work for on a weekly basis. They owed me a considerable amount of money but had no intention of paying me for my services. After failing to convince them otherwise, it became clear that I needed legal representation.

Once my attorney got involved, I finally received the money I was owed. Before he stepped in, the other party was aggressive and was trying to take advantage of my good will. Once they knew my attorney was handling it, their position changed very quickly. I won’t be dealing with this organization again, but I received payment and walked away feeling like I had been as professional as possible.

I’ve been fortunate over the past several years to work with an amazing attorney, Paul Quin, from Tampa, Florida. Besides being a lawyer, Paul is a drummer and a good friend. I recently asked him a few questions regarding when and why to consult an attorney. His responses are included in the sections below.

Do I Need an Attorney?

Every situation is different. Some dealings are for significant amounts of money. And when a lot of money is involved, everybody gets a bit jittery. Quin says, “An artist needs to define that point when playing ceases to be a hobby and becomes a career. Once that happens, it’s time to think like a business. The businesses you will be dealing with already have lawyers that understand complex systems of contracts and agreements, so it’s important to level the playing field. Secondly, in most jurisdictions, a lawyer cannot enter into an exclusive representation agreement for a set amount of time. You can always fire your lawyer, so hire him or her first.”

How Do I Avoid Being Taken Advantage Of?

One thing I always say in college lectures on the music industry is that it’s very difficult to get someone to pay you thousands of dollars just to play drums. To get that to happen hundreds of times per year, year after year for the rest of your life, how good do you have to be? How organized do you have to be? How serious do you have to be? How prepared do you have to be?

Being well prepared and well represented in business dealings can help you navigate through the ups and downs of a playing career. I asked Paul to expound on this. He said, “Once you have embarked on a pro-level career, you should consult an attorney to make sure that the appropriate business entities are in place. They’ll help you determine whether or not you need to form an LLC (limited liability corporation) for your business, and they’ll help you understand the legalities that will govern your business. Creating an LLC has tax benefits, and it can limit your personal liability in the event that claims are made against you. A lawyer should be the first member of your team that you hire.”

How Can I Make Money in Music?

I had no idea of all the ways to make a buck in the music business when I first started. I thought that I would get paid for gigs and if my band’s record sold well. Performing rights, union special payments, consulting fees, product royalties, mechanical rights, product sales, publishing sales, and patent fees are just a sampling of some of the ways that you can earn income besides playing your drums. Almost every one of those revenue streams requires organization, advice, and some knowledge of how they work. Finding a proper attorney with knowledge of industry standards is vital to effectively negotiating these deals. “While your uncle might be a great real estate lawyer, he might not have an understanding of how mechanical royalty rates and publishing splits are traditionally handled in our business,” says Quin. “Always find an attorney with experience in the music business.”

One of the reasons I hired Paul as my attorney was because he was an entertainment lawyer and a drummer. I asked him about how that’s helped him regarding the legal aspects of this business. “Creative people are sometimes suspicious of the ‘suits,’” he said, “and having worn the drummer cap, I have sometimes been able to get past that suspicion.

“In dealing with matters in the instrument manufacturing industry, understanding the details and advantages of the products I was dealing with has been tremendously valuable to me. Being a musician as well as a lawyer, it was much harder for someone to pull the wool over my eyes. Moreover, my knowledge in those areas can save the client money because I don’t have to go back and ask for additional information.”

The music business has an aura of “We’re all in this together, so it will be cool.” I’ve felt like that a time or two over the years. But after talking with a few NFL players, I found it interesting that when it comes to money, they don’t talk to their employers. They have agents and lawyers that handle every negotiation. They stay out of it and only deal with their personal agent. There are many benefits to this. First, you can remain the “nice guy” and let your representatives be the “bad guys.” Second, you can stay focused on doing what you do well, which is playing music. It’s obviously not reasonable for every musician to take this firm of a stance, since we often have multiple dealings (gigs, lessons, sessions, etc.) that involve relatively small amounts of money. It’s just good to know who to go to should the need to consult an attorney arise.

Efficiency is one of the primary keys to success. In this day and age, we have an unlimited number of things vying for our attention. If you plan to keep moving “onward and upward,” as my friend Dom Famularo always says, you need to execute things correctly the first time. If you have a coach for the purpose of improving your efficiency and development as a drummer (which in my case is Peter Erskine), then why shouldn’t you also have someone to help coach you through legal and business dealings? We’ll continue this discussion next time. See you then!

Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more information, visit