The Beatdown

Who can you trust in the music biz?

Several weeks ago, I received a panicked message from a frustrated musician looking to tell his story. "This producer we've been working with has gone insane and is holding our record hostage," an incredulous voice reported.

Sadly, the caller's saga is far from unique. He and his bandmates had forged a verbal agreement with a no-name, up-and-coming producer to record their album on spec. The producer, a childhood friend of the musician, said he'd provide his recording acumen and facilities at no charge, with the goal of generating attention for both himself and the group. Win-win for everybody, right?

But after six months in the studio, just as the band was preparing to have the disc mastered, the producer halted production and refused to turn over the masters until he was compensated. The group and its recording have been in limbo ever since.

Todd Myers, a local entertainment attorney who donates his services to the non-profit Colorado Lawyers for the Arts, says the story sounds all too familiar. "It's called a frozen master issue," he explains, "and I get it almost every day. Someone will call me up and say, 'Hey, I paid this guy $150, and he won't give me the master. He wants 3 percent of my royalties. Is that fair?'"

Whether it's fair may not matter. If the deal isn't in writing, it may as well not exist.

"Everything has been done so informally in Colorado for so many years, with handshakes," Myers says. "Everybody just gets freaked out when they think about having to put something down on paper. And it's just really not that complicated."

Maybe not, but most musicians are broke and can't afford legal counsel -- even if they have the forethought to consider such matters in the first place, which they don't. As a result, they're often left out in the cold. I know I've sealed more than a few deals over drinks, relying solely on someone's word and good faith, and then gotten screwed over. It's not a prudent way to do business, and whether artists want to admit it or not, making music is just that: a business.

According to Myers, a few hours with an entertainment attorney -- hell, even a business attorney -- is time well spent, and it could prevent two mistakes that most bands make. First, they don't have a clear understanding of where they're going as a business enterprise (even if their artistic goals are solid). And second, they either don't have a clear agreement of how they're going to divide up the fruits of the musical compositions, or they don't have a document that spells out that agreement.

Myers recommends drawing up a "collaboration agreement," outlining each member's involvement with the band, the songs and percentage interest. Once everybody signs the agreement, it's a legally binding document, and everyone knows exactly what to expect from then on. And it's legally binding even if an attorney doesn't help draw it up.

Although a lot of bands I've encountered, especially smaller ones, say they don't need an attorney, Myers insists that it's never too soon for a group to get its act together. "In Colorado, when a band starts as a band, the moment they decide 'We're a band' and they pick a name -- even if they haven't picked a name -- they have formed a business, and the law presumes that they're going to share profits equally and they're going to share losses," he says. "So they've formed a general partnership under the Colorado Partnership Act, whether they've filed the formal paperwork or not. Otherwise, the law is going to presume that the four members of a band constitute a partnership and equally share in the interest of a song unless there is compelling evidence otherwise."

Myers's advice is irrefutable: Wouldn't it be better for everyone involved in a project if expectations and compensation were spelled out from jump street?

As for the disgruntled caller: Myers says even the "frozen master" problem has a solution. Through careful negotiations, this situation can be resolved. And even if a group can't utilize Myers's services -- which are pretty reasonable, at around $600 for a five-hour session -- there are other options available. Colorado Lawyers for the Arts (www.coloradoartslawyers.org) provides legal counsel to member artists and arts organizations that qualify for pro-bono representation. And for those who don't meet the pro-bono requirements, CoLA can recommend other legal resources.

That's the ticket! All bands stand to benefit from the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last week by the String Cheese Incident, one of Colorado's most popular and prolific jam bands.

SCI Ticketing, a company co-owned by the String Cheese Incident and Madison House Inc. , charges that ticketing giant Ticketmaster is -- get this -- "using its immense market power to prevent competition for the sale of concert tickets."

Jeez, ya think? I'll take "Obvious Shit" for $300, Alex! "Uses its immense market power to get a stranglehold on selling tickets" would be a more fitting claim.

The String Cheese Incident is quickly becoming a self-contained conglomerate of its own, with its own travel agency, record label and whatever else those crazy, tree-hugging hippie rockers from the People's Republic of Boulder come up with. The band also sells concert tickets directly to its fans. Through an agreement with promoters and venues, the Incident had been able to get nearly half of the tickets for its shows and sell them through TicketWeb, a onetime competitor of Ticketmaster. But several years after Ticketmaster acquired TicketWeb, it put the kibosh on this practice, making far fewer tickets available -- although Ticketmaster was reportedly willing to make exceptions for fan clubs that charged their members $15 annually, a mandate that incensed the String Cheese camp.

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