Producer & Artist Agreements - Music Business Night School

Sarah Jones | GRAMMYPro.com

  • Photo: The Recording Academy
    Michael Aczon (L) and Jerimaya Grabher (R) talk about producer and artist agreements at the San Francisco Chapter's latest installment of Music Business Night School
  • Photo: The Recording Academy
    San Francisco Chapter Executive Director Michael Winger

Just about every successful music project has a producer behind it. Producers are an integral part of the creative process in the studio, and can take a recording to the next level. Before embarking on a partnership, however, artists and producers need to make sure they’re covered on the business side by negotiating an agreement that defines project scope, sets expectations, and protects all parties.

On Monday, November 16, the San Francisco Chapter held its second fall Music Business Night School event, “Producer and Artist Agreements.” Hosted by San Francisco’s The Chapel nightclub and sponsored by Coast Mastering and Different Fur Studios, this latest installment of Music Business Night School featured two music business veterans: Michael Aczon, a Bay Area-based attorney, manager, and educator who has practiced entertainment law and managed artists since the 1980s; and Jerimaya Grabher, co-founder of the Global Positioning Services management group, which represents top producers, engineers, and artists like Ethan Johns, Jacquire King, Vance Powell, and Tom Lord-Alge.

BEGINNING WITH THE BASICS

Agreements, at their core, are defined by roles in the studio. Michael Aczon opened with a simple question: What does a producer do, anyway?

“You can draw a parallel to film director,” explained Grabher. “Somebody who has to manage the budget, manage the production, bring the whole project home, and deliver it.” This role varies with genre of music, label expectations, and the type of record being made. But at the most basic level, “you’ve got to help deliver a finished product to the artist, and hopefully meet or exceed their expectations in doing that.” Beyond that, details focus on the logistics — managing budgets, schedules, and personnel — all while fostering a creative environment that will help an artist succeed.

Producers work hard to build name value. “There’s this crazy view in the A&R community that there are some producers who walk around with these little pouches of fairy dust, that they can come and sprinkle some on your record and it’s going to become a hit. When it’s impossible,” said Grabher. “Having a name involved in your project can really drive something. But the music-buying population doesn’t care; all they care about is, ‘I love that song.’ What we’re talking about is promotion within the industry — to get decision makers to hire my clients. But at the end of the day, if there’s a hit, it’s because someone wrote a hit. The only thing that matters is, who’s right for the project?”

Grabher pointed out that increasingly, producers are being called upon to co-write songs. “That’s always been the job of the producer — to make sure the songs are best they can be when they get into the studio, work on arrangements — but more and more, artists really want a writer-producer.”

SEALING THE DEAL

Grabher walked the audience through the basic process of connecting an artist and producer, using a major-label scenario as an example. “It all starts when an artist makes a hot demo, plays some key places, and gets signed. Now it’s time to make record.” The artist’s A&R representative or manager approaches Grabher about working with a particular client and if the project resonates with that producer, a dialog begins. If the team is a good fit, a deal is made.

Every deal begins with a budget: “How much can client take as a fee, how much is going to be allocated across studio time, hotel rooms, you name it.” said Grabher. Producers generally select all personnel on a project, from engineers to side musicians. Most producers also handle arranging, with the exception of string arrangements. With recording budgets continuing to decline, many producers cut costs by working in their own studios.

Since creative processes tend to be fluid, producers have to be accountable at every step in the process, answering to label expectations. If a producer has representation, the management team will coordinate so the producer can focus on making music.

It’s difficult to pin down a compensation range for a producer: Fees vary wildly, depending on the producer’s experience and clout and the project’s scope. A straight-ahead jazz trio recording, for example, tends to cost much less to produce than a complicated pop session with programmers, a different mixer on each track, etc. “You can go from something like three grand to three hundred grand,” explained Grabher. “It really comes down to the producer in a lot of cases.”

Accommodating limited budgets calls for creative time management. “You have to figure out how to get the job done, with the money that’s available, and do it in the most efficient amount of time possible,” said Grabher. Streamlining the recording process might mean recording fewer songs, or committing to more live recording and fewer overdubs. “It’s not how many corners can you cut, or how can you rush through it, it’s what’s the best approach to this project to allow to go quickly and efficiently, and deliver a great record,” explained Grabher.

Aczon advised artists to come to their sessions fully prepared to avoid wasting expensive studio time: “If you go to a park, any park, the distance from home plate to the pitcher’s mound is the same as it is at AT&T park. So why rent AT&T park just to learn how to pitch?”  

MAIN POINTS AND FINE PRINT

Once both the budget and scope are determined, Grabher creates a simple “deal memo” — a basic letter of agreement outlining key points, which allows the team to start the project while attorneys get to work drafting a long-form contract. Every deal memo includes four core points:

  1. Grabher’s client agrees to produce, engineer, or mix x number of masters.
  2. The artist agrees to pay the producer x.
  3. X percent of the producer’s fee will be considered a recoupable advance.
  4. Producer will receive x credit on physical media, advertisements, etc.

Credits are crucial for a producer, since they serve as a resume. “It’s your body of work,” said Grabher. “It’s what you use to present your skillset.” With physical formats in decline, securing credits is challenging. Further complicating matters, failure to credit a client is not considered breach of agreement. “This is struggle, and why producers at a certain level have managers,” said Grabher.

If the producer is expected to contribute to songwriting, Grabher builds in a line stating that publishing splits will negotiated by the artist and the producer, and the producer will maintain the ability to administer his or her share of those songs.

Of course, songwriting is a dynamic creative process, and collaborations can evolve throughout the project; developments should be addressed immediately to avoid complicated negotiations down the line.

“There’s nothing messier than trying to remember what went down, and trying to assign percentages to what that producer may have done in the studio a month ago,” said Grabher, adding that some labels will not release a record out if splits aren’t in place. “I have a song split sheet; I’ll email it over to you to print out in the studio and get your person to sign it…it’s agreed upon in the moment, and we can reference that document at the end when it comes time to register the songs.”

The agreement between the artist and producer includes a Letter of Direction, which is a letter from the artist to the label containing instructions for paying the producer. “This is the royalty, this is his fee,” said Grabher. “Without that letter of direction, the producer doesn’t get paid.” A SoundExchange Letter of Direction is from the artist to SoundExchange, instructing SoundExchange to pay a portion of royalty income from digital and satellite performances to the producer or mixer.

“My everyday job is to make sure the logistics are happening, the coordination is being done, but I also make sure that the Letter of Direction is done, getting signed, submitted to the label, the label acknowledges it, and the producer is put into their royalty system,” explained Grabher. “So that six months later, we’re going to see a royalty statement. Without that, you’re not going to see any kind of accounting.”

If you’ve been following these pages, you know that legislation moving through Congress right now is poised to radically change the livelihoods of producers and engineers: The Allocation for Music Producers Act or AMP Act (H.R. 1457), if passed, would codify into law the process of allocating producer royalites through SoundExchange Letters of Direction, which is currently being implemented on a voluntary basis. For more information about this bill and to learn about Recording Academy advocacy efforts in Washington, visit grammypro.com/advocacy.  

THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO

Making music is often an emotional process, compounded by the pressure of working on a tight timeframe, in the confines of a recording studio. And despite meticulous planning, things can go wrong. “There’s no way to look into the future and determine how a project is going to go, or just how personalities are going to mesh or not mesh,” says Grabher, adding that if a problem arises, he immediately goes into solutions mode. “How do we fix this? Can we fix this? Is this better for everybody that we pull the plug?”

“At the end of the day everybody’s human, these are people with real lives, and struggles, and you’re in an intense, confined situation, making art. It can get a little dicey,” said Grabher. “This is why we make sure the artist and my client spend a lot of time together and have the ability to communicate openly. And if anything goes wrong, hopefully they can work it out before it’s too late. But it does happen, and sometimes you get lawyers involved.”

If you’re a difficult individual, you’re not going to get hired,” Grabher explained. “The instances when my clients are great successes are when they show up, do the work, and are fun, easy to work with; bringing their professional skillset to the project is a given.”

Grabher closed the evening with career advice that applies to anyone embarking on a recording project: “When everyone involved feels like they had a great experience, the producers are going to get hired again. This is how you build from one successful experience to the next. Do your best, respect the artist, deliver on expectations, use interpersonal skills, and get along with everybody.”

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