So here’s a dirty little music industry secret that pretty much no one will ever tell you – not because it’s particularly important, in fact when you find it out you probably wont be too shocked. But in a world that seems increasingly oriented around lawyers and contracts it will certainly come off as scandalous. So here it is: almost every deal made in the music industry is a mere handshake arrangement. You might find this surprising, you’ve probably seen a record label contract or two in your day and try to protect yourself contractually, and there certainly is a lot of merit to that. The thing is – a lot of very important people don’t especially care about that. It ultimately spins back to that old chestnut I’ve been hammering into y’all since day one – the music industry is more about honor than anything else, and handshake deals are a great way of maintaining that.
Now I have a few theories as to how these rose to prominence. In my estimation a lot of it stems from the fact that the music industry is oftentimes fueled by people who came up from the underground who were used to handshake deals and thn never really had a reason to stop. That’s the beauty of the music industry, most of it is scaleable. I’m not entirely sure how, but in a world that has gone as DIY as ours, most people seem to want to keep things as straightforward as possible. Contracts are, for many something of a last resort and something that needs to be kept a little bit separate from the bulk of the real dealings that take place – especially on the independent level where most of you guys lie.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a good contract. I read contracts fairly regularly, they are an important part of the business. Some deals I simply won’t go into without a contract, because I need a guarantee of certain basic things. People get screwed over all the time in music and I’m not sure that it’s totally logical to hand wave away the need for contracts at all. They certainly have their place, and it is a very important one. The thing is – a lot of the top dogs in the industry are so fed up with the crap that contracts create that oftentimes they’d rather just codify things with an email and then run from there.
Why do they want to avoid them? Because their lives are complicated enough already. They don’t need another contractual obligation holding them down. I can tell you that many of your favorite booking agents and managers don’t have any sort of codified arrangement with their clients, it simply doesn’t make sense. Not having a contract promotes a culture of trust. Sure, it leaves both of you open to future problems, but that’s kind of the point. Sure, you should probably get a contract if the money gets real, but some folks don’t even go for that. It’s important to stick to your DIY roots and remember what made you fall in love with this thing in the first place. The music industry remains real as long as it maintains those core ethics that make it survivable. When those get violated… well you’re in for a bad time.
Of course – if you are trying to cultivate a culture of trust you need to be sure that you can actually trust the people in question. If you’re getting a weird vibe from someone or hear something shitty about them then it might be valid to step back and make sure you have some sort of binding agreement if you’re going to work with them. You don’t want to put yourself liable for thousands of dollars. That being said, if you are working with someone who has had countless clients over the years, a strong reputation in the scene and makes you feel at home, they are probably someone you don’t need a super specific contract with, or any at all. This goes double if you’re working with someone who you see fairly regularly at shows and other industry events – it provides a level of accountability that has a power that goes beyond any contract.
A lot of you might have historically avoided contracts merely because reading a contract can be kind of a nightmare. I understand that and totally sympathize. If you miss just one piece of language you could find yourself thousands of dollars in debt. The thing is – you don’t need a law degree to understand contracts, you just need to read a lot of them and eventually you will start to get the hang of it. It’s a learned skill, and one that comes in endlessly valuable, not just in the music industry but in life in general. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still have a lawyer you can get in touch with for real questions, but it does mean that you can figure out, and pick apart some initial complications on your own.
Most of my income is not generated via contractually defined agreements. Instead I have deals laid out by individuals who trust each other, and the more I found out about the music industry the more I find that this is true for other professionals. Sure, this isn’t a model that works for everybody, but it does mean that I don’t have to worry about messing up with some small bit of language and having someone not feel obligated to pay me for a month’s work. It all ties back to that culture of trust. If you trust people and put your money where your mouth is then other people are going to trust you. It’s a simple question of human nature, and if you can take advantage of that, then you are set for great things.