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Denzyl Feigelson: On The Artist Contract

I was talking to a friend of mine, in fact an artist that I managed in the 90's when he was signed to a major label...


Denzyl Feigelson

During his career, he had sold tens of millions of albums within the major label system. At that time, he had a rolling 10 year agreement based on the original 180-page artist contract with a hefty advance per year for each album and all the usual recoupments and restrictions. For any artist, manager, lawyer who is immersed in this long-form contract, we all have a love/hate affair with its in’s and out’s.

This artist subsequently went on to a new label with a new 180-page contract, was signed directly by the president of the label, and recorded the album and filmed the video’s etc….That said president then left the company before the album was released, and herein lies the very crux of the crime that I think is quite common in our industry – the company refuses to release the album, and refuses to either sell it back or give the masters to the artist!

I’m sure labels have their various reasons for this, however, in this day and age, I cannot fathom why they would choose to disrupt a career or a potential opportunity. Is it politics? Does it all flow back to the small print in that daunting 180-page contract? Does anyone have any thoughts about this? I’ve just met too many artists over the years who have these stories relating to this topic, and I thought it would be worthy of mentioning and discussing.

Over time managers have worked with lawyers to try and foresee every negative occurrence that could happen to an artist. Contracts are necessary. The interesting statistic to explore is how many artists are signed say in a one year period into the label system? How many of those albums are actually released? And how many of those albums actually go on to earn a decent amount of royalties (after recoupment) for those artists.

The theme is that “artists don’t make money from royalties,” the money comes from touring, publishing, licensing and synch. As a manager, I was always a fan of labels, especially in the 80′s and 90′s, as I saw the power and possibilities of artists having careers within the industry. Im still a fan especially when it’s a win-win for both sides. I would expect contracts to become more artist-friendly in the future.

Another recurring theme that I hear from artists, is that crucial 1st and 2nd single release period into the radio system, and how important that is in the momentum of an artist career, especially an emerging artist. So much hard work and plugging goes into that period.

However, if radio does not add a single or play the track it could mark the end of the campaign for that artist, or put another way, the initial interest and enthusiasm is at a lowered level, and psychologically, the artists feels “dropped” and no longer the priority they once were at the beginning of the campaign. I know this is how (part of) the system works and thats just the way it is. And now we can plan for these eventualities, or even better, not rely on them.

I had many a discussion on this very topic with the great Tony Wilson, one of the founders of Factory Records. Tony was famous for his napkin contracts and he wrote to me when he read the contract we had put together for our label, which was designed to be quite artist friendly yet fair to all sides. Contracts are complex and both sides need to be well protected, but contracts are also an opportunity to ensure that artists can continue their career path even when unforeseen events and timings may not work out on their particular campaigns.

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