Why musicians need to learn to play business

Betty Kontoleon is a solicitor and lecturer with UniSA's School of Law, and also sings for the band Dirt Playground. Photo: David Solm BUSINESS AND LAW
Betty Kontoleon is a solicitor and lecturer with UniSA's School of Law, and also sings for the band Dirt Playground. Photo: David Solm

The music industry can be unforgiving, with artists finding they often need to be as fluent in matters of business and law, as they are in their music. Most prioritise their art, but greater awareness of the legalities can mean the difference between success and frustration, or worse, regret.

While Beethoven often spoke of a ‘gracious muse’ he never took inspiration for granted, famously rewriting compositions over and over until they seemed natural, almost inevitable. For the maestro, music wasn’t just a passion, it was a profession—or as Nick Cave reprised it many years later, “I get up each morning, put on a suit and go to work.”

Business and art may, on occasion, make uncomfortable bedfellows, but almost every successful musician has had to augment creativity with toil and grind. Given today’s music trade is more unforgiving than ever, capitalising on that hard work is paramount, and a savvy artist needs to know how to make the most of their rights, and the industry’s responsibilities.

Value yourself and your art

Betty (Paraskevi) Kontoleon is a solicitor and lecturer with UniSA's School of Law, and co-author of the new book, Music And The Law. She also sings for the band Dirt Playground, sings Greek as a freelance artist all over Australia and, despite her legal background, admits to being as guilty as anyone in neglecting the business side of her music.

“Even I fell into the trap of thinking, ‘Oh well, they're going to give us a jug of beer, let’s play’,” she says. “But music makes such a huge contribution to society and too often the people who make music don’t get anything back for that.”

The problem for many musicians is that excitement over an opportunity to share their art often leads them to devalue their work, and while a bit of ‘doing it for the love’ is okay, musicians have as much right to fair pay as anyone.

The Live Performance Award sets the minimum wage for musicians at $38.65 an hour, but most artists are engaged under common law contracts—often verbal—that operate outside the Award. Nonetheless, the law requires these contracts to be fair, and the Award should serve as a guide for all negotiations.

Protect what you produce

As soon as you write a song, you own the copyright to it; you don’t need to register or apply. But you do need to be able to prove it’s your original work if you intend to use it in any meaningful way.

“From a legal perspective, the way to best protect any rights you might have in relation to a song or a sound recording is to make it publicly available.”

In the digital age, this can be as simple as uploading a file to a site like SoundCloud. Be aware, however, that performing the song live doesn’t count—it must be stored in some manner, usually as a recording, or possibly as written notation.

Artists should also register with the Australasian Performing Right Association and Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society Ltd (APRA AMCOS), as well as the Phonographic Performance Company of Australia Ltd (PPCA). Both organisations collect and distribute royalties to musicians, with APRA AMCOS operating industry wide, and PPCA dealing specifically with revenue from businesses licenced to broadcast recorded music.

Importantly, APRA AMCOS also work to protect your copyrighted material from unauthorised use and plagiarism by other artists. “Being with these organisations is all about controlling your own music,” says Kontoleon. “It means if somebody picks up your song, makes their own version and starts performing it, you know it’s happening and your rights are protected.”

A resourceful musician can manage most of their business themselves. From recording, to marketing, to merchandise, it makes sense—and dollars—to control as much as practical.

If in doubt, ask

Having said that, the guiding philosophy should always be: when in doubt, get advice.

“In an ideal world where musicians have money, they go to lawyers,” Kontoleon says. “Unfortunately, that’s not always realistic, but there are other places you can go for help."

Read the full story in the latest edition of unisabusiness magazine.