Special: Lawyer Steve Gordon talks Contracts for Creatives

Latest posts by Liya Swift (see all)

In a recent episode of RRFC’s weekly show “Connected,” hosts DJ IZ and Cloie Wyatt Taylor featured special guest Steve Gordon, a noted entertainment lawyer in New York who recently released a book called The 11 Contracts Every Artist, Songwriter and Producer Should Know. In the complicated world of the music business, it’s easy for artists to get lost, get taken, or even get into legal trouble with the wrong types of legal agreements. In an easy-to-understand manner, Steve peels back the curtain a bit for creatives, not just to share the important contracts, but to explain the meanings behind them.

Lawyer Steve Gordon

Our interview with Steve was so revealing that we decided to include some of the best excerpts for you below in case you missed the webisode. Enjoy!


“I often get clients who are emerging artists, or new artists, or songwriters and producers…The inspiration for the book was my actual practice, and dealing with these new or emerging singer/songwriters/producers and what have you, and the issues that they come in with and want me to work on…If you look for a contract like a producing deal, or you look for a management agreement online, you’re probably not going to find anything, because I’ve looked. And so this book provides, perhaps, the only place where you can actually see what these agreements look like…I give you the form but I also explain it, with introductions, and annotations for all the key provisions. You not only have a form of agreement, you know what it means.”


“For those people who don’t have the wherewithal to hire somebody on a retainer now, for say, $1,500 to $2,500., what they should and can do, by themselves, if they write songs, they’re a songwriter or they’re an artist who write songs, or they’re a producer that helps create songs, they should become members of ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. These are what you call performance rights organizations. Now, they’re all free or charge a nominal amount to join, and without them, you can’t get paid for your performance of your songs on radio, television, or the Internet. So, without them, you won’t get paid what we call public performance royalties.

Now, what if you’re an artist, songwriter, and you say, ‘Well…I’m not on commercial radio.”? You should [still] join, because each of these organizations—and you can only join one, but they all have a program where if you give them set lists of your performance…If you just show them the songs that you perform, which you’ve written, they’ll actually pay you. I have a client, friend [who] got paid $1250 each quarter from doing this with SESAC. But BMI and ASCAP have it as well…

One other suggestion I would make is to register [your music] with the U.S. Copyright Office. It’s pretty easy to do. You can do it on your own. You don’t need a lawyer. Just read the instructions at www.copyright.gov. And for $35 you can register your song. For $55, you can register a group of your songs. And the reason that this is important is without registration, you can’t sue anybody and if you register it after an infringement, you don’t get the benefits of the registration, which are attorney’s fees and $150,000 in statutory damages.”


“[Film and TV are] an important source of income for a lot of musicians. My best friend is a jazz musician. He writes occasionally for Spike Lee ads and movies and so forth. That’s a big chunk of his income. So, I have two different chapters in the book that deal with this, because writing for movies, whether it’s an independent feature movie or it’s a major Hollywood blockbuster movie, composer agreements for movies fall into a certain set of standard terms…In the book, I present two contracts. One is pro composer and the other is pro producer…And other provisions that are really important in this agreement are in this chapter, including a credit for a composer, because credits can lead to bigger jobs, better paying jobs in the future.

Then, I have a chapter on writing music for television, which is somewhat different. So let me give you an anecdote of how that would work. A guy came to me through a mutual friend and he had just landed a gig, an offer to write music for a major TV campaign. And I took a look at the agreement that he was about to sign, which did say work for hire, and we were able to change it to a one-year deal. So he got the right to use the music again. I got him a little more money, and I got him the right to retain the right to collect public performance royalties…He made more money, and it was from BMI, from those royalties, than he did from the original sync fee, is what we call the original fee. And, I was able to get him a credit in YouTube so that when the commercial aired on the internet, you were able to press a button for more information and his name popped up. So that kind of agreement we refer to as sync agreements, and I have a whole chapter on the ins and outs of how to make those deals better.”


“I get a lot of contracts from people on the other side, either managers or production companies, that try to save money on lawyers. And the contract is almost incomprehensible. When a producer puts his beat up for sale online, [for example,] sometimes that producer will offer a contract to a potential buyer that is difficult to understand and sometimes inconsistent…I’m supervising some litigation about this, because a producer did put a beat up for sale and he offered a so-called exclusive license. He sold it to my client, who actually is in Europe, who created a song with it that went nowhere. But, the producer sold it a second time, which is in contradiction to the contract that he signed with my client. And when he sold it the second time, he sold it to an aspiring hip hop artist who is now among the most successful hip hop artists of our era, okay? And the song has become…was the greatest hit, actually, on Spotify in 2015. Needless to say, this producer is in a lot of trouble…I’m supervising a case now where we’re presenting evidence to some major music companies, not only his record company, the hip hop artist, but his publisher, and the producer’s publisher, and the producer’s record company. And all of them are involved now, all because he was providing a contract online, and he either didn’t know what he was doing or he acted in bad faith.”


“You should try to figure out what you’re doing, and you can use this book to help you, and you should act in good faith…I didn’t want people to use these forms indiscriminately. I wanted them to read the book, read the annotations in each contract, so they understand what the contract means.”

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