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November 27, 2010

Lawyer: Good product, determination, knowledge key to music biz

Daily Star

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Over the years, I've often heard college campuses described as an "ivory tower," suggesting that higher education is not related to the "real world." This is an interesting image, but certainly not an accurate one for those of us involved with music industry education.

In addition to its academic components, this program requires constant interaction between faculty, students and representatives of the music and entertainment industry. Recently, we were able to bring the music industry to Oneonta when lawyer Bruce E. Colfin spoke to a large number of music industry students on the State University College at Oneonta campus.

Colfin has been involved in the entertainment and music business for close to 40 years. His beginnings as a "roadie" in the early '70s for bands such as the New Riders of the Purple Sage and stage manager for Peter Tosh on the 1978 Rolling Stones summer tour evolved into stints as a sound engineer, video producer and director, stage manager, tour coordinator for Inner Circle and personal manager for Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Mick Taylor, former Rolling Stones lead guitarist. A member of the Bar of the State of New York, he is also admitted to practice before the Federal Courts in the Southern and Eastern District Courts in New York as well as the U.S. Court of International Trade. Colfin also brings to his law practice, THE FIRM, extensive experience and background in the video and media production and distribution area.

What do you like about being an attorney representing clients in the entertainment industry?

It's certainly not dull. Although I am not an artist, I get to deal with the arts, creative people, and I am often an important part of a creative process. It's wonderful to be a contributor.

How has the music industry changed in the past few years?

The big companies have been swallowed up by even bigger companies. Multinational companies have consolidated their control over the pop music and media businesses. Also, with the Internet, artists of all types have found a liberating way of getting their music and art to the public. Some of them have even cashed in big time as a result.

What will happen to record companies as some are swallowed up by others and artists are gaining new independence?

Record companies generally continue to control the sound recording copyrights of all the hit records they've made, and so long as there is an industry that requires the use of those rights, the concept of a sound recording company will still exist. Whether the big, multi-national companies can afford to stay in the game as in the past remains to be seen. They are still in the business of pop music/celebrity star-making. They can cash in many ways. They can't make the type of profit on CDs they used to make, so they need to find something new that has tremendous profit margins.

What advice do you have for people who love music and want to make a living as musicians?

Anxiety and fear can be killers of someone's determination. In other instances they may be good motivators, depending on who you are. There are no guarantees, and there may be a tremendous downside to trying to break into music.

People who are trying to make it in the entertainment business have to risk almost everything, the basic stability of life, in a business that is not hospitable.

But _ if somebody has something of value, they have something they can sell. They have to remain very involved in their career. There are many different ways to earn an income. A musician has to develop a niche and a buzz for their music.

Tell us about getting a deal with a record label.

Even in the best of times it has not been easy for a talented artist to secure a recording agreement with a real company capable of making and selling records. Up until the last few years, the "major" record labels had almost unlimited resources. The labels could make an artist famous and popular to a large portion of the population. Unless you make a big splash, you're not going to make a living. Advance payments are often used up quickly, and future payments or royalties are not guaranteed. Nonetheless, people also know that if a big record deal comes into your life, there's a chance for a life-changing economic event, stardom and celebrity status.

Is it better to try to get a deal with a major label or an independent label?

Any deal is better than no deal. Any deal provides somebody else's money, and that's often better than taking it out of your own pocket. Ultimately, it depends upon what type a commitment for promotion, marketing and manufacturing an artist can obtain from a record label.

What are the things to watch out for in a record contract?

Artists need to watch out for lack of control over expenses on their behalf.

It's not unusual for a recording artist to constantly see a churning of their account by the record company.

A record company might decide to re-master an album, or call in a new producer, or plan additional and expensive promotion. All of these expenses will eventually be paid back from royalties that would be otherwise payable to the artist. That's why it's important for the artist and the record company to agree at the beginning of their relationship on what album expenses can be deducted from artist royalties and what expenses will be covered by the record company. Then it's possible for the artist to see royalties if records are sold. Other things to look for include a company's commitment to actually commercially release the sound recordings.

How can a musician start his own label? What does it take to stay in business?

Pick a name, take money out of your pocket, go to the county clerk and file a business certificate, or other form of business for the purpose of creating or acquiring sound recordings.

When a band comes to your office asking you for career advice, what do you say?

I determine what they want to do and give advice on how to get ahead.

Some people want me to make them a star. Unfortunately, that's the job of the band. I help them make sure their band name can be protected and answer their questions about their plans for a career in music.

The first meeting between a band and an attorney can be very cost-effective for the band, since that consultation is often free or billed at a much lower rate than the attorney's normal hourly rate.

When a band comes to your office because a record company has indicated some interest, what do you tell them?

Hold onto your reality. Don't start spending everything you've earned. Unfortunately, everything can get warped out of shape. Every band member thinks he's the most important in the group. Everybody is fighting over a deal that hasn't even come to fruition yet.

So _ just hang in there while we review the proposed agreement thoroughly and carefully so that we can understand fully.

When is it time for a band to find a manager?

Someone has to make management decisions. Quite often, in the beginning, the manager is the artist themselves. As a career progresses a professional manager may find you.

You've represented many famous artists, but you also are willing to talk with new artists. What do musicians need to know about how the music business functions?

They need to know what rights they have. Many think it's too difficult to gain that knowledge, and that's too bad, because they get burnt.

They need to know the basics, like knowing the difference between a musical composition and a sound recording.

They need to know the terms of art, the language of the business. They need to know, for example, that if the record company has an "option" to the term or length of the contract, the record company has the right to extend or lengthen that contract, even if the artist would prefer to go to another record company.

If they don't learn the basic language and concepts of the business, some one will take advantage of them.

A lot of musicians put so much time and energy into their art that they don't put much time in the business side of it. They expect that once some one recognizes their value, they will be able to find some one to handle it for them. Even then, the artist needs to know the basics.

There are numerous horror stories, such as Billy Joel's, whose manager, his brother-in-law, took unfair advantage of the relationship and the closeness to his artist's money.

Musicians who are building their careers should learn enough about the business to be able to find advisors and counselors who are professional, effective and willing to be held accountable for their advice.

Dr. Janet Nepkie is a member of the music industry faculty in the music department of the State University College at Oneonta. Her columns can be found at