Folk Alliance Newsletter
by Joel Mabus
written June 1997
Last time we talked about mailing lists. This time let's look at another music business basic: contracts.
Among self-employed musicians, especially FOLK musicians, there seems to be an aversion to written contracts. It seems friendlier to have an oral agreement. It certainly seems "more "folksy"" to shake hands over an agreement. Contracts seem cold and official and off-putting. That may be the way it SEEMS, but written agreements are in everybody's best interest.
It's obviously wise to write up an agreement when you are dealing with sleazeballs whom you don't trust to keep a deal. After all, as the old saying goes, a handshake isn't worth the paper it's written on. But when dealing with friendly, honest, folk venues isn't writing a paper an insult? What happened to trust? What ever happened to peace, love and understanding? Isn't a contract unnecessary between trustworthy parties?
Not at all. One of the prime functions of a contract (or letter of agreement, if you prefer) is just to spell out all the details of the gig -- the who, what, where, and when. Why, you ask? Here's a true story:
About 15 years ago I was negotiating with a folk club about 80 miles away where I had played many times before. Previously they had booked acts for a whole weekend. Now they were just doing Saturdays. We made an oral agreement over the phone. The conversation went like this:
Jim, the booker says "How does October look?" I say "Which weekend?" He says "How does the second look?" I say, "Looks good -- usual terms?" "Yep." "See you on the second then." "Yep, see you on the second."
Can you see what's coming? On MY calendar I mark down the SECOND SATURDAY in October. October 9. Jim marks down OCTOBER SECOND, which is also a Saturday. So along comes October 2, and the crowd is getting restless -- where's Joel? It's the only time I was ever a no-show. And believe me THAT will never happen again. If only we had written out our terms in either a simple contract or letter of agreement, we would have both been much happier.
The second big reason to have it written down is to settle disputes if they should arise. More than once I've had to pull the contract out of my back pocket to remind the other party of his/her obligation. Your particular conflict may not warrant the hassle of a trip to small claims court. But a contract signed by both parties is a great tool to get your pay in a timely manner. After all, when the gig is over, there is no way to take your music back home.
This is very important when dealing with people who don't normally book musicians, such as fathers-of-the-bride or community volunteers putting on their first fund-raiser, etc. Such folks may hire a band once in their lives. You need to help them through the process and remind them of the professional aspects of making music, and the obligations of literally paying the piper. The contract is an important tool to make the end of the night as happy as the celebration itself.
By the way, enforcing contracts -- especially those out-of-town -- is a great reason for joining the AFM (the musician's union) and filing contracts. The union's lawyers are on your side in every state and province when you are working under a filed contract. Local 1000 was set up just for traveling folkies like us, and makes the process easy. You don't need to use the standard boilerplate contract that you may have seen in times past, though there are some specific requirements to turn YOUR contract into a union contract.
Whether or not you choose to join the union, you should have a contract form ready at a moment's notice. It doesn't have to be fancy -- plain and simple is best. The point is CLARITY, after all. Check out some other people's agreements and make notes. Then sit down and draft a simple, all purpose, fill-in-the-blanks contract that can be modified to cover most of the gigs that come your way. If you are at all squeamish about this, a single visit to a lawyer should help you come up with a simple document.
Your system can be as low tech as a stack of typed, photo copied one-sheets with some carbon paper to stick between them, or as high tech as a style sheet on your computer's word processor to be modified and laser printed for each gig. The point is: be prepared.
So what details should every simple agreement encompass? I'm not a lawyer, but here's my common sense advise:
Have your name, address and phone number on it. Likewise, state the name of the group, institution, or person you are performing for, with a contact person's name address and phone number. Is there a publicity contact? A phone number the public can call to be included on promo?
State what it is you will do: A concert (and how many sets of what length), or workshop, or opening set, etc.
State what the other party will do in return: The pay -- whether a guarantee, percentage or flat rate. Also include how the payment is to be made -- before or after the gig, deposit or not, who to make the checks out to, etc. It's not a bad idea to have your social security number written down somewhere if it is a US gig and if a 1099 is in your future.
State the date, time, and place of the gig. Also the load-in time and sound check time.
Other things to be stated, whether as a "rider" or in the basic agreement: who is providing the PA -- and what that needs to include; who is providing room and/or meals for the act; can the act sell recordings -- is there a commission to be paid; when promotional materials and photos need to be sent; is there an exclusivity agreement -- can you play the same town within a week or month? And so on.
Anything that is very important to you needs to be spelled out -- such as allergy requirements in housing, etc. Having all this spelled out in advance makes for a lot fewer unpleasant surprises later on.
Have a place for both you and the other party to sign and date. And don't forget to have multiple copies: one for you, one for them, and one for the union if you go that route.
Lastly, if you keep a blank copy of your contract near your desk, you can use it to help you book your next gig over the phone. Since all the important details are waiting to be filled in, go over all these points with your booker when you are closing the deal. You will save time and money by getting all the details down in one call. You won't have to call back tomorrow to get the info you forgot to ask the first time.
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