Inside View: Legal advice for musicians

Three lessons on navigating the music industry from Mandy Rae Capela, a South African attorney specialising in entertainment law.
Design Indaba Music Circuit 2014. Image: Jonx Pillemer.

Music is something that demands to be felt, connecting people and opening the soul to new experiences. It is a universal language we can all understand. Legal language, however, is not. Many talented emerging artists not only struggle to break into the market, but once they are in it, battle to navigate the legal framework that governs the industry. Attorney Mandy Rae Capela, who previously worked for Schindlers Attorneys and Semopa Entertainment, has provided legal council to musicians such as Hugh Masekela. Here she shares three vital lessons for anyone entering the music business.  

Lesson #1 – Make connections 

As an artist, you should be attending other gigs around town and getting to know the local music scene. If you attend many gigs, you will have the opportunity to meet band managers. This is a good way to start interacting with them – you can even get their advice on moving forward in the industry.

As an emerging artist, you cannot be afraid or shy of approaching people and asking them for their opinions. That being said, you also need to do research, talk to other artists and make sure that the manager you want to take on knows his or her stuff and has your best interests at heart.

Sometimes the music business can be an overwhelming beast and you need to have a good support system. A great manager can really make your career – if he or she has the right contacts, half the work is done for you. Persevere.

Lesson #2 – Know your right to copyright

Perform a 'poor man’s copyright' on your songs. When you create something, a copyright is automatically created over that product. But the issue arises over timing: who had the copyright first? So if you write a song, make sure you email yourself a version of the song as soon as you have completed it. This will time stamp when you created the copyright. In the event of someone else claiming copyright on that song, if they cannot produce an earlier time stamp you will be proved to be the copyright holder.

Lesson #3 – Read the contract

It might seem terribly obvious but read the contract – thoroughly!

Young artists will often do anything to 'make it', which could mean signing a contract that ties them in to some unsavoury commitments. There are too many horror stories of now-famous South African bands that were tied into deals that left them penniless for years because they didn’t understand what they were signing. Always get an unbiased second opinion on the contract, preferably a legal opinion. This is the one time that you should get it right the first time, so spend the money on proper legal services upfront rather than paying for it later.