Be Your Own Manager Part Four: Copyright and Business Formation
Guitar Gabby has self-managed herself and the Txlips for the last five years. In this four-part series, she outlines the basics to self-management.
Read Part One, Two, and Three of this series for more information on why self-management might be right for you!
In any industry, protecting your creative ideas is important—especially when considering self-management. I firmly believe that protecting your heart and mind is one, if not the most, important concern when it comes to being an original artist or producer. There are many different ways to protect your ideas and art, and we will briefly dive into a few options in the music industry.
This can be a sensitive area because it involves preserving one’s original ideas as well as the final outcome—i.e. the song or work of art they create. I look at my music and ability to create it as gold, and believe it should be protected the same as tangible things of value.
Unfortunately, this industry is filled with lurkers who look for ways to take music or ideas that someone else worked hard for, especially if they see value in it. Copyright is one way of protecting your ideas, and is legally defined as the protection granted to the owner of an original work. There are various forms of copyright, such as musical composition, which protects the songwriting of the song itself, and sound recording copyright, which protects the audio of a song after it has been written.
One example of a recent copyright infringement case is from this past October, in which Lil Nas X and Cardi B were slapped with a lawsuit for the song “Rodeo” (released on Lil Nas X’s EP from early 2019). Atlanta producers Don Lee and Glen Keith claim that they produced a track called “gwenXdonlee4-142” in early 2017, which was eventually released as a song called “Broad Day” by rappers PuertoReefa and Sakrite Duexe in May 2017. Lee and Keith claimed that the song was “performed, published, and distributed widely, including without limitation in and around the Atlanta hip-hop scene thus, Lil Nas X and his producer may have heard this song in his hometown before lifting elements for his song,” and are demanding writer acknowledgement and royalties.
One major takeaway from this case is that you should copyright your music when you first develop it. Situations such as this can stem from people sharing music with their “friends” or performing songs prematurely in public because they are excited and/or anxious to release it. Anxiousness can cause us to unintentionally fall into a trap where we forfeit our rights to these ideas, so patience is key.
Remember: Your art is precious, and if protected the right way it will give you a return more valuable than cars and money, positively impacting your family for generations to come.
So, how do you copyright your music?
Many people seek what’s called a “poor man’s copyright” to protect their work by either getting their original work notarized or mailing it to themselves as a means of legal acknowledgement. The problem with this is that there is no copyright provision in a poor man’s copyright. Over the years, I learned that you should never make your music public until you have copyright provision protecting it. A few ways you can acquire that are:
- Going directly to the U.S. Copyright Office.
- With a third party, such as Legal Zoom. The advantage to using a third party is that many of them offer a one-time fee copyright for as many songs as you have, whereas the U.S. Copyright Office may charge additional fees the more items (original work or songs) you add to your application.
If you don’t know which route to take, consult an expert to ensure you are taking proper precautions to protect your greatest asset.
Another approach to protecting your brand and what you’ve developed lies within your business and model. There are various business formation models you can label your business under. We’ll look at one of the most common formations for small entities, LLC, and some of the major differences between this business formation and others.
LLC stands for Limited Liability Corporation. Typically, these are for people who desire sole ownership of their business. An LLC can also be filed as a general partnership where you and other partners share ownership, responsibility, debt, expenses, etc. for the business. The details of how an LLC (or LLLP in some states) is organized may vary, but ideally an LLC is typical for anyone starting a small business (yes, this includes in the music industry). You can apply for your LLC directly with your Secretary of State office by going through a third party such as Legal Zoom. If you are unsure which to use, I suggest consulting an expert or reaching out to one of the expert attorney’s with Legal Zoom.
When you’re a small business under self-management, you have to build from the ground up and develop your brand until you get to a point where you can sustain business and eventually gain profit. Many of the greatest businesses and record labels had to start off small, and in many cases they started off as an LLC and developed into something greater. When it comes to turning your skillset (like writing and producing music) into a for-profit business, it will cost you money in the beginning. However, try and look at it as an investment into your artistry and skill set that you will get a return for in the future.
As a sole proprietor, you are generally protected from debts that may come from investing into your own business. This means your personal dollars invested into those rehearsal spaces, studio time, travel expenses, and so on can often be written off and not counted against you as it may be with a Corporation formation.
An LLC is an excellent option for those just starting off with self-management and perhaps running an entire band out of your own pocket (like me). Just know that those dollars do go toward something special, and I’d like to encourage you to not let years of constant investment deter you from your goal and vision. Any good thing is worth working and fighting for, and there will always be piles of work. But if you set your intentions and work towards them, with your mental and physical health at the forefront, it will pay off. Patience is key—keep going.