‘Our industry has become so meshed with technology, yet we’re still battling to get many of those companies to see the value of music.’

MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfil. Inspiring Women is supported by Ingrooves.

Music industry lawyer Erin M. Jacobson has spent the last 12 years providing legal support to a diverse range of clients who span Grammy Award-winning artists, music estates and independent publishers.

Initially, she planned to become a doctor before discovering the different options for careers in music via an introduction class at her university. 

Once she learned about how many artists would land up in unfavourable contracts, her future was set.

“I thought I could help them and be that person who protects them and their work,” Jacobson recalls.

After graduating from law school, Jacobson opened up her own practice, which she was able to sustain due to building up contacts in the industry while studying. 

At the time, she was mostly dealing with independent artists who she could relate to as a fellow entrepreneur and build up direct experience of working with clients.

“You don’t always get much client interaction when you’re first starting out as a lawyer because it’s more about doing work for other lawyers at law firms,” says Jacobson.

“But I had that client contact right from the beginning and being able to run my firm how I want to run it means that I’m always open to coming up with innovative solutions.”

Here, we chat to Jacobson about lessons learned across her career, what managers and artists should be wary of from a legal perspective, exciting developments in music, and much more besides.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far across your career?

There’s still so much misinformation about the music business that proliferates and the big clients often have the same problems as the indie clients, just with more money at stake. Established creators and rights owners usually have resources and representation so these problems can be solved but indie artists don’t have a lot of great resources for legal issues. In response to that, I started a second company called Indie Artist Resource that provides an online DIY solution for independent artists.

“There’s still so much misinformation about the music business that proliferates. big clients often have the same problems as the indie clients, just with more money at stake.”

Another thing is that a lot of creators are not educated about the business and understanding of what’s happening in their career and how they make money from music. So I’m always working to educate my clients throughout the deal process.

I wrote a book called Don’t Get Screwed! How to Protect Yourself as an Independent Musician, which breaks down royalty streams and other information in a way that I haven’t seen other resources do. I wanted anyone to be able to understand it so they would have those tools to be empowered in their careers.

Can you tell us about any developments happening on the legal side of music today that musicians and executives should be aware of?

Although it’s not new, copyright termination, which is also sometimes referred to as copyright recapture, is really important and something that people need to pay attention to because it’s only going to become more prevalent as time goes on with more and more musical works being eligible for recapture. Many music creators are not aware of getting these rights back, which are often game-changers.

Even though most companies are aware of it, I still feel it’s something they need to pay more attention to because their businesses are built on owning copyrights and some of the approaches that I’ve seen some of them taking so far are not always helpful to them. This is part of the law that’s not going away and all music going forward is going to be subject to this.

When you say copyright recapture, do you mean when rights owners can get their copyrights returned to them after a certain period of time?

Yes, it involves certain timing and filing the right paperwork and there’s a bunch of provisions that we have to comply with based on US copyright law.

What are some of the ways that you see people dealing with this that aren’t helpful to them?

When I’m dealing with people on the other side of a client deal, they often don’t really seem to care very much whether they get the rights back or whether they keep them, they just throw out an offer.

“I don’t see why companies would want to be losing rights when their business is based on owning rights.”

People who are looking to recapture rights do so sometimes purely from a financial standpoint, but sometimes they have other more personal reasons as to why they want their rights back and a lot of rights owners just don’t pay attention to that and seem fine with losing them. I don’t see why companies would want to be losing rights when their business is based on owning rights.

What are some of the biggest pitfalls you see in artists or managers’ approach to the business side of their careers?

What I usually see, especially for artists, is not having proper agreements in place before a project starts, signing agreements they don’t read or understand, or signing agreements they think they understand but they really don’t. Usually, one or a combination of these factors gets them in a less than ideal situation that they want to get out of. I’ve seen some variation of all of those scenarios happen at every career level.

Is there anything in label contracts specifically that artists and managers should be looking out for?

The biggest thing is really understanding how the money works and how the royalties are being calculated and paid. It’s not always super apparent, especially for someone who is not trained to understand the legal language.

So you look at an agreement and think, ‘Okay, well it says this percent’ but a lot of people don’t realise that percent is maybe after a bunch of different deductions have been taken. It’s not that percentage of the full amount of money that’s coming in. Or they might not realise that, if it’s a multi-rights deal, certain income streams can be grouped together and therefore one could delay payment of another.

“The biggest thing is really understanding how the money works and how the royalties are being calculated and paid. It’s not always super apparent, especially for someone who is not trained to understand the legal language.”

I have seen more labels on the indie level try to make their deals a bit more of a partnership style with some of them even doing a 50/50 split, but it’s still very important to know exactly how the money’s working and also make sure that the agreements are in line with what’s actually happening today.

Sometimes, certain provisions are out of date for what’s happening in the marketplace right now, especially with all the digital uses. So for artists and managers, it’s really important to have a skilled attorney who knows how to look out for these things and negotiate them properly.

Is there one key piece of advice that you’d give a young artist or manager as they start to navigate the music business?

Your publishing rights are really important so be careful with those. And again, have good representation, understand what you’re signing and how that impacts your career and your goals. Also, something we do regularly is that we’re mindful of how long deals are for. So how long is that artist going to be in a deal and is that going to be beneficial to them or not, depending on how the relationship goes with that company?

What are the most frequent battles that you’re fighting on behalf of your clients?

The problem that most people in our business have, which I also experience, is fair pay for music creators and rights owners in exchange for the use or the assignment of their rights. Because I handle a lot of music estates, something I specifically deal with frequently is problems with fighting amongst heirs. It’s something that isn’t in the news as often, although it has been more so recently, but people often overlook how incredibly important it is to make sure that music estates are set up correctly and properly managed.

“the problem that most people in our business have is fair pay for music creators and rights owners in exchange for the use or the assignment of their rights.”

Estates have their own issues about protecting the legacy of the catalog while simultaneously keeping them relevant and earning income in today’s marketplace and every estate is different due to the nature of the music and the people involved. A lot of catalog sales will solve that problem because those heirs won’t have the music rights to fight over, but there are so many instances where people want the music to remain in the family.

How about the most exciting development happening in the music industry for you today?

Overall, there’s a lot of opportunity right now in various sectors. As I said before, there’s the chance for creators and their heirs to get rights back. There are more avenues and ways to exploit the music, we’ve known for years now that music consumption is bigger than ever and there’s a massive opportunity to sell rights. So it’s really healthy for commerce and it keeps the rights and money moving throughout our industry.

I also think there are some technological developments coming that are going to change our business for the better, but I can’t go too much in depth about that because some of that’s being developed by my clients. Good things are coming!

You spoke earlier about how some independents will do 50/50 style deals and there has been talk in recent years that major label deals are getting more artist-friendly, too. Is that something you see in reality?

I am still seeing those friendlier splits more on the indie side than on the major side. The major label deals are definitely better than they used to be but, from what I’ve seen, most of them are still not offering 50/50 splits. I do think that’s certainly a possibility in the future as artists demand more transparency and have more vocal role models, like Taylor Swift who has been very vocal about these kinds of issues that she’s faced.

What would you change about the music industry and why?

I would ensure that songwriters and publishers get paid fairly and in the digital world, equal to the labels, because it all starts with the song and the songwriter who writes the song. Otherwise, there’s nothing to record. All of us in the music business, or even people that work tangentially with the music business, have jobs because of songwriters and artists and companies can have profitable businesses while paying music creators and rights owners fairly.

“it all starts with the song and the songwriter. All of us in the music business have jobs because of songwriters and artists.”

Our industry has become so meshed with technology, yet we’re still battling to get many of those companies to see the value of the music that they’ve based their businesses on. I even see it within various aspects of entertainment, where creators want to use a work of another creator or a song in a film for a below market fee. As creators, they should value the contributions of their fellow creators as they would value their own works.

Those things will change in the future as there’s more transparency. It’s a process but there are many groups and people in our industry who are fighting for it.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to pursue a career in music on the business side today?

Learn the different aspects of the business and how they fit together because I’ve found that really helpful in my career. And focus on your client’s best interest instead of your own ego. I’ve seen a lot of people do that and do a disservice to their clients. I’ve seen situations where other people’s clients have been given bad advice or put into bad deals that they shouldn’t be in because it served a representative of theirs.

I would also say that the details matter, because I see that every day with my clients, even as far as them getting paid with the data world that we’re in right now. Also, treat people with respect because we all work together on a regular basis.

Virgin Music Group is the global independent music division of Universal Music Group, which brings together UMG’s label and artist service businesses including Virgin and Ingrooves.Music Business Worldwide

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