This is What Artists Should Know About Signing Their First Record Deal

Signing Contract
Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

We talked with Entertainment Attorney Karl Fowlkes, Esq. about when artists should lawyer up and what they should look out for before signing a record deal.

A seasoned coach ensures that athletes are well-trained months before kick-off. Time is used to cultivate techniques and learn strategies that prepare them to make game-winning plays on the field. 

In the same vein, Karl Fowlkes, Esq., a New Jersey-based entertainment and technology attorney, is helping artists and producers develop business acumen beyond a project release, tour, or production deal. “Entrepreneurs are almost like the new athlete,” Fowlkes said during a phone interview with Okayplayer. “I want that same sort of focus on entrepreneurship.” His belief that artists and producers are entrepreneurs ultimately anchors his approach to business. 

To offer his support, he launched the Fowlkes Firm at the beginning of last year, after a short stint at Bloomberg as a Global Negotiator. He is seeking to disrupt the entertainment law industry by serving as not just a legal contract negotiator, but a dot connector and one of the most valuable players in an artist’s career development. It all began when he found himself advising artists’ friends on how to conceptualize the different parts of the industry and better understand how the pieces all fit together. 

“I advised on the different ways to collect royalties, negotiation strategy with distribution companies and labels in addition to guidance on the protection of their brand through trademark and intellectual property law,” Fowlkes said. “Attorneys wear different hats. I’ve also spent a lot of time in studio sessions and making creative decisions. It’s a full-service approach.” 

Today, his roster of emerging artists and producers includes everyone from Lil Baby’s go-to producer, Section 8 — who has produced two top ten singles in 2020 with “The Bigger Picture” and “We Paid — to squeaky-voiced viral star 645AR to the buzz-worthy emo rapper Blxst. “So many people view the music realm differently than the startup realm. I’m just trying to bridge the gap,” he said, reflecting on his approach to artist development.

We talked to Fowlkes about when to lawyer up, what to look out for before signing a record deal, the importance of using cultural currency as leverage, and more.

Your roster includes artists and producers at various stages in their careers. When do you suggest an artist should start lawyering up? 

I think there are a couple of points. The first point would be whenever a contract is presented to you. That’s always the red light that you should go off as an artist. Even if it’s a management agreement with someone they know, even if it’s a songwriter, producer, video agreement anytime paperwork comes into play that’s going to have a lasting effect on your career. That should be the first red light. 

I think that attorneys sort of operate more dynamically than entertainment attorneys; there are attorneys who do sort of the paperwork and intellectual property filing, which is completely fine, but there are a lot of other entertainment attorneys that sort of exist in the deal cycle, procuring opportunities, advising on pairing them up with a manager, and really just helping them build that team out, as well as putting them on the radar with some of these labels. I think that if you have super talent we’re going to find you, but I think it’s really just anytime you get that first large paperwork, or if you are looking to fully put together your team. 

What are the benefits of an emerging artist adding a lawyer to their team during the earlier stages of their career? 

I really think it’s how you are trying to evolve your music career because I think a lot of people just want to accelerate things. I can certainly walk you into a record label or walk you into certain opportunities and probably get you a deal, but I don’t do that. I don’t like walking people into labels and watching them get 16 cents on a dollar — which is no money — and watch things possibly get shelved and ruined. I don’t like working with people who just want to get signed. I’m looking for people who are looking to create sustainable music careers and who are thinking even after music. 

Karl Fowlkes standing in front of city

Photo Credit: Steven Sosa

What are some signs people should be looking out for before signing with a record label? 

The reality of it is, you never need to sign with a record label if you are building your business the right way. Why would you ever accept 16 or 20 cents on the dollar or trade-in for immediate money? I think it’s all about building that virality yourself, then there’s no reason to give that up for a quick check. To be honest, I don’t think it even makes sense to partner with a record company unless you need it.

There are still a lot of artists who have their eyes set on landing a record deal, and to get to major labels many go with an upstream agreement. Can you explain what this is and the possibilities and pitfalls of this sort of agreement? 

A lot of upstream agreements are sort of production deals. With an upstream deal, you are essentially signing with a company and that company’s goal is to upstream you to a major label. So it’s a shorter window. It’s a three-way pie instead of what would normally be a two-way pie.

What are some common issues you see people coming up against once they are signed by a label? 

A lot of independent artists really struggle to make those music connections you need. In terms of the legal stuff. I think that a lot of independent artists have signed one or two contracts that they end up regretting because they don’t have someone to property look over and read their contract. Someone may come out of the woodworks and claim ownership of something that you are doing. 

On the label side, the biggest thing that I’m seeing artists struggling with is getting on the same page with their A&R team. You sign in such short windows these days. You get courted by a label and then within two weeks you might have already signed with the label, so you don’t really know much about the people you are signing with. You don’t really know how good your chemistry is and a lot of times certain things may have been said during that courtship, but as soon as that paper is signed they have a different vision then what you do and that usually ends up in conflict.

You are also working with producers. How are you helping them to navigate legal needs? 

Working with producers I would say is probably my biggest impact in the music industry so far, helping and advising producers. Understanding how vulnerable a producer is in 2020, a lot of times they really don’t have that chance to go up there and get an attorney. It might be a producer agreement for 3K, it might be for 4k, from a cost-benefit standpoint it probably isn’t. Naturally, I was able to offer assistance just by offering a different sort of payment structure. 

The percentage base, getting paid when you get paid. That sort of mentality. Helping them get paid on the front end. The idea is to make sure that producers are adequately represented in the legal system. Right now there is the NMPA (National Music Publishers Association), which really focuses a lot of attention on songwriters but not producers. 

I think there is a needed body just for producers because the issues are so unique, so right now we are trying to organize official parties to put together some sort of advocacy group, and I’m really excited about that.

As a part of your artist’s development strategy, you are helping artists position themselves for success well beyond the music business. Do you have any examples of artists you have helped in this way? 

The biggest thing I do is connect clients to other clients or players in the industry that make plays. The craziest thing is some connections don’t take shape until years down the road. 

Another thing we really take pride in is working with artists who are conceptualizing the music industry differently. For example, Blxst is a west coast artist I work with who is releasing his debut project under his own company, Evgle, who we then partnered with Red Bull for the release. Someone like Blxst is positioning himself to build out a futuristic music company that won’t stop at simple music releases. There’s a real commitment to ownership and building out verticals in and outside of music. Real Black entrepreneurship. 

I have another client Corbett who is a music producer with credits that read Nipsey Hussle’s “Racks in The Middle,” Big Sean’s “Bezerk,” Polo G’s “Flex,” and more. We’ve been diving into music tech and there is a start-up in the works. I’ve been working on connecting him to investors and discussing strategy in and outside of music which has led to potential million-dollar conversations that will continue to take shape. 

I think that entertainers have to use their cultural currency. You can get into elevated rooms and people are just going to love you because the music just has that sort of effect on people. Don’t be afraid to use that cultural currency to get in rooms and raise investment. While you are hot is the perfect time for you to start building your startup capital.

To ensure that your support goes well beyond the music industry, you launched the Henry Blair Fellowship. Tell me a little bit about the fellowship?  

It’s a fellowship that’s dedicated to advising black business owners and entrepreneurs on diverse and common issues on launching funding, operating, and growing a sustainable business. Black businesses have always had to do more with less.

I really just wanted to empower Black businesses and entrepreneurs with the tools and resources that I think white entrepreneurs and white businesses are getting. It’s super difficult for Black businesses to tap into VC money and get funding. 

It’s super difficult for Black businesses to tap into pro bono legal services, or high-level legal services, and then, you know, all of the other high-level strategy and tech that are needed to have a successful business from 2020 and beyond. 

Systems have been so pointed against us, so people frame it like they are doing us a favor. A lot of those moves have been made to strategically exclude the Black community, and I’m just trying to level the playing field, so I’m selecting two Black businesses and or entrepreneurs for the 6-month-long fellowship. 

The Henry Blair Fellowship will be accepting applications of those in New Jersey and New York through Sunday, September 27th. (Link: https://www.elawandbusiness.com/fellowship

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Priscilla Ward is a celebrated writer whose work has been featured in Essence, Salon and is also the creator of #BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting about bell hooks, sandwiches and art shows @MacaroniFRO.

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