Singer Songwriters Split Sheets and Other Legal Documents

Jan 22, 2024

I brought entertainment lawyer John Sheil on the Singers Success Path Podcast and one of the things we talked about at length was how many contracts gigging demo singers have to deal with, and how it feels next to impossible to afford an attorney every time. 

John suggested a solution that I LOVE, and is probably a lot better advice than me just giving you a peek at sample contracts I've used. Before we go any further, to protect myself and John, I must disclaim that though this post is about legal matters, this is not legal advice. Take from this info what you find useful, but I'm not liable for what you do with it. 

There are a few types of Agreements that we will see often as vocalists and songwriters, especially when we start selling our demo singing services on websites like Soundbetter, Airgigs, Vokaal, etc. So John's great idea is to hire an attorney once to draw up those contracts for you, and then you can use those same contracts over and over as you get more clients. 

By the way, not every client will need an agreement. Actually in my experience a very low percentage of clients have asked me to sign anything. I may have gone a little rogue, myself, after being in the music industry for about 12 years, and having a Bachelor's Degree in Music Business - I actually don't consult a lawyer on a lot of my contracts. That's because I've been reading contracts for a very long time, and even negotiated myself out of my publishing deal with Sony ATV. I feel confident in my own unprofessional knowledge, so this is my story...

My strategy over time has been this.. As clients have hired me over the years and have presented me with certain Agreements, I've adopted those agreements as my own. I've updated them as I found new language that I like, and made changes where I see fit. And to be fair, in the past several years, the language in music contracts has become increasingly easier to understand.

The 4 types of Legal Documents that we singers come across the most are:

1. Split Sheets

2. Work For Hire Agreements

3. Non-disclosure Agreements

4. Recording Contracts (Single Deals)

Split Sheets

A Split Sheet is an agreement between the songwriters and producers of a song to establish who owns what percentage of the different types of royalties associated with a particular song. In a lot of cases, especially in sync licensing music for tv and film, the writers may agree that one person makes all decisions as far as the song exploitation, or they may agree that each individual writer/composer has the right to exploit the song without needing permission from the other writers. The second way is called a One Stop Agreement, meaning if a song is to be placed in a commercial, the company licensing the song only needs one persons permission. Here is an example of a Split Sheet I've used:

Work For Hire Agreements

A Work For Hire, also known as a Service Agreement, will come up a lot for demo singers and custom songwriters. The specifics will definitely vary by contract, but a lot of the time, the language will state that the Client, the person hiring your service, will own 100% of the recording and all it's potential future revenue once you're finished and have been paid. These contracts tend to be simple enough to read and understand. These are most likely contracts used for demo singing where you did not write the song yourself. If you do write the song, and you are allowing the Client to buy out 100% of your rights to the songwriters share, you better be charging a high price for your service.

The contract will define the name of the song, called the Work, the amount you are being paid for your service, and it will define what your service is. I like to be specific in the definition of my service to say that I'm not providing mixing and mastering services, I'm just here to record the vocals. I've seen some contracts state that the Client has the right to use my name, likeness, photos, videos, etc. to promote the song, and will require me to appear for publicity, interviews, and stage performances on a reasonable basis. I quickly ask those clauses to be removed and better yet replaced with, "The Client does NOT have permission to use Contractor/Artist's name or likeness in any promotional materials." 

Unlike Recording Contracts, you may not see a Term because they are often hiring you for your service and then you have no say in how the recording is used or monetized ever again.The Client owns it in perpetuity, aka forever. 

There are usually some other random facts thrown into these contracts for clarity and protection like, the Territory this contract is valid is the entire world, or you promise that the material you provide is Original and not owned by someone else, or you may not transfer this contract to anyone else (that'd be really weird if you asked someone else to sing in your place lol).

Non-disclosure Agreements

Good old NDA. It's really fun to interrupt inquisitive people by telling them you cannot discuss something because you signed an NDA lol. This is basically an Agreement that binds you legally to keep a secret. For example, if you are a composer on a big hit TV show, it would be very bad for the show if you posted videos to social media of the unreleased episode that you're scoring. You may be privy to plots, trade secrets, upcoming releases, or even information about the technological processes involved in the making of a new technology that would put a company out of business if a copy cat found out about it. Sometimes artists want an NDA signed just so they know no one will leak their upcoming music. 

Sometimes though, NDA's creep me out. Read them carefully and if they ever sound too intense, hire a lawyer, or feel free to request a change. I worked on an Ai voice model project once that I signed an NDA on that made it sound like I wasn't allowed to ever create my own Ai voice model (which I have), so I asked them to rewrite the language more clearly. 

Recording Contracts

These will show up from Labels who are signing a single song or an album. BE VERY SURE IT IS ONLY FOR ONE SONG OR ONE ALBUM. When people "get signed" or get a "record deal," they are referring to signing to a major label where during the term of that contract literally every song the record is owned by their label. But more common in our world is a Single Deal.

Single Deals with Labels are for the purpose of them marketing your song, getting it on playlists, and getting you major Spotify spins. In EDM music it is a very common practice to sign one song to a label, but then you can go sign a different song to a different label. The terms you'll see in these contracts are often the same, but by varying degree. 

You'll see lots of definitions in the beginning, and then the name of the actual Work you are signing, OR the contract may have an attached "Schedule A" that lists many songs that pertain to the contract, and can even grow over time. 

The biggest terms that catch my eye in a Recording Contract are:

  • The Term - how long this contract is in effect... maybe after 5 years if they've done nothing with the song, I might terminate my contract and bring the song elsewhere.
  • The Advance - sometimes you'll get some upfront money for your song, sometimes you don't. The Advance is money they are giving you in advance for future royalties that will be recouped. Recouping is when the label keeps the first royalties that start to generate until they've been paid back for that advance.
  • The Royalty Splits - these days 50/50 splits are considered standard and fair. Some EDM labels take even more though, and it grosses me out. The argument I hear is that the labels are spending money on marketing, and they only tend to take from streaming royalties, which is not a lot. They can build up a big following for these DJ's, and then the DJ's can get DJing gigs at clubs and keep all that money for themselves. This makes more sense to me for DJ's though, not the singers who don't DJ. So I personally won't sign to labels who take more than 50%.

The rest of the contract will be about liabilities, quality of the Work and what the Artist promises to deliver, what will happen if someone breeches the contract, and a bunch of other tedious but important stuff should you ever end up suing each other.

Again, if you're inexperience with this or any of these types of agreements, when you start seeing them, ask a lawyer. You'll eventually start to feel like you're super smart because you see the same language all the time and finally get it. The contracts all start to look the same. Reminder - that's my experience and my story, you may choose to hire an attorney every time (and you probably should... maybe I'm not very smart after all). 

I hope this gives you a little confidence in how to move. Educating myself and coming to a place where I actually understand music contracts has been super valuable to me. You can get there too. Love you, but last reminder, you cannot sue me if you copied my strategy and it did not go your way.

I feel it's important to tell my story and share my strategy though because a lot of artists are afraid to talk about this stuff thinking they'll get sued. I like to think I'm a better friend than enemy ;) If you wanna be friends, come to my singers mastermind chat on zoom first fridays of each month. Sign up below and I'll see you there!!

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