Interview with music lawyer Robert Horsfall of Sound Advice

I don’t know about you, but there was a time when I assumed you only needed a lawyer if you were in some sort of trouble. I certainly didn’t consider one being particularly necessary or viable in the independent jazz world.

But in fact, as I’ve learnt through various artists I’ve represented, a music lawyer can be an important part of the puzzle when it comes to building your career and, particularly, your network.

Working with all sides of the industry – from artists & managers to labels and festivals – they are often one of the few people who can help you join the dots between the different possible areas of your career. Whilst, of course, looking out for your best interests in any big decisions or deals that come along…

Today’s interview guest, Robert Horsfall, has been described as a lawyer who “breathes, drinks and eats music.” In my experience, that often involves jazz, a genre in which he’s worked with an impressive list of British and international names, including Snarky Puppy, GoGo Penguin, Neil Cowley, Jules Buckley & Binker Golding – as well as artists I’m involved with like Hailey Tuck, Anthony Strong & Get The Blessing.

There are some gems of advice in this interview, but the overarching takeaway for me was this: of course you have to be making great music, but also give some thought to building a team, making new contacts, being creative with how you run your ‘business’ and remember that it is possible to have a solid career making the music you love. Or, as he puts it:

“Never forget the mantra: work hard and be nice to people” 

Full interview below, but first a couple of key highlights…

  • Your challenge as an independent jazz musician? Find that “first evangelist!”
  • “The album promotes the gigging and the gigging promotes the album…”
  • 5 things to be aware of when negotiating a record deal [hint: ownership, royalty, exclusivity, options, 360]

What can independent jazz musicians today learn from artists in other, more commercial, genres?

The challenge for all artists, whatever the genre, is to “get noticed” amongst the tsunami of new music that now penetrates our senses. “Pop” music by its very nature may be ephemeral, disappear into the ether.

Jazz musicians strive most of all for authenticity and recognition from their peers. They have most probably done their 10,000 hours of practice, now its about building and keeping an audience and hopefully having a long career path.

What do you see as a music lawyer’s role in developing an independent artist?

Many of my clients come to me with either no team around them or perhaps just a booking agent or a manager on board, with perhaps no or just a little awareness of the different labels and publishers that may be interested in signing them. So, a lot of my time these days is invested in making introductions to those people. I believe strongly that every artist needs a team around them.

I often say the challenge is to find that “first evangelist”. If you choose the right first person then the dominoes should start falling down. With independent artists the team is even more important to the client’s career progression.

Jazz, unlike other genres, has a relatively healthy live scene (home and abroad) that is unrelated to record sales / radio etc profiles. The community also offers plenty of scope for collaborations, allowing the word to spread organically about the artist.

You just graduated from music school with a 5-track EP ready to release and a budget of $500 to work it. What would you spend it on?

Pull in a favour from a friend at film school to get a video up on YouTube and invest the money on some digital marketing and / or some social media activity. The likes of Steam Down and Ezra Collective have been very tech-savvy with the way they do their DIY marketing.

How do you see the role of the album in today’s streaming world?

The album is still an important format in the Jazz world, both artistically and financially. Webstore and gig/festival sales can be healthy, especially with vinyl. What Kamasi Washington did was extraordinarily bold – a triple debut album!

There are many record labels in the Jazz sector who still work around the concept of the album. With the global touring run open to Jazz artists the active shelf life may now stretch to 24 to 30 months. It’s not about “week one” sales and chart entries it’s about keeping the album visible for a long life span.

Is it still possible for jazz musicians to make money from releasing their music?

Yes, absolutely it is.

The profit margin on an attractive vinyl release can be good; look at the likes of Snarky Puppy and Brad Meldau selling print music off their own webstores; scoring work and synch placements may bring in extra money; and, most importantly, “the album promotes the gigging and the gigging promotes the album.”

The one big challenge is with streaming income. A conventional artist-label contract may see the artist getting as little as 20% and no more than 50% of the streaming income. If they self-release through an aggregator such as Bandcamp or AWAL or through a “label services” set-up they may earn as much as 85% of the streaming income. But the conundrum is that a DIY / distribution model may lack “teeth” or “muscle” to attract ears and eyeballs on the music or a potential game-changer of a top streaming playlist (like Spotify’s Peaceful Piano).

In terms of receiving offers from small record labels to put out their already-recorded album, what should musicians be demanding for or asking for?

If the artist has self-funded the recording costs then he should only give away short/medium term ownership of the masters.

Look for the best possible royalty rates, possibly with a small advance. Beware of clauses involving “exclusivity” as that may hinder the freedom to collaborate. Re-recording restrictions should be relaxed to allow some live recordings to be released. It may be acceptable to grant the label an option for a follow-up record but be wary if the label asks for more than one option.

Always show the draft contract to an experienced music lawyer or manager for an informal health check and, if the circumstances justify it, ask a lawyer to represent you in the negotiation. You certainly need to do that if the contract has so-called “360 clauses” giving the label rights over your songs or a right to share in your live income. Do your “due diligence” on the label and it’s team – you want your music to be in the best hands to help your career progression.

Are there any areas of their career that you feel independent jazz musicians should be paying better attention to?

Generally, come out of your shell and look to build a team around you to help your career progression.

DIY/independence has its virtues but it can be a lonely and hand-to-mouth existence in the early days. To attract the best team, be sociable, mix within the music community, go to industry events, ask for introductions, be attentive to what grants, bursaries etc you can apply for and never forget the mantra “work hard and be nice to people”.

How do you discover new talent and what motivates you to try to get involved with them professionally?

My work and life revolve around music: it’s my job, my social life, my passion. I am blessed to work with and for some great artists, managers, booking agents etc and I am constantly picking up tips and having people introduced to me.

I never like to second guess the music or be a Doubting Thomas but if I feel in my bones that the artist has something that will appeal to my industry connections then I am happy to get involved and do my bit to help the artist on his or her way. During my career I have got enormous satisfaction from being part of the teams that brought great music by great artists into the public sphere.

For musicians with no agent, manager or label, what are the most important things for them to try to take care of first in terms of career planning?

As I said, work hard, be nice to people, get out there and mix. Believe in yourself, be strategic and patient. Earn the right to have people decide to invest time or money or resources in you

Big thanks to Robert for taking the time out to answer these questions!

You can find out more about his work and roster of artists here: 

Big thanks to Robert for taking the time out to answer these questions! 

About Robert Horsfall & Sound Advice

Robert Horsfall has been a music industry lawyer for over 35 years and is known mostly for his work with artists and managers.

One of the leading legal directories said of him: the “omnipresent” Robert Horsfall “is recommended as a lawyer who breathes, drinks and eats music.

He was included in MBW’s 2018 Power 50 listing.

Sound Advice started up in 2008 with a mission to be a dynamic and commercially orientated law firm focusing on artist work.

It’s a conscious policy of the firm to work across all the different genres and not just pop, dance and rock. Robert’s current clients include Yusuf /Cat Stevens, Ali Campbell (UB40), Pendulum, Knife Party, Sam Lee, Emily Barker, Kelvin Jones, Kamaal Williams and Ward Thomas.

In recent years, Robert has built up a formidable roster of clients from the Jazz world: Snarky Puppy, GoGo Penguin, Neil Cowley, Bill Laurance, Jules Buckley, Theon Cross, Ashley Henry, Binker Golding, Matthew Halsall, Cherise Adams-Burnett, Judi Jackson, Kansas Smitty’s and many others. Robert also works with overseas artists who are targeting the UK and European markets: acts from Australia (including Sarah Blasko, Dan Sultan, Gurrumul, John Butler Trio and Guy Sebastian), from Norway (including Ylvis (“What Does The Fox Say”), Katzenjammer, Bernhoft and Emilie Nicolas) and Raghu Dixit from India.

The firm’s other clients include Chase and Status, Naughty Boy, Jonas Blue, Bring Me The Horizon, Let’s Eat Grandma, MJ Cole. The firm is a market-leader with it’s roster of producer-songwriter clients, such as Stargate, TMS, Sam Dixon. This all gives Sound Advice a wide ranging network of contacts and connections within the broad music industry, home and abroad.

In the past, Robert has represented household names such as Robbie Williams, All Saints, Charlotte Church, Kirsty MacColl, Paul Oakenfold, Eternal, Lene Marlin, White Town, Space, Des’ree and Republica; managers such as Jonathan Shalit and Jho Oakley; labels such as Wall of Sound.

Robert has been engaged as an expert witness in court cases and European Commission investigations. Robert has written extensively about the music business, including editing the IAEL “Back to the Future” book in 2004 and contributing to the 2009 IAEL book on 360º deals.

He has spoken at the BRIT School and at numerous conferences, including In The City, Midem, by:Larm in Norway, One Movement, IMS and MaMA.

Robert Horsfall

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