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I’m walking into a dark room, unable to see or hear anything around me. My stomach curls inward, trembling with fear as I open my laptop, and take in the details of…ENTERTAINMENT LAW. *DUN DUN DAAAA* 

Happy Spooky Season! This month at the EXCEL Log, we’re taking a look at entertainment law which I think is one of the scariest things about being a performing artist. What is it? How does it work? What’s an LLC? What are contracts? Copyright?? AHhhh. 

To help defeat the entertainment law demons, I talked to Schuyler Donahoe. He’s a 4th-year student in percussion performance with a minor in performing arts management. He also works as a program assistant for EXCEL, and we spoke about his career journey, and his decision to work specifically within the legal side of the performing arts.

After the isolation and canceled concerts due to the pandemic, Schuyler – like many of us may have – says he “lost his drive for performing a little bit.” It led him to wonder, “What else is there?” 

In his sophomore year, Schuyler got an internship with Just a Theory Press, a music publishing company that works to publish music in a fair and equitable manner. Working with Josh Devries, an EXCEL prize winner, at Just a Theory Press ignited the “legal spark” within him. 

“I was just doing a bunch of random stuff for him where he needed extra help: emails, taking notes, phone calls, those kinds of areas, but then he asked me to help with contracts,” says Schuyler. He thought he was going to hate it at first. But then, “​​I got more into it, and I was like oh, I really like this.” Soon, Schuyler realized that he wanted to help musicians with legal issues and started to actively pursue entertainment law by looking into law schools and talking to people who went to law school but had a music background.

Entertainment law is basically “a broad legal area that encompasses a wide variety of issues, (including intellectual property protection, endorsements, licensing and personal service agreements)” that performing artists may encounter. It involves business structures of organizations (e.g.: starting a non-profit music organization or arts collective), copyright (e.g.: obtaining rights to music compositions or sound recordings), or contract and labor laws (e.g.: a contract between two collaborators or labor unions respectively). 

Schuyler took classes in arts administration and the business side of the performing arts and did his own research to learn more about these issues and other legal situations artists were facing. Soon he came to EXCEL with his thoughts, he said, “ ‘Hey, I saw you have Grant writing modules. What do you think about having something like this for entertainment law? Is that something you’re interested in? Do you want some legal stuff?’ And EXCEL being EXCEL was like ‘yes, absolutely.’” 

EXCEL is always looking for new ideas and does everything possible to help bring student initiatives to life. The EXCEL Lab works to “explore students’ individual visions and goals, and then connect them with the resources they need to thrive.” Schuyler’s initial meeting with EXCEL served as a catalyst for the development of a much-needed resource for performing artists. 

He started off working as a contractor for EXCEL, slowly developing a document to present entertainment law to the SMTD community. Pretty soon, he was working for EXCEL in a program assistant capacity and developed “The EXCEL Lab Legal Resource, Module 1: Business Structures and Incorporation” the first in what will become a series of modules that demystify the “legal jargon” of entertainment law.

Many student artists within SMTD (myself included) want to express their discipline in innovative ways but have a hard time jumping through the many legal hoops involved. For example, I’m hoping to register my music as a composer, but I’m not sure of the steps I need to take. My friend is starting a non-profit to diversify flute performance repertoire but is overwhelmed by the process of establishing an LLC.

Schuyler said, “[I] thought of what people in the school were having issues with, and sort of narrowed it down to 3 different categories. The first module talks about how to start a non-profit, or how to start an LLC. for an organization. What do all these different business structures mean? What do I even do to start these?” This module is already available online. After reading it myself, I can say that it delivers on its promise of being accessible to the public. It explains different types of business structures, the definition of some of the common legal terms associated with them, and provides resources for further reading. 

The second module will be all about copyright, exploring topics like how to avoid copyright infringement, and what to do if someone infringes on your copyright. I can’t wait for this one to come out. As an oboist and composer, I’m often confused about the process of performing arrangements of other’s songs or how to protect my work from theft. Module 2 will be available later this semester. 

“The third module, which is a work in progress, is going to be all about contracts. It will answer questions like: What should I be looking for in a contract? What if I’m writing one, what do I need to make sure is in there? The modules just have a lot of different things that will make sure that musicians are well protected” explained Schuyler. 

The modules provide an accessible starting point for musicians to tackle the mysteries of entertainment law in an understandable and efficient way. Schuyler says that: “One motivation for this project comes from the fact that musicians don’t have time to do anything. Time is a valuable resource that we have.” 

As a performer-composer getting 2 degrees, working 3 jobs, and gigging I completely agreed with this sentiment. Every minute is valuable. I appreciate how Schuyler uses his music background to inform how he approaches entertainment law. There are many resources on legal issues out there, but I feel like this one is special because it really approaches entertainment law from the lens of a performing artist. Schuyler pointed out that: “If someone said: ‘Here are some of the things that you need to know in one document.’ That would save you from a lot of random Google searching.” The modules aren’t exhaustive, but Schuyler hopes that they can give musicians a starting point so that when they go to a colleague, to EXCEL, or to an attorney for help they have a “grounded foundation” to build upon. 

After learning about Schuyler’s journey and the canvas modules, I asked him to offer up his top three tips for navigating the legal side of the performing arts: 

1.) Know the basics of copyright and be careful of copyright infringement. 

Schuyler points out that “there are three aspects of copyright that I wish everyone was aware of: The first is Protection is present at the creation of the work.” 

Schuyler says that this means “If you make something it is automatically protected under copyright.” If you write a song and it’s on some staff paper in your house, it’s protected. Did you write a script in a notebook and throw it under your bed? That’s protected too. The second thing Schuyler wants everyone to know about copyright is that “If someone steals your work that’s illegal. However, you do have to register your work with the copyright office to enforce the copyright.” 

Registering your work with the copyright office involves going to copyright.gov and following the procedures listed for your respective discipline. For the performing arts, this involves filling out a form, and submitting the work that you wish to be registered in a certain medium- either printed or electronic- depending on the circumstances. You will then have to pay a registration fee. Click here for more information

Schuyler says, “The 3rd thing to be careful about is sampling or using other people’s work, even if it falls under fair use. If someone says, ‘you stole my thing!’ they can sue you and dealing with lawsuits can be very expensive” Just as copyright can be beneficial to creatives, it also can get uncomfortable and spooky if you use someone’s work without their permission, so be careful everyone! 

2.) Don’t be afraid of uncomfortable conversations during collaboration.

It’s important to discuss ownership in formal collaboration at the beginning to avoid personal and legal consequences. 

An example Schuyler shared is, “let’s say two people are in a duo, and one person composes a piece for their instruments. Person A could be under the impression that [the two musicians] would share the copyright and Person B could think that they would own the copyright for the whole thing. If this project starts to make money, it can get dicey if these parameters weren’t discussed beforehand.” 

Schuyler and I agreed that performers and creatives are very particular about their work, and the credit that is due when it is created. Artists put a lot of time and effort into their craft, and everyone wants proper recognition for that work. You don’t want to lose important relationships with colleagues over disagreements in ownership or end up dealing with an expensive lawsuit due to a miscommunication between two parties. 

3.) Take your time. 

This one is simple. Schuyler says “The legal stuff is really complicated. There are so many moving parts, and it’s okay to ask for help, it’s ok to google stuff, ask colleagues, or set up a meeting with EXCEL. Don’t fall into this ‘musician trap’ where you need to like, know everything. Take the time to get the legal stuff right the first time.”

After talking to Schuyler, the legal side of the performing arts seems less scary. This conversation was just a starting point, and I’m sure I have plenty to learn when it comes to entertainment law, but I feel like I learned some of the basics. To the artists in the SMTD community: I hope this article made legal stuff less spooky, but if you’re still scared, check out the EXCEL Legal resource. I promise it will be a treat, not a trick ;). 

Thanks for tuning into the Excel Log! Check below for some more resources and to learn more about Schuyler, and I hope hearing about our conversation allows you to think of new ways to enhance your artistic career! 

Sources/Additional Resources: 

Entertainment Law Overview – an overview of the basics of Entertainment law

All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald S. Passman – Schuyler calls this the music industry bible

All You Need to Know About the Music Business  -A link to check out “All You Need to Know About the Music Business” from the UM library 

Student Legal Services– A legal resource for University of Michigan Students

Featured image source

Schuyler Donahoe is pictured smiling. He is wearing glasses and a blue shirt and are standing in front of a brown and white background.
Image Description: Schuyler Donahoe is pictured smiling. He is wearing glasses and a blue shirt and is standing in front of a brown and white background.

Schuyler Donahoe (he/him) is a senior majoring in Percussion Performance and minoring in Performing Arts Management and Entrepreneurship. In the EXCEL Lab, his primary work is to expand SMTD legal resources by creating a series of modules called the “EXCEL Legal Resource” as well as curate events around legal topics.

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