What Entertainment Lawyers Charge – How Much Should Fees be for Music Attorney Services?

By Joey Scavuzzo

If you’re in the market for an entertainment attorney in the music business… Congratulations! You’re on the rise, finally getting paid for your craft and need someone in your corner looking out for your best interests. Few make it this far, but mo’ money, mo’ problems, right?

Anyone can find an attorney today. Google exists. But the bigger questions loom: what are the payment options, what should you expect to pay and is it reasonable? The barriers to this knowledge are high so let’s tear them down and empower you with all the information you need.

What are music attorney fee payment options?

According to California Legal Forms – Transaction Guide, Matthew Bender, a leading publisher of legal analysis and research information, explains that entertainment attorney fees are typically paid in one of four ways:

  1. A retainer
  2. An hourly rate
  3. A combination of an hourly rate and a percentage of your gross compensation
  4. Contingency fees based on gross income.

What should you expect to pay for a music attorney?

When it comes to an hourly rate, Donald S. Passman, author of All You Need to Know About the Music Business, Eighth Edition, states, “Most lawyers in the music business don’t charge on just an hourly basis. For the ones that do, the rates are from $150 per hour for new lawyers, up to $600 or more for biggies[1].”

Since many entertainment clients can’t afford to retain an attorney on an hourly basis, they and their attorney instead often agree to a contingency fee arrangement.

Kenneth Abdo, a partner at the firm Fox Rothschild LLP along with Jack Saul, a professor of law at University of Akron, note in their article Entertainment Law Ethics, “A customary contingent fee ranges from 5% to 10% of the defined gross compensation of the client and rarely exceeds 10%. The exact percentage depends, in part, on the client’s record for commercial or critical success and the likelihood that the lawyer’s efforts will be successful. For example, it is reasonable with a superstar to take a lower percentage of the gross compensation and with a new or “baby act” to insist on 10%. Successfully shopping a new artist to a recording contract with a small, local, independent record company is a situation in which a lawyer might charge 10% of the artist’s gross compensation.[2]

This is further supported by LAW AND BUSINESS OF THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRIES, Fifth Edition, by Donald E. Biederman, et. al. (the prevailing text used in law schools), stating,  “A customary contingency fee ranges from 5% to 10% of the defined compensation earned by the client and rarely exceeds 10%[3].” But that doesn’t mean it can’t. There is no case law or precedent defining a specific ceiling. For example, it is common for contingency lawyers in personal injury cases to take 33.33% and employment lawyers to take 40% of the total amount recovered. [4]

And this leads us to our final section…

Is your attorney’s fee percentage reasonable?

According to the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC), the ethical code governing attorneys, Rule 1.5(a)(1)-(8) states the attorney can consider the following criteria in determining a reasonable fee: “the time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly, the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services; the amount involved and the results obtained;, the experience, reputation, and the ability of the lawyer performing the services required; and whether the fee is fixed or contingent.[5]” In fact, some lawyers may require a retainer or deposit payment in addition to a percentage of the deal.[6]

What that says is that music attorneys have a lot of flexibility and protection when it comes to charging their fees. Simply put, an attorney with years of experience and a proven track record can, legally and ethically, charge higher rates.

So, when hiring a music attorney, you want a specialist, someone experienced with music contracts. They will understand the nuances of any deal. And you should want a professional who regularly deals with agents, managers, producers, and record companies. Like entertainment attorney Gordon Firemark says, “Their relationships with executives… can mean the difference between an average deal or a favorable one.[7]” But you should expect to pay a premium for this expertise.

[1] Donald Passman: All You Need to Know About the Music Business; https://books.google.com/books?id=smbiogvIt9AC&pg=PA50&dq=charge+on+just+an+hourly+basis&hl=en&ppis=_c&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi5p8G2_cfoAhUdJzQIHYCLCbYQ6AEwAXoECAIQAg#v=onepage&q=charge%20on%20just%20an%20hourly%20basis&f=false

[2] Kenneth Abdo & Jack Saul, “Entertainment Law Ethics” https://law.marquette.edu/assets/sports-law/Entertainment%20Law%20Ethics%20%28Abdo%20%26%20Sahl%29-C1.pdf

[3] Donald Biederman: Law and Business of the Entertainment Industries: Fifth Edition (2001) https://books.google.com/books?id=hKguqdfT3eMC&pg=PA18&dq=the+defined+compensation+earned+by+the+client&hl=en&ppis=_c&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjOrqH7_MfoAhV2GjQIHc3zBvwQ6AEwAHoECAYQAg#v=onepage&q=the%20defined%20compensation%20earned%20by%20the%20client&f=false

[4] Hutchinson and Stoy, “Everything You Need to Know About Contingency Fee and No Win, No Fee Lawyers https://www.warriorsforjustice.com/everything-need-know-contingency-fee-no-win-no-fee-lawyers/

[5] American Bar Association; Model Rules of Professional Conduct: Rule 1.5, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/rule_1_5_fees/

[6] Wallace Collins, “How do you know When you need an Entertainment Lawyer?” 2015. https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2015/05/13/how-do-you-know-when-you-need-an-entertainment-lawyer/

[7] Gordon Firemark, “Assembling a Winning Team: The Entertainment Lawyer,” 2004. https://firemark.com/2004/05/24/assembling-a-winning-team-the-entertainment-lawyer/

About North Hudson Music

North Hudson Music is a worldwide music publishing administrator whose well-curated catalogue includes works written and performed by The Black Eyed Peas, will.i.am, Fergie, Robin Thicke, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Justin Timberlake, Tupac, P. Diddy, The Pussycat Dolls, Armand van Helden, and many others.

It was founded in 2000 by Helen Yu, the Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer, who is also a veteran entertainment attorney helming the Yu Leseberg Law Firm. North Hudson Music provides expert copyright management, royalty collection and copyright reversion services that always put the creators/writers and copyright holders’ interests first — ensuring that they receive the music publishing royalties to which they are entitled.

Protecting the Rights of Clients

North Hudson Music is driven by simple imperatives: to keep creators, songwriters, and producers in control of their copyrights. North Hudson Music seeks to empower its clients and collect and license as much of the royalty income they’re entitled to as possible. North Hudson Music’s experienced team is adept at analyzing and collecting worldwide income (even when there are complex rights involving various parties and heirs). It is also experienced in reviewing statements to ensure that works have been properly accounted and tallied based on the clients’ contractual ownership shares and pre-agreed rates. This confirmation helps to promptly correct any accounting errors for creatives.  

North Hudson Music prides itself on a holistic approach to music publishing administration. Its copyright administration goes the extra mile in collecting and educating its clients. The administrator has also devised various strategies to protect copyrights and maximize royalty income, while avoiding common pitfalls that decrease revenue collection for the client.  

North Hudson Music: U.S. and International

As it is a global music business, each country’s complexities, rules, payment calculations are carefully navigated by North Hudson. The team is proud to be a bastion of stability and insight for creators, songwriters, and producers who prefer to focus on what they do best: creating great music. In the years since its founding, North Hudson Music has never wavered from its commitment to advocate on behalf of its creatives.

North Hudson Music works with a network of international partners in each major territory of the world to ensure that its clients’ copyrights and other intellectual property rights are secure no matter where they choose to publish. The team further ensures that their clients receive the international royalties to which they are entitled (but too often do not receive).

Thanks to founder Helen Yu’s extensive experience in intellectual property law and her background as a respected entertainment attorney, North Hudson Music creatives know they’re in expert hands. She is a fixture at music conferences both in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Her clients have also earned profiles in the most iconic music and pop culture driven publications in the music industry, including Billboard magazine, Variety, Music Connection, Rolling Stone, Spin, Fader, and others.  

North Hudson Music’s in-house expertise always puts its clients in control of their own intellectual property and copyrights. With a commitment to frank, responsive communication at every stage of the relationship, North Hudson provides a degree of high-touch service that competitors simply can’t match. It’s no wonder that North Hudson Music’s highly personal services have the highest satisfaction ratings — just ask any of the company’s longtime clients.


Ed Sheeran Faces Jury Trial for Latest Copyright Infringement Lawsuit

Digital Music News reported last month that a New York federal judge refused singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s request for summary judgment in a closely watched lawsuit alleging that Sheeran’s hit “Thinking Out Loud” cops Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.

According to Law360, the judge’s refusal to dismiss the case means the matter is headed to trial.

The $20 million suit was filed in 2017 by the estate of Ed Townsend, Gaye’s writing partner. It turns on the parties’ interpretation of the original copyright for “Let’s Get It On.” Townsend’s estate contends that the copyright covers the entire recorded version of the song. Sheeran argues that the copyright is far more limited, covering only a “bare bones” version, according to Digital Music News.

Townsend’s estate contends that “Thinking Out Loud” copies the original chord progression of “Let’s Get It On.” The Sheeran camp’s dispute of that “material fact” was integral to the U.S. District Judge Louis D. Stanton’s decision to allow the matter to proceed to trial, according to Digital Music News.

Stanton pointed to a YouTube video that lays bare the similarities between the two songs. In the video, Sheeran navigates an effortless transition between the two works during a stage performance. That transition is compelling evidence that “Let’s Get It On” and “Thinking Out Loud” share fundamental similarities that might meet the threshold for copyright infringement, hinted Stanton.

“Not only are there substantial similarities between several of the two works’ musical elements, but an ordinary observer might experience the aesthetic appeal of both works as the same,” wrote Stanton. The trial jury “may be impressed by footage of a Sheeran performance which shows him seamlessly transitioning between [‘Let’s Get It On’] and [‘Thinking Out Loud’],” he continued.

Sheeran is no stranger to lawsuits alleging copyright infringement. In June 2016, songwriters Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard filed suit against Sheeran in a California court. The complaint alleged that Sheeran’s hit song, “Photograph,” was an egregious ripoff of a little-noticed ballad by Matt Cardle, a U.K. talent show winner. Sheeran’s songwriting partner was also named in the suit, which demanded $20 million in lost revenues and other damages.

Sheeran and the two plaintiffs reached a confidential out-of-court settlement in early 2017, according to The Daily Beast.

The most recent Sheeran suit isn’t the first involving a Marvin Gaye property. In 2015, Gaye’s estate sued Canadian musician and producer Robin Thicke and R&B superstar Pharrell for $7.4 million, according to Digital Music News. The complaint alleged that the duo’s smash hit “Blurred Lines” copied Gaye’s seminal “Got to Give It Up.”

In a contrite interview with The New York Times, Thicke blamed the similarities between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” on “carelessness” attributable to the messy, drawn-out end to his 10-year relationship with actress Paula Patton. But the successful suit dealt Thicke a serious career setback and forced the music industry to reckon with the implications of an increasingly strict definition of copyright infringement.

As of early February, a trial date has not been set for the latest Sheeran-Gaye suit. It is unclear whether the parties are pursuing a pre-trial settlement out of court.

Worth Their Weight in Gold: The Role of the Lawyer in the Modern Music Business

law-1063249_640Entertainment Law Firm – Yu Leseberg, A Prof Law Corporation Wins in Court of Appeals; Played Key Role in the Multi-Platinum Career of DJ Mustard

Not long ago, the California Court of Appeals issued a decision backing Helen Yu of Yu Leseberg, the former attorney of Dijon McFarlane – better known as DJ Mustard – in a legal battle with his accountants false information provided by the accountants over appropriate attorney fees standards in the music industry.

The Appellate Court’s findings support what’s still true in America: You get what you pay for. And the best lawyers are well paid and worth their weight in gold.

Beyond the Bottom Line

While the case may seem to focus on entertainment lawyer fees, the case is really about protecting the sacred trust between an attorney and their client, and how business managers and accountants attack an artist’s only line of defense – their lawyer, if they want to control.

“Don’t just be in it for money,” DJ Mustard said to Forbes magazine. While he doesn’t mention her by name, much of what he discusses in the article about his start in the industry can be credited back to his legal representation by Helen Yu. Ms. Yu represented him in every significant music deal of his career, including a slew of Billboard hits from the likes of Tyga, YG, Tinashe, Trey Songz, Kid Ink, Jeremih, Wiz Khalifa, will.i.am., 2Chainz and Roc Nation.

The Backstory: Helen Yu and DJ Mustard

Let’s back up a bit and review what actually happened here.

Helen Yu of Yu Leseberg, a veteran Los Angeles entertainment attorney, agreed to represent DJ Mustard when he was an aspiring young DJ trying to make it in L.A.’s cutthroat music scene.

Yu, to be clear, is one of the go-to lawyers for recording artists in southern California, the epicenter of the American recording industry. She’s handled and negotiated legal transactions for a number of household names, including:

  • YG
  • Ne-Yo
  • Verdine White of Earth Wind & Fire,
  • T-Boz of TLC,
  • Snoop Dogg,
  • Ty Dolla $ign,
  • David Guetta and
  • Members of the Black Eyed Peas

She is also a staunch advocate for musicians’ intellectual property rights. She has won millions of dollars for clients; among other victories, she legally recovered very valuable copyrights for the heirs of T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan.

Helen Yu began representing Mustard in October 2011, when he was an up-and-coming artist living in a garage in Inglewood, near the approach zone for Los Angeles International Airport. Among other services, their relationship included:

  • Representation of DJ Mustard in his capacity as a songwriter, producer, recording/performing artist, and DJ
  • Connecting Mustard with one of the top premier DJ agents in the world

At the time, Mustard was a man of limited means. Rather than charge an hourly rate that he likely could not afford, she agreed — and Mustard assented — to charge him the industry standard of 10% of his gross compensation. So, if a deal is negotiated for $10,000, the lawyer is paid $1000.   With Yu’s guidance and negotiation skills, Mustard’s career began to explode, including a lucrative song deal and a multi-million-dollar music publishing agreement negotiated by Yu.

Desire To Control Talent

As the initial lawsuit says, as the deals kept coming and Mustard’s wealth grew. Soon enough, Yu connected him with the accounting and business management firm of Nigro Karlin Segal Feldstein & Bolno. With the accounting firm’s help, Mustard’s wealth would be well-managed.

About a year into being Mustard’s accountants, a new accounting representative at the firm was assigned to Mustard’s account, Wallace O. Fortune. Fortune informed Mustard that she was over-billing, claiming that nobody in the industry charged 10%, which according to Yu is false information.  She says – “there is no price fixing among music lawyers. Like with anything, each firm charges market rate depending on their experience, scope of work and reputation”. Even two divorce of personal injury lawyers don’t charge the exact same thing. Music producers don’t charge the exact same thing…

According to the lawsuit, this accounts representatives prodding upset Mustard. So, in an attempt to smooth things over with her client, Yu agreed to modify the fee structure, charging just 5% on future deals with an exception: for producer and publishing deals under $30,000, Yu would receive a minimum fee of 10% [see page 9, section 32 of the complaint].

Fast forward to Mustard receiving a small check in the sum of $1869.30 from SoundExchange, an arrangement that Helen Yu had set up for Mustard. Yu charged him $186.93 for work on this matter, well within the exception above. But Fortune’s office indicated to Mustard that Yu was overcharging him. Mustard immediately contacted Yu and ended his almost-three-year relationship with her.

Anti-SLAPP? Not So Fast

That’s the background on the issue. Now, for the main event.

Shortly after Mustard terminated his relationship with her, Helen Yu sued Wallace Fortune and Nigro Karlin for intentionally and negligently interfering with her attorney-client relationship based on false information they provided to the client.

Fortune and Nigro Karlin shot back by claiming their actions were protected by their free speech rights under California’s anti-SLAPP law, which allows a petitioner to “file a special motion to strike a complaint filed against [them] based on an ‘act in furtherance of [their] right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue,’” according to the Digital Media Law Project. The motion claimed that the public had an interest in the amount of money an entertainment lawyer charges their client.

But the court disagreed. And so did the California Court of Appeals, where Fortune and Nigro Karlin appealed and lost. The California Court of Appeals wrote, “This lawsuit is based entirely upon Defendant’s  statement about legal fees Plaintiff charged Mustard. Those fees are not a matter of any interest to the public.”

Why Ruin a Good Thing?

Strip everything else away and this case boils down to a simple matter: that an accountant wrongfully interfered with a client’s legal representation to get control of the money,  when said legal representation was key to a successful career. Clearly, Yu and Mustard had a good thing going; with Yu as counsel, Mustard went from earning virtually nothing to earning millions per year.

Where is the case now? With the court of appeal’s decision, it’s back in Los Angeles Superior Court. And, despite what GQ Magazine described as “…. his generally disappointing solo album, 10 Summers…” DJ Mustard is still making music.