Kim Lajoie's blog

You don’t need contracts. You need trust.

by Kim Lajoie on March 17, 2014

I recently participated in an interesting discussion. A junior producer was working with a band on a recording and the band left partway through the project to do their recording elsewhere. And they didn’t pay. In the vernacular, the junior producer got stiffed.

A couple of other people in the discussion suggested that an adequate contract would be an appropriate preventative measure next time. The idea is that with a contract, everyone knows up front what each other’s expectations are and what happens if one party wants out. But what if one party chooses not to abide by the contract…?

I disagree.

I think that if a contract is the only thing stopping your artist from leaving without paying, then you’ve already lost. Think about it from the artist’s perspective – if they’ve decided they want to leave and make their recording elsewhere, having their previous producer (that they no longer want to work with) chase them with legal threats will easily destroy what little goodwill remains. Even before they decide to leave, if they’re even thinking of leaving but they feel locked in to a contract, then it means you’re not looking after them well enough.

Either you’re not the right person for the job, or you need to get better at helping artists understand why you are.

Artists need to work with you because they WANT to. You give them the best results, the best experience, the best support, the best understanding. They choose to work with you because they love working with you. Not because they’re locked into a contract.

Being the “best” doesn’t necessarily mean super-expensive gear at bargain-basement prices. It means knowing your capabilities. It means understanding your artist. It means make sure they’ve got no doubts at all that they’ll get a great recording and have a great time doing it. It means making sure they feel appropriately informed and well looked-after. It means making sure they feel in control (or at least in charge) of the whole process. It means they leave with a smile on their face, no matter what they paid.

Of course, this is about relationships.

The strength of relationships you should be building are well above simply getting paid on time. The relationships you should be building are at the level where your artists have no doubt that you’ll give them what they want. Where your artists enjoy working with you so much that they can’t wait for the next session. Where your artists know they’ll be proud to show off their recordings.

Producing and recording music is a very intimate experience. Songs are presented bare for judgement. Performances are dissected note-by-note. Creative direction can be called into question. For this to be a positive experience, artists have to feel that they’re in a safe place. They have to trust you to look after them. Obviously, you have to be 100%. You can’t phone it in. You have to be thinking several steps ahead. You have to know that you’re the right person for the job so you can engage with confidence.

You have to demonstrate that you are worthy of their trust.

And clearly, contracts have nothing to do with this. Contracts do not demonstrate confidence or invite trust. They demonstrate fear and invite suspicion. So don’t spend your time drawing up a contract. Instead, spend that time understanding your artists. Listen – really listen. Work hard to understand them and work even harder to demonstrate that understanding. Be clear and upfront about how you’re going to work together to make a recording. Be sensitive to values, sore spots and fears.

And don’t forget to smile. 🙂

-Kim.

P.S. You can avoid getting stiffed for payment by being clear that you don’t hand over final versions of recordings until the account is settled. Or if you’re prepared to increase your risk for artists you like, don’t start the next project until the account is settled (only if doing so will help build the relationship). Or if you want to decrease your risk, request payment for each session in advance and don’t schedule the session until the payment clears. I’ve been doing this for years and haven’t had any problems. Not even funny looks.

4 thoughts on “You don’t need contracts. You need trust.

  1. Dave Chick says:

    Hey Kim,

    I can agree with you … up to a point. Nobody enters into a working relationship with the intention of being litigious or stiffing the other party. An overbearing contract can be off-putting, but one that clearly outlines the boundaries and assumptions associated with the three basic cornerstones of a project – schedule, resources and money – helps set expectations properly and be a common, agreed upon touchstone if misunderstandings or issues do pop up.

    Granted, nothing written and signed is going to help if your personalities don’t mesh, but a good contract should account for that and have a stipulation for a graceful exit – by either party.

    Let’s face it, we’ve all had clients that we’ve wanted to fire. I’ve done that once and having a contract in place facilitates that in a graceful manner. I’ve had the opposite happen as well. A client getting angry at the amount of music I delivered on the due date. The contract stipulated what I could reasonably do in a certain timeframe given that I received his assets on a date. He was two weeks late, but couldn’t move my delivery date to accommodate the slippage. Although I bent over backwards to catch up and tried to reset his expectations appropriately, he was still in a snit until I pointed him to the agreed upon schedule.

    Contracts are not for every project, but when I do get one that is going to be complex or long, I get something down on paper that outlines the key points of the working relationship so that there are no unspoken assumptions for either party.

    On the topic of payment, one should always get a half up front retainer at least. I’ve sometimes put a three payment milestone plan together based on specific deliverables.

    Cheers! Dave

  2. Kim Lajoie says:

    Indeed, written agreements can be useful for particularly complex projects – especially when the copyright ownership and/or usage rights aren’t straightforward, or when there are multiple different parties with different interests and contributions.

    -Kim.

  3. Kapitano says:

    You need trust…and a clear understanding of what jobs need to be done, and who does them.

    Several years ago some friends of mine had a band, and they asked me to help them record an album. We set aside three hours a day for two weeks for combined jamming, songwriting, practice…and recording when the band felt they were “in the zone”.

    We were all bankrupt, so money wasn’t even an issue.

    The guitarist point-blank refused to do soundchecks – he just wanted to play. And couldn’t understand why mic placement was an issue – he didn’t understand it, so it was unimportant. The singer tried to work around his tantrums, and the drummer sensibly just stuck to drumming.

    Result: Every time we recorded, the result was an unusable mush. Guess who got blamed for “messing up the recording”.

    Eventually they realised everything I’d been telling them about the recording process was true, and they promised to let me do my job.

    And then promptly had the mother of all arguments, and split up.

    I don’t think a written agreement would have helped, but an in-depth discussion of exactly what we were trying to do, and how to achieve it, would have solved a lot of shouting.

  4. Kim Lajoie says:

    Hi Kapitano,

    That sounds like a pretty crazy situation. I agree with you 100% that a detailed discussion and verbal agreement would have improved the outcome. I always make sure I start a project with a discussion that covers creative, project and financial obligations.

    -Kim.

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