Most of you know me as a gospel music fan and blogger. And that’s me. But by trade, some know me as an attorney. And that’s me, too.
So, for a moment, I’m swapping my blogger hat for my attorney hat to simply caution all of you would-be Sunday Best auditioners… be VERY CAREFUL of anything you sign as you go to audition for the hit gospel talent competition.
DISCLAIMER: Legal information is distinct from legal advice. The commentary that follows is not intended, in any way, to serve as legal advice. If you desire legal counsel and assurance, you are advised to consult a competent attorney.
First, please know that what I’m about to say is in NO WAY intended to slight BET or the Sunday Best program. Their legal requirements are generally similar to other televised talent competitions and many of the things that viewers and auditioners might consider “unfair,” are merely protections that the network and the program’s producers need, and deserve, to have in place.
With that said, I’m going to speak GENERALLY about how some of the agreements at televised talent competitions, such as Sunday Best, American Idol and Gospel Dream, operate. This info is not necessarily applicable to each televised talent contest.
Here we go:
1. You’ll HAVE TO sign it. Please understand that when you audition for a show, you will be required to sign a binding legal agreement. I’m not talking about just before the finals– I’m talking about while you’re standing in line with thousands of folks. If you don’t sign something, you’re not auditioning. Period.
2. When you sign, you’ll be giving your CONSENT to a lot of stuff. Most folks don’t care about this. At the preliminary stage, you’ll just be consenting to have your image, likeness, singing voice, etc. on TV. How else is America supposed to laugh at you or applaud you if you make it to the judges? Basically, you’re consenting to be on the show WITHOUT PAY. And the show can edit, manipulate and use the images and sounds that they get from you in any way they choose (even if it makes you look like a heathen). Further, the show owns, and can use, this footage any way it wants, FOREVER.
3. You might not be able to sing, dress or act like you want to. How many times have we heard “wrong song choice” from the judges? Or how many times have you sat at home and said “why is she singing THAT?!” Well, sometimes, it’s not really up to the contestants. Remember when I interviewed a bunch of the Sunday Best finalists last year? Several of them mentioned that they didn’t get to pick their songs at all. And let’s not forget about the mandatory makeovers. A good one can be anybody’s friend, but don’t start fussin’ about “holiness” if they color your hair and dress you like a lounge singer. This is what you wanted.
4. You might get a MANAGER that you don’t want. Some shows, within that early agreement, make contestants agree that they can be managed by a manager of the show’s choosing. This is particularly rough if you’re already working as an aspiring artist and you’ve already got a manager– you might have to drop him/her and end up having your career guided by a total stranger.
5. Some shows bind you to a RECORD DEAL. Many of you have asked me why Jessica Reedy doesn’t have a record deal yet. Here’s why… BET may have temporarily taken away her right to do so. Take a look at the Sunday Best release from this year’s auditions in Nigeria (click here) as an example… there’s a clause that says “if my appearance, name, likeness, voice, singing voice… are used in connection with the Program, I may be required… to enter into… an agreement for my exclusive recording services which may include an agreement for my exclusive songwriting services…” OUCH!
In effect, it says “in order to appear on the show, I may be required to sign a record deal.” So, you ask me “but, with what label?” Here’s the kicker– with BET’s “record label.”
Now, you and I both know that they don’t really have a gospel label, but look at the beauty of this clause for them. If a contestant is good, and has a huge fan following from the show, BET gets the FIRST opportunity to sign that artist to a label that it has, or will create. For how long? Let’s just say that I have spoken personally to a former contestant from last season who is STILL not allowed to sign a record deal. But we’re already getting ready to tape a new season!
Actually, I should amend that… BET will allow you to sign with another label, but only if they can split the profits with that label. Or maybe the new label will have to pay to buy you out. How much? Dunno exactly, but I can guarantee it’ll be too much for ANY gospel label to pay and still make a profit from your record sales. So, you might just have to wait it out and hope that people still remember you, or care about you, once the contract is up…
6. Some shows bind you to a SONGWRITING DEAL, too. This is where it can really hurt financially. In the same Sunday Best release I referenced above, did you notice the language that says “which may include an agreement for my exclusive songwriting services”? When you sign an agreement for your songwriting services, it generally means you’re gonna lose some, or all, of your publishing rights. Publishing rights refer to song OWNERSHIP, so you can count on losing some, or all, of the money from songs you may write after signing this agreement, IF you are signed to a songwriting agreement.
Note, also, the buzz-word “exclusive.” That’s right, buddies… exclusive means you can’t do a similar contract with ANYONE else. If you’re a writer, that means you can’t write for anyone else without BET taking a percentage of that songwriting money, because they’re part owners of any song that you write while under that exclusive songwriting contract. In the gospel industry, where so many artists write their own material, this could have a significant effect on your career and the money that you bring in from it.
7. You may be sharing your income for a while. In addition to recording and songwriting deals, some shows may take bites of every apple you can get your hands on, for years to come. From merchandising (like, a T-shirt with your picture on it) to touring revenue (if you’re so fortunate), the contract you sign MAY require you split the profits from any money-making opportunities you get as a result of your appearance on the show… and how are you REALLY gonna prove that your future success isn’t linked to your appearance on their national television program?
8. You might have to be where they want you, when they want you. Your cousin is gettin’ married the same weekend of an American Idol tour date? Sorry, you’ll have to miss your cousin’s wedding. Your goddaughter is getting baptized next Saturday? Yeah, well, that’s the taping of Celebration Of Gospel and we’re gonna need you in the audience for camera shots, soo… yeah. Catch my drift? The network doesn’t just get access to you for its show– it needs you to promote all things related to the show. If you’re trying to be an artist, that may be great for you. But don’t complain… this is what you wanted!
9. And don’t go using their name or logo, either. Funny how one-sided things can be– they can use your picture and name to promote their stuff, but don’t think for a MINUTE that you can use their logo or title to promote yours. To do that, you’ve gotta get consent from the network. It makes sense, I guess– they want to control how their brand is being used and discussed. What that means, though, is that it’s harder for you to book yourself for gigs or promote your independent record (you can’t necessarily say “from Sunday Best” or “from American Idol“). Unless you were incredibly memorable, most consumers need a reminder of who you are and why they should care. You may not get permission to GIVE that reminder, though.
10. You have only a moment to decide. This is, perhaps, the hardest part of the contract– you must commit, and commit QUICKLY. Eventually, the only thing standing between you and the judges’ table will be a wordy document that you don’t really understand. No one’s really waiting while you find an attorney and fax him your contract to review… either sign it, or leave. You won’t really be missed. Plus, this is your big shot. The shows are prepared to dress you up and put you on national TV to sing! But, decide now– what are you prepared to do in exchange???
Sooooo, I hope this helps to explain what some of the language you might see actually means. Again, NOTHING I HAVE SAID IS INTENDED TO SERVE AS LEGAL ADVICE. I ENCOURAGE YOU TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL LEGAL COUNSEL WITH REGARDS TO ANYTHING YOU MIGHT SIGN. And that goes DOUBLE for anyone who makes it from the massive audition line to the televised stage.
Now, having said all of that, who’s auditioning???