Interview With Entertainment Lawyer Attorney Jo-Na Williams
By: Kalika Hastings
Entertainment Lawyer Attorney Jo-Na Williams
TVM: Tell us about yourself, and how long have you been practicing?
I am an entertainment and business attorney, and I’m also a business coach for musicians. My life in the entertainment industry has been about 15 or so years, I opened my practice in 2011. Because I was working for an entertainment litigation firm and I decided that it wasn’t the way that I necessarily wanted to practice law. I was much more interested in helping artists and musicians understand what they need to do from the legal perspective. In terms of what they need to do to protect themselves, how to create long term successful careers, understand the musical landscape in the current music model (the way that it is now) because it’s a much different model then the years prior with the information age and the disintegrating of the music industry. I decided that my real passion was helping musicians and artists understand how it is that they need to successfully navigate the current industry from the legal standpoint and also from the business standpoint.
TVM: What are the key responsibilities of an entertainment lawyer?
I review contracts, I draft them, I do business registrations, (helping them secure their business with a business entity), and I do a lot of advising. So that’s something different then most entertainment lawyers- I have strategy lessons with my clients as well. They are called Blueprint sessions. I will sit with a client for an hour and map out what their business plan and legal foundation needs to be based on what they currently have and what they need to have in order to create a monetary gain for themselves and advance their careers and keep their wealth protected. I do this because of my deep commitment to artists who are kinda doing this on their own and their wanting to know what it is that they need to do, or artists who are already established but they’ve had some run-ins or legal issues and they didn’t get proper advising or something like that.
TVM: Who are some of the clients you have represented over the years?
I can only speak about the ones that are currently on my site, because I can’t reveal the identity of anybody who hasn’t allowed me to. But I’ve worked with Celia Faussart of Les Nubians …. and I’ve worked with a couple of larger names but I can’t reveal their identity. And quite a few indie musicians- so we can talk about the different genres if that would help the question for you- I’ve worked with people that do alternative rock, jazz, soul and r&b. A current star that is just coming up now her name is Honey Larochelle, she is the protege of Roberta Flack, I’ve worked with her. Also from a business coaching perspective, I’ve worked with artists all over the world. I’ve worked with artists in Italy, Australia, Czech Republic and London.
TVM: To potentially become a client of your firm, what do you look for in an artist?
There’s quite a bit that I look for in an artist. Mainly I look for someone with a can-do attitude and a no-excuses approach to life. Those are two very important things for me to even consider taking you on, because the way that the music industry works now – there’s so many opportunities in the industry right now because of the fact that there hasn’t been one successful model that is implemented across the board. So there’s an opportunity for you to make your own way and create your own path but what that also means is that you have to eradicate the mentality that some big company is going to come and sign you as an artist. You should look at this as an opportunity for you to create your own path. I also look for people who are passionate about what they do, this is the most important fact in the music industry because there’s a lot of hits your going to take. That is what is going to help you continue on this path even when the road is rocky.
TVM: What is the most challenging part of your job?
Umm… (pauses). I’m trying to think of what’s the political answer and what’s the ‘real deal answer’ (laughs). I’m wondering I am gonna be fluffy on this one or am I gonna keep it real. I would say the most challenging part of my job is dealing with people in the industry who have been in it for a long time and have a really jaded view of what has happened. Some of my colleagues have seen the collapse of the industry and they kind of have their blinders on in terms of what’s possible. But for me I don’t have those. I have an opportunity not an obstacle. For me jumping into the unknown is what creates a fantastic opportunity for innovation. Dealing with the artists is not a challenge for me, especially because I was an artist so I get their brains (laughs).
TVM: What factors should an artist consider when deciding whether to work with an attorney?
I would say what they need to understand is that you need to have legal council on your team, it is a necessity not an option. That’s the most important thing that artists need to understand because they try to do a lot of things on their own but they are not trained to understand legal language. I am (laughs)! You need to have someone on your side that can decipher these things for you. I’ve seen so many artists get into trouble that they really could have avoided, one word could have changed the entire trajectory of that deal. But they don;t understand that because they don’t speak that language and it’s ok. Attorneys don’t speak music language and artists don’t speak law- that’s why you need each other. Also get somebody who knows entertainment law, because you can’t just have your family real estate lawyer look at a movie contract. Have a trained entertainment or music attorney who understands the industry because they will know what is standard and what is odd in the contract.
TVM: Are there any other legal guidelines that you would recommend to an artist?
Copyright your work. That’s pretty basic but make sure that you do that because the internet is one of those places that can be a friend or a foe when it comes to protecting your work and putting your work out there. You want to be able to have the freedom to put your work out on a larger scale and the only way you can do that is if you feel it is protected. It’s meant to be shared but shared under the guidelines of having it protected. Also, from the other perspective being an entrepreneur in the music industry, you should definitely have a business coach or adviser. You need a guide that is going to help you along the way. Oprah has a business coach, I have a business coach… If you are going to be a business owner which is what you are as a musician now in the music industry. You have the product, but you also need someone who understands the business and marketing side. It’s also important to set up a business entity so that you can keep your personal expenses and the expenses of your company separate. It will protect you from personal liability if something happens. When you have a business entity, your company is entering contracts with people, not you personally (keep in mind this is sometimes not the case but it is important to have it rather then not). I’m not really sure how it works in Canada, but that’s how it is here in the United States.
TVM: You mentioned before about the need to copyright your work as an artist, who holds the copyright license to a song? The artist, composer, record company, publisher, or all four?
It depends on what it is that you have arranged and what is happening with the song itself. If you are an artist that created it all yourself then it would be you, but if you worked with a composer or a band, it depends that’s not something that you can answer for every single artist because it’s different per song. I have some artist who create the lyrics and they need somebody to create the music so it just depends. When you get to that place of having a finished product, you need to look at all of those pieces and figure out who did what. As far as publishing is concerned, musicians can be their own publishers or they can have larger publishers it just depends on what your situation is. I have artists that I currently work with that are registered with one of the performing rights organizations as a writer and publisher of their own work so they get both sets of royalties in that sense.
TVM: Who is responsible for making sure that the artist is receiving all royalties due on for the work they created?
In the United States, I don’t know how it works in Canada- but the performing rights organizations are the ones that collect the royalties on behalf of the artists so that is: BMI, Ascap and Sesac. It is very important that you register so that you do get those royalties. Also you need to get your digital royalties as well- that organization is soundexchange.com (in the US). They collect the digital royalties for internet streaming. They have over 100 million dollars that they need to distribute to artists that haven’t registered! They are designated by the government to collect those royalties.
TVM: What are the most common mistakes and misconceptions musicians have when it comes to dealing with contracts?
I don’t think that there are many misconceptions outside than thinking that they can do it on their own. I see a lot of artist thinking the music is just gonna speak for itself. Right now you need to understand how to market and brand yourself and network and build your audience. All of these things are a part of being a musician right now.
TVM: How legal and practical is mailing yourself a sealed envelope with a copy of your original work?
It’s not. I do not recommend any artists doing that. In US copyright law, if your work is in a fixed tangible form then technically it is copyrighted. But the courts have ruled that mailing things to yourself is not a viable way to establish the fact that you have a copyright. You need to register your work with the US copyright office. Keep your stuff protected. It costs like 35 bucks, you could register your work CD for 35 bucks. It’s better to do that then to look up and one day you find out that somebody is infringing on your your and you have no real way to prove that.
TVM: Do you accept unsolicited material? If so, what factors do you consider when listening to submissions of this kind?
I don’t take submissions because I don’t shop artist’s work. When attorneys do that, they are the one who take submissions. I personally only work with artists who have some legal issue that is coming up for them or they need help with their business registration or a contract drafted. And on the business coaching side of my company, I help artists get momentum in their career and hone their skills as being an entrepreneur in the music industry. So if you come to me and you want services, it has to be within that legal terrain or you’re interested in having a coach guide you along your career.
TVM: How can our readers find out more about you?
I’m all over the inter-webs (laughs). You can check out my website at http:// jawilliamslaw.com and if you sign up for my e-mail list on that website then you will get a free guide that is called Blueprint: The Insider’s Guide to Empowering Your Career as an Artist and Ditching Your 9-5 For Good. That’s the best way to get a hold of me.