Music is a beautiful thing to be a part of; whether it be a group of friends performing in a garage, or a band that has sold out the world famous Madison Square Garden. But how do you get from the garage to the garden? When and how do you make the transition from just making music, to being in the business of music? Behind every great artist is a great team. And behind all the shoe deals, liquor deals, and movie deals is a super star attorney. Leilah Escalera just so happens to be one of those attorneys, a gatekeeper between artists that make money and artists that create wealth well into the years of retirement. Leilah is an attorney working for the prestigious law firm of Sedlmayr and Associates. Founded by Theo Sedlmayr, their firm represents some of the biggest names in the business; Eminem, Drake, Rick Ross, and super producer Maejor Ali (Justin Beiber, Trey Songz etc.) to name a few.
We had the privilege of speaking with Leilah and asking her a few questions about the state of the music business i.e. major labels, deciding when an artist should seek legal representation, and the pros and cons of shopping a deal as opposed to letting the label come to you. Check out what she had to say below.
1.) When should an artist start seeking legal representation?
Naturally, they should always seek an attorney any time a contract is presented to them. It can’t hurt to start speaking with lawyers before contracts are thrown their way though, just so they’re not scrambling if a deal or other opportunity is presented out of the blue. It’s good to put your team together early on – not like “recording in your basement, totally unknown early on”, but once they gain a little movement and find themselves unable to focus on making music because they’re handling too many other tasks, it’s probably time to start team-building.
2.) How do you (and your firm) decide who you want to work with?
Since we are constantly receiving music from artists for consideration, it really comes down to who stands out from the others. For me personally, when I set aside time to go through the music in my inbox, I generally skip through the songs pretty quickly. It’s the moment my finger doesn’t click “next” and for whatever reason I want to keep listening to the rest of the song. If I listen to an entire song, I’m usually left wanting to hear more from that artist. That’s how I know I’m onto something special. Of course from the business side of it, we want a well-rounded artist – one who can write, record, perform etc., but overall it really just comes down to that gut feeling. “When you know, you know”.
3.) Legally speaking, what’s the biggest mistake you see made by artists?
Signing agreements without an attorney’s review! So many artists sign contracts without even knowing what they’re signing and what it really means for them. There are so many talented artists who would have incredible careers right now if they didn’t get themselves stuck into a crappy deal. I know new artists are eager to start making that money, but I can’t stress enough to them not to rush things.
4.) In working towards getting a record deal from a major, a lot of A&R’s will tell the artist to keep building their brand and wait for the label to come to them. On the other side of that coin some people still believe in creating a body of work and then having an attorney shop it. Where do you stand on this subject?
I feel it’s best (and usually necessary) for artists to build their brand first. I say “usually necessary” because the major record labels these days are a lot more hesitant to invest in artists early on, especially one who may need a lot of development. While it’s possible to receive an offer simply by shopping a body of work, the offer is typically not as ideal as those received by artists who have already built up their fan base, generated media buzz etc. The more an artist has to offer, the more leverage they have to ask for more from a major label – whether it be more money, more creative control, more ownership rights etc.
As for shopping artists or not, of course it’s ideal if the major labels are chasing after the artist, but our firm definitely shops too! This industry is all about contacts and relationships, so why not utilize them to help a client secure a great situation? Shopping talent is definitely part of a music attorney’s job. However, going back to my previous point, it’s much easier to shop an artist who has already established his or her brand. Like any job, the stronger the “resume”, the more desirable the person will be.
5.) During the initial meeting between an artist and a record label, often the A&R will ask if the artist has legal representation, and if so who is it. What do you feel is the underlying purpose of this question from the labels perspective?
How do I answer this without A&Rs hating me? Haha! I’m just kidding. I don’t know the exact reason for this but I imagine they’re just trying to gauge how much it’ll cost them if they offer that artist a deal in the future. If they’ve done a lot of deals with the attorney they generally know what kind of terms that person is going to require or at least request, so I’d think that saves them some time when putting together a proposal.
6.) You work with artists both established and on the rise, major label executives, and CEOs of live entertainment companies. In what ways has working with people from all around the different aspects of the business helped make you a better attorney?
Working with a variety of clients has allowed me to learn all of the differing needs throughout the industry. It also helps with negotiations since we are constantly on both sides of situations in different instances. For example, if you’re reviewing a management agreement for an artist, it’s easier to know what to look out for when you’ve previously drafted many agreements on the management side. So, I feel being multidimensional makes for a more well-rounded attorney. Also, it doesn’t hurt having strong contacts in all areas of the industry. It’s nice being able to link up different clients who can help each other.
7.) There is a common belief throughout the general population that the major labels are dying, that the money has run dry. Where do you stand on the subject?
I disagree. The major labels still dominate when it comes to radio play and global reach. Money-wise, they still cut major deals constantly, so I wouldn’t say the money is running dry either. There is a reason most of the biggest music stars in the world are all signed to major labels.
8.) That being said, do you feel as though major label deals for artists can still be lucrative? And if so in what ways?
Absolutely. Going off my last response, the labels get artists major radio play. I think radio is what really breaks an artist and I feel this is one of the biggest reasons the labels are invaluable. In addition to that, they have large budgets for marketing, recording and other things, access to other major artists and producers, ample abilities to secure licensing, merchandising and touring opportunities and many other resources that are extremely valuable to a recording artist for building his or her brand and generating income from all angles.
9.) With major label deals still being lucrative, how do you differentiate between an artist you see as an “Indie artist” and one that fits into the major label format?
This is an interesting topic because I personally feel like the “indie artists” that most people think of and refer to are hardly even real indie artists. Maybe they’re not signed to a traditional recording deal, but most of them are still distributed and promoted by a major label and some even pay separate wings of labels to help get their singles onto the radio. Without the help of the majors, most of these artists would have never blown up the way they did. Of course there are some real and super talented independent artists out there that do well– they tend to be less mainstream artists though.
10.) I often learn and grow the most through my own personal experiences. What has been the biggest lesson you have learned so far in your career, and how was it learned?
To focus on the good. Unfortunately the music industry can be filled with a lot of greed and disloyalty. It can be thankless and people you’ve helped out a lot can dispose of you the moment you’re no longer needed. But you can’t let that bring you down. I always read back to the kind notes I’ve received from people I’ve helped and watch how their career has blossomed and it keeps me going. One kind person makes up for one hundred negative ones – at least for me because I’ve learned to focus more on the good. If you don’t, you’ll get jaded fast. Luckily, I’m newer to the game so maybe that’s why I’m nowhere near jaded yet, but I’ve met plenty of others who are. I never want to get that way because working in this industry truly is special.
11.) Thus far during your career, what moment would you say you are the most proud of and why?
Since I’m a young buck, I can’t say that any of my discoveries have won a Grammy, YET, but I know that will be my answer soon enough! But for now, seeing them opening up sold out shows for major artists makes me happy. Seeing them writing alongside Grammy winners. Seeing their singles at the top of the charts week after week. Each time one signs their first record deal. I can’t pick one of these because each one makes me want to do cartwheels for them every time!
12.) If you could give aspiring artists one piece of advice what would it be?
Don’t give up! I know sometimes it seems like artists become famous over night, but it’s just not the case. It takes a lot of dedication and patience, but you have to believe in yourself enough not to give up. “The moment you’re ready to quit is usually the moment right before a miracle happens.”
13.) If you could talk to yourself at 10 years old, what’s the one piece of advice you would give yourself?
Enjoy the hell out of that sandbox! Don’t be in such a rush to grow up. I miss the days when my biggest concern in life was whether to have my peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut into triangles or squares. I think this is part of what makes me who I am today – I vowed a long time ago to always enjoy the small things in life and never take it too seriously, and I’ve stuck to it so far. I once saw a quote that sums it up perfectly: “Don’t take life too seriously, nobody gets out alive anyway”.