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Get the lawyer involved if you don’t understand it

THE Harare International Festival of the Arts [HIFA] has come and gone. It is six weeks now since the event occurred, but I read on Facebook complaints about some artistes who gave performances at HIFA but have still not been paid or were paid as little as $29,24 for their performances.

with Fred Zindi

I do not believe this and would like to dismiss it as fake until I am confronted with the evidence to that effect. I happen to know Manuel Bagorro, Maria Wilson and Tafadzwa Simba, who are at the forefront of running HIFA business. They mean well and those of us who love the arts should all be thankful that they are running the festival professionally. At least we have something to look forward to in the month of May each year.

So, did HIFA really pay an artiste $29,24 performance fee? Did the artiste know beforehand that this is the amount he or she was getting? I wanted to dig deeper into this by following up with the HIFA organisation, but the artiste did not identify himself/herself and did not confirm the name of his/her act or what he/she was paid $29,24 for. So asking HIFA to give a statement would have been a waste of time without the actual facts from the complainant.

I know that HIFA enters into agreements with artistes through signed contracts and a contract is usually a signed agreement between two parties. Once this legal engagement has been made, each party is supposed to honour the agreement. If an artiste had agreed to perform for $29,24, so be it. There is no need to complain about it after.

I encourage all aspiring artistes to retain entertainment lawyers to go through any contract they are thinking of signing, before putting that all-important signature on the dotted line. Don’t you think that HIFA has got lawyers? So why haven’t you? You do not necessarily have to have money to visit that lawyer but you can also do a contract with the lawyer to get a percentage of what you are expected to earn from the gig. Alternatively, if you are Harare-based, go and see Polisile Ncube, a lawyer in her own right and the executive director at the Zimbabwe Music Rights Association [ZIMURA], who will give you free advice on how to conduct your business before signing anything. Legal advice isn’t something entertainers should be seeking after they’ve already signed contracts, but something sought from the get-go.

Even after hearing of the horror stories of veteran entertainers who were not astute business-wise when they were coerced into agreements, I am surprised that the younger generation of today, who seem to be more switched on than the older musicians, are still making similar mistakes as far as contracts are concerned.

A performance contact from something as big as HIFA is many Zimbabwean artistes dream of. The dream, however, can quickly turn into a nightmare when that contract becomes stifling for an artiste. Even in the recording business, it’s a cry too often heard with artistes complaining of the lack of flexibility to manoeuvre the industry, their limited ability to work with any other label outside of the one they are signed to and the limited ability to earn from their music if they decide to leave a label because of what seems later to be an “unfair” contract. Andy Muridzo, who was recently signed to Military Touch Movement, is one example that comes to mind.

However, I think we have developed too much as an industry for artistes today to still be having issues with contracts but, sadly, we are. I know lawyer fees can sometimes be expensive and if you are an up-and-coming entertainer it can be difficult to secure the funds to retain one. But you have to look at the money that will be spent on lawyers as an investment and a necessity. You are ultimately securing your future. It will be worth it in the long run, trust me. You can’t trust that people are looking out for your best interests and you have to therefore look out for yourself. The same companies that they complain about have their lawyers retained and are securing their best interests. You must get legal advice and you must get it the minute you are offered a contract.

In my opinion, things have improved from our days as musicians when record companies, venue owners and instrument owners would just come and willy-nilly exploit musicians. The record company would just ask you to sign at the bottom of a 24-page document without giving you a chance to read it and the musician would simply be excited to receive a recording “contract”.

While these issues still haunt the industry, they seem to be lessening as more and more entertainers begin to view the music industry as a business and not just a means to an end.

Things have been changing. I have personally seen the changes over the last 10 or so years, where entertainers – new as well as veterans – are taking the entertainment business as a business and not just entertainment. They are getting themselves entertainment lawyers to help them set up their final structures, to ensure they are protected by contracts and to ensure contracts are reviewed before they sign them. So it’s getting better.

The truth is, though, that there are still entertainers (particularly veterans) who are still fighting to get what’s rightfully theirs, because they may have signed bad agreements when they were young, before getting proper legal advice at the time. Those agreements were in perpetuity (not subject to termination), so they last for the life of copyright in music (which is 50 years after the death of the composer before it goes into the public domain). They didn’t realise that all of their music was owned by somebody else by virtue of their contract and they have no rights other than the royalties that are paid to them. The record companies can exploit this music anyway they like such as giving it to film-makers or television studios, even to kombi drivers to use because it is “theirs” according to the contract the artiste appended his signature to.

My advice to up-and-coming entertainers is not to rely too much on the input of family and friends when making big business decisions. The mistake many entertainers make is to have family and friends go through the contracts with them. This is a recipe for disaster, as oftentimes these persons only think about the perks that come with the contract and not the details outlined in the fine print.

I might ruffle a few feathers when I say this, but I can tell you how many times I have had to negotiate with an entertainer’s manager who knows a little something about law and they use me because they don’t have to pay me the amount of money they would pay a lawyer, if at all. Recently, I was approached by the manager of one of Zimbabwe’s top artistes to give advice on a record deal. I did not want to put him off by telling him to see a lawyer and I spent three hours of my precious time giving my input, but advised him to seek a lawyer’s advice for the nitty-gritties before signing anything. “Ahhhh! This is good enough. I won’t bother with a lawyer. Professor, you are just as good,” he suggested. But how does he know that? I wonder!

But shortcut isn’t the way to go. Oftentimes family and friends only care about the perks – the things an artiste will get when they sign and I’m surprised sometimes that that’s where most of their focus is and not the details that speak to their future.

Come on, my fellow musicians, get the lawyer involved if you are serious!


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