Is Ethics Only In The Eye Of The Beholder?

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.   

Dear Law and Disorder:

An artist we have been representing for over 10 years just told us that he is leaving our roster and will be joining the roster of another management company. We didn’t have a written agreement, but we’ve never needed one as we’ve always believed that if you act ethically and professionally, others will do the same. While we think the artist is making a mistake, we are not interested in arguing his right to leave and want to make the transition amiable. The artist has agreed to honor our commissions for the dates we have booked. However, the question has come up as to whether we are obligated to give the artist all of the leads and contacts we have been pursuing on his behalf that have not been booked yet. That doesn’t seem fair. We have been working on some presenters for years, have invested a lot of time, and consider that to be our proprietary information. If we turn all of that over to his new manager, that’s just going to be a gift to the new manager who will follow up on all of our work and take the commissions. Are there any laws about this? If I am legally required to turn over all of my work, is there a way I can still refuse unless the artist agrees to pay me? 

I’m glad to hear that you are “not interested in arguing his right to leave” as, without a written contract, there is nothing to argue. The artist has the right to leave whenever he wants. As for the issue of the artist’s right to the leads and contacts you have been pursuing on his behalf, even if you had a written agreement, it wouldn’t help you get the outcome you want.

Yes, there are laws that govern this scenario, but be forewarned: you aren’t going to like them.

Legally, anyone who represents someone else (attorneys, realtors, accountants, employees, artist agents and artist managers, etc.) are all considered “agents”. The people they work for are called “principals.” The Law of Agency governs the relationship between agents and principals. While the Law of Agency imposes duties on both agents and principals, for purposes of this discussion, there are four key concepts:

(1) An agent works for the principal and, while the agent can advise the principal, the agent must follow the instructions and directives of the principal.

(2) An agent can never put his or her own interests above that of the principal.

(3) All of the “results and proceeds” of the agent’s work on behalf of the principal belongs to the principal.

(4) Any contractual provision, written or oral, that contravenes rules (1) – (3) is null and void.

In short, when a manager represents an artist, the manager has no proprietary information. In other words, those aren’t your leads and contacts, they are the artist’s. While your leads and contacts may start out as your own, once you contact someone on behalf of an artist, the artist is legally entitled to know anyone you have spoken to on his or her behalf, including the details of such conversation. Moreover, unless there is an agreement to the contrary, the artist is also free to contact anyone directly on his own behalf. While I realize, at the outset, this might seem unfair, bear in mind that the Laws of Agency were designed to protect the agent in that, by complying with such laws, an agent is not liable for the actions of the principal. That’s important if an artist decides to cancel a date or breach a contract you negotiated. It is also important to know that, when entering into a relationship with an artist, the Laws of Agency do not prohibit you from negotiating whatever fees and payment terms you believe will compensation you for your time. You are not limited to seeking commissions on booked dates. Assuming the artist agrees, you can ask for commissions on potential dates as well as confirmed dates, repeat clauses, hourly fees, retainer payments, or any formula or terms that the parties agree to. (Indeed, the time is long overdue to start considering changes to the long standing paradigms and business models between managers and artists that, for many reasons and for all parties, are no longer viable.) However, if all you ask for is commissions based on booked dates, and there is no agreement, written or oral that entitled you to anything else, then there is no right to commissions based on dates “in the works” regardless of how much time and effort you have spent.

Despite a legal requirement to turn all leads and prospective dates over to the artist, you ask whether or not you can nonetheless “refuse unless the artist agrees to pay me.” Sure. You can always just refuse and force the artist either to spend the time and money to sue you, pay you for disclosing the leads and contracts, or sulk away angrily letting you keep what you believe—albeit, incorrectly—is rightfully yours. People refuse to honor legal obligations all the time. In fact, you may yourself be familiar with presenters who cancel dates and refuse to honor full-executed and legally binding engagement contracts claiming such things as “poor ticket sales” or “lack of funding.” Over the years, this blog has been replete with such tales and you can imagine the cries of “unethical” and “unprofessional” that arise from the managers who booked those dates.

You seem to be suggesting that, while you believe in acting ethically and professionally, you are also more than willing to consider acting unethically and unprofessionally if it is to your advantage to do so. I’m all for self-delusion, in fact, its one of my own cherished survival skills, but don’t confuse that with ethics.


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The purpose of this blog is to provide general advice and guidance, not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney familiar with your specific circumstances, facts, challenges, medications, psychiatric disorders, past-lives, karmic debt, and anything else that may impact your situation before drawing any conclusions, deciding upon a course of action, sending a nasty email, filing a lawsuit, or doing anything rash!

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