We Create Music Blog
December 12, 2011

ASCAP Lesson: Entertainment Attorney Dina LaPolt on Building Your Brand and Career

By Dina LaPolt, LaPolt Law, P.C.


There is no question that the music industry is changing on a daily basis. Despite the constant evolution of all aspects of the business, the focus is placed almost solely on the decline in the recorded music sector. What are the major labels going to do now? Labels say that Spotify doesn’t pay enough. Recording advance money is no longer enough to cover expenses. Very little emphasis is placed on changes in the music publishing arena or how the industry-wide changes affect songwriters.

In the past, songwriters made their money from publishing deals which included advance payments for mechanical, synchronization, and the publisher’s share of public performance royalties. Now that the music business is becoming an almost wholly service-based industry, that is changing. Music is everywhere, being consumed in more ways than ever. People can buy an album, rip the songs to their computer, and listen on their phones, MP3 players and tablets via iCloud. Still others subscribe to services like Spotify to have instant access to millions of songs for a monthly fee. There are video games such as Rock Band or Guitar Hero and mobile apps like Tap Tap Revenge that license both compositions and master recordings for interactive game play. Top-rated television programs such as Glee, American Idol and Dancing with the Stars all prominently feature music. Brands affiliate themselves with recording artists and use their music in marketing campaigns worldwide. With all of these emerging revenue streams come rewarding opportunities for songwriters.

The questions now are (1) how do you get your name out there and stand out from the pack? and (2) how do you ensure you are taking advantage of all of these opportunities? While music really is everywhere now and there are more opportunities than ever, there are also more people out there than ever before clamoring for the spotlight. The internet makes it possible for anyone who has ever written a song to share their work with the world. As you build yourself as a songwriter, regardless of whether you are recording your own material or writing for others, there are numerous things you must pay special attention to.

First and most importantly, find your songwriting niche and indentify your target audience. Then you build yourself to reach them. This will become your “songwriter brand.” Do you write great melodies or dark lyrics? Are you more of a pop music songwriter or do you write country music songs? Whatever your genre, target those types of recording artists that perform and record the types of songs you write. Find their representatives, but also think about how to get their attention. What makes you special? For example, when I was building my “brand” as an entertainment attorney, I began by teaching, writing and lecturing. I found that I could break down complex legal and business issues into smaller, simpler terms and explain them to my clients or to those taking my Legal and Practical Aspects of the Music Business class at the UCLA Extension Program. The meetings with clients might not always take place in an office; it is important for my clients to feel at home and be comfortable. Sometimes I go out on the road with them for a few days on their tour bus, other times I meet them for a yoga class or spiritual lecture. Though a bit unorthodox, this became my “brand” and is what I am known for.

You must do the same thing as a songwriter. While contemplating questions such as "who am I trying to reach?" and "who is my target audience?" and "where can I find these people?" you must be realistic. The answer is never “the entire world.” Once you pinpoint your audience, start thinking like them: where they spend their free time and discretionary income, what they like, other artists or songwriters they enjoy and, just as importantly, what they don’t like, so you can avoid those areas. Sometimes your audience may not be your fans, but could be certain music publishers and music supervisors. Use the same strategy with them as you would any other audience. When you reach a certain level of success, push yourself to experiment with new technologies and formats. Copyright holders are notorious for resisting change, but sometimes change is necessary, and can even be beneficial, if it is embraced. Get creative with your brand, stay ahead of the curve and be a trendsetter. If you don’t, someone else surely will.

A perfect example of a songwriter building her brand is up-and-coming 23-year old ASCAP member Priscilla Renea. Renea didn’t like the songs she heard on the radio when she was younger and decided to do something about it. She began writing the songs that she wanted to hear. From a branding perspective, she saw people like herself as a target audience and began catering to their needs. From there, she posted videos of herself singing her songs on YouTube, including some demos she wrote for Rihanna, and garnered the attention of MTV’s Say What? Karaoke. Since then, Renea has signed to Capitol Records, penned songs for Rihanna (including the hit single “California King Bed”), Selena Gomez, Cheryl Cole, Girlicious, Kelly Rowland, Chris Brown, Demi Lovato and Yelawolf.

Second, you have to ensure that your business affairs are in order. That means surrounding yourself with a competent, trustworthy team. You may not have a publisher or a publishing administrator quite yet, but you should find a manager or an attorney who understands your vision and can get your songs in front of the right people. An entertainment lawyer can advise you on copyright registration and monitor your intellectual property rights to make sure you are protected. Once money is coming in on a regular basis, it is important to engage a business manager or accountant who specializes in the entertainment industry to forecast your income, get your taxes done, and, if necessary, even help with auditing your various income streams.

It is critical for everyone who works in the music industry to realize that intellectual property is our currency. We trade copyright and trademark rights for money or exposure on a daily basis. As a songwriter, you must be aware of what copyrights you have in your compositions and what those rights entail; whether you have any marks that may be protected by trademark; and name and likeness rights. This is another arena where your entertainment attorney can counsel you.

As your currency, of sorts, you need to protect and monetize your intellectual property rights as best you can while keeping within the parameters of your brand image. Your business manager can advise on various corporate formalities to house your rights and which makes the most sense for your particular brand. Your publisher or lawyer can help get your copyrights registered with the Copyright Office in the United States or other appropriate foreign countries and your songs registered with a performing rights organization such as ASCAP. If you are recording and exploiting your own material, make sure you are registered with SoundExchange, who collect performance royalties for sound recordings for non-interactive transmissions over the internet and distribute a significant amount of money to recording artists and owners of those master recordings. Do not put all of this responsibility on your representatives, though. You must understand how your business is run and ensure that those around you are working towards a common goal.

Though it is often hard for the creative mind to conceptualize, you must begin to view yourself as a brand and conduct yourself accordingly. Be engaged in your business and work with your representatives to ensure that you put strategies in place and are all working towards common goals. Find your strong points – what makes you different from everyone else clamoring for the same songwriter deals, placements and other uses – and market your brand to your target audience. Look at what other people aren’t doing and try to fill that niche. Your brand will emerge and success will hopefully follow shortly thereafter.


Dina LaPolt is an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles, California at LaPolt Law, P.C. LaPolt Law, P.C. is a boutique transactional entertainment law firm that specializes in representing clients in the music, film, television, merchandising and book publishing industries. In addition to practicing law, LaPolt teaches Legal and Practical Aspects of the Music Business in the Entertainment Studies Department at UCLA Extension, which starts January 10th and runs for 12 weeks. Click here to register for the class.

LaPolt is editing the upcoming book from the International Association of Entertainment Lawyers (IAEL) entitled Building Your Artist’s Brand as a Business. The book expands further upon the concepts discussed in this blog in addition to analyzing the various changes in the music business and how we need to adapt to them in order to maintain stability and long-term success. The publication will first be made available at MIDEM in Cannes, France on January 29th, 2012. Thereafter visit www.iael.org to purchase a copy.

For more information on LaPolt or her law firm please visit www.LaPoltLaw.com.