Can I Claim Money From Recordings I Played on But Did Not Write?

Question

Years ago, I played in a band. We mostly earned our money through small gigs, although we did release several albums. I recently discovered that the albums are selling modestly well to this day. I have not received a dime in royalties, however, and was never contacted by the production company. I did not write any of the lyrics or music myself. Do I have any rights to redeem past or future royalties?

Answer

A royalty payment is a form of compensation based on a percentage of revenue or unit sales generated under an agreement. This is common in the music or literary publishing industries, where the artist's income will depend on sales.

In the music business, there are usually three possible ways that an artist would be entitled to royalty payments as a performer on the recordings:
  • You wrote or cowrote one of the compositions, or you are entitled to song payments under a band publishing agreement.
  • You signed a contract with the band or recording company providing for ongoing royalties.
  • You were a member of a musician's union or organization and are entitled to payment under a collective bargaining or related agreement.

By your account, the first method of payment would not apply to you. While your musical skills certainly added to the band's sound and success, royalty payments generally go to authors of music, rather than performers of music.

However, the second method of payment may apply if you signed a written agreement (a contract) with the production company for your performance. Try to get your hands on that agreement and review it to see whether it provides for ongoing royalties. Then contact the record company or entity that is currently selling the recordings and seek to enforce the agreement.

It is possible that the company was simply unaware of the contract's existence. If the record company is fair-minded, you can work out a payment system. If not, you will probably have to hire a lawyer and chase the back royalties.

You may have also signed a contract with your band itself, such as an "operating agreement" or other contract that governed the rights and responsibilities of the members. That contract might provide for royalties. If the other band members are breaching the contract by retaining royalty payments that should rightfully be split with you, then your lawsuit might be against your former bandmates rather than the production company.

Finally, consider a last possibility for payment if you were a "sideman." Sidemen are hired musicians who are not formal members of the band. Union musicians may be entitled to payments under a union or related arrangement.

Union musicians in the United States and United Kingdom are entitled to payments if they performed on recordings distributed by major and some independent labels. In the U.K., there's an organization known as Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) that distributes money to performers who have played on recordings released by British record companies.

If the albums were recorded under a union arrangement and the album is released by a U.S. record company, contact the American Federation of Musicians, the world's largest union of musicians.

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