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10 Tips That TLC (And All) ARTISTS Should Know Before Signing a Record Deal

ATLANTA – Like millions of music industry enthusiasts and fans, I watched “CrazySexyCool” on VH-1 with great joy and excitement. “CrazySexyCool” chronicled the story of TLC, the group that sold well over 60 million records.

Cast against this backdrop of landmark success and great records like “Scrubs,” “Waterfalls,” and What About Your Friends”, was the underlying conclusion: TLC members Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes, who died in 2002 in a car crash, sold a ton of records, but still ended up broke and in bankruptcy court.

While the TV special had a record 4.5 million fans tuned into VH-1 and tweeting on social meeting all night, there is a serious lesson to take from this Hollywood adaptation about the greatest female group of all time: KNOW THE MUSIC BUSINESS!!!!

As I wrote in Chapter 1 of my book, This Business of Urban Music (Billboard/Random House), due to their poor contract, the group felt it was the best financial decision to file bankruptcy. TLC probably hoped to either force LaFace to the renegotiation table or ask the bankruptcy court to void their recording contract. (In a future article, we zoom in more on the bankruptcy discussion and that method often used by artists in the past). 

“We only told half the story,” Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins told TV talk-show host Wendy Williams last week in an interview leading up to the airing of the TV special. T-Boz said a lot of things about their horrible experience as young artists were left out of the movie and the group is on good terms with their former manager Perri “Pebbles” Reid and has moved on with their careers.

Regardless of who’s story you believe: “Pebbles did them SO WRONG”, the overwhelming cry blowing up Twitter Monday night; or the equally popular alternative “TLC should have read their contracts closer,” as many tweeted after the movie. One thing not disputed: there is some knowledge to learn from this legendary Atlanta based girls group.

10 Tips Artists Should Take From The TLC Story or TLC Would Probably Share Now:

1) Inspect What You Expect!

2) Examine Closely: Who is The Manager?

3) Examine Closely: Who Is The Production Company?

4) Examine Closely: Who Is the Label?

5) Examine Closely: Who is the Distributor?

6) Read Your Contract! READ YOUR CONTRACT (this needs to be said 3 times)!

7) Read Your Royalty Statement before you are Broke and Asking Questions!

8) Trademark Your Name “TLC” or “CrazySexyCool” as Soon as You Start Using It?

9) Know the Game; Hire An Attorney Separate From the Record Label’s Attorney.

10) Know That It’s The Music BUSINESS and BUSINESS is the Bigger Word!

Let’s discuss Tip #1: Inspect What You Expect. If you expect the contract to bless you financially and to earn you a decent living, you have to “inspect” it thoroughly so it meets your expectations. If you do not read the contract or hire someone to inspect what you expect it to be, you cannot later be surprised when you find out you are in a bad contract as an artist.

Similarly, do not just appoint anyone as your manager, examine your manager thoroughly, Tip #2. Make sure you have a bona fide manager that has no connection to the label and preferably not a relative or Pookie and Ray-Ray from the old neighborhood. It is also probably not a good idea to have a manager who is married to the record label executive or has any connection to the label. The manager has to fight for you; and it’s probably a conflict of interest for them to be connected to both the artist and the label.

The production company, label and distributor. Ninety minutes into the VH-1 documentary, TLC explained that we were signed to the production company (Pebbitone) that was signed through LaFace, which was distributed by Arista. In essence, you have three or four entities eating off your royalty check or money before it trickles down to you as an artist. Not Smart!

A standard label might get 20 to 25% from Arista (the parent label). So, the parent label gives LaFace 20 to 25%, then Laface cuts a piece of that to Pebbitone, who pays the artist signed to it. Thus, the artist is dividing up the 7 to 9 points after all is said and done, and the artist (TLC) still has to pay the producers and managers out of their fees and their attorneys. (Dallas Austin was a regular face in the movie – I am sure he gets top points as a producer out of this 7-9%).

Tip #6 is self-explanatory: read your contract. I said in an interview yesterday, “for the urban artists: read your Bible for the instructions and plans and instructions for your life; but read your contract for the plans and instructions for your career.”

Getting an artist to read a royalty statement is like getting a kid to eat his greens. Artists just refuse to conceptualize the importance of Tip #7. This is common sense to many, but you would be surprised how many artists have never read their royalty statement. They simply refuse to read them, but then wonder why they end up broke or in bankruptcy court.

In the movie, TLC talks about how they had to pay $3 million dollars for the purchase of the rights to their name (allegedly $1 million per letter to former manager Pebbles). This could have been avoided if they fought for the right to own their name at the onset of their group. If you sign with a label and you created the name and mark, try to own your name outright via a trademark registration with the USPTO.

The last two tips: Hire your own attorney (Tip #9), never compromise your legal representative, never allow a label to “find” or “recommend” an attorney for you, or suggest that you use the same attorney. It is clearly a conflict of interest for you to have an attorney representing both the artist and the label on the same deal. TLC learned after selling 10 million records on their first two albums: This is the MUSIC BUSINESS and BUSINESS is clearly the bigger and more important word to know.

It’s important to make great music. It’s more important to understand BUSINESS and enjoy the financial fruits of your labor.

There is nothing CrazySexyCool about going platinum as an artist and broke at the same time!

James L. Walker, Jr. is an Attorney based in Atlanta, Ga. He is an author and regular

contributor to BET, CNN, HLN, AriseTV and teaches entertainment and sports law

throughout the country. He can be found at www.walkerandassoc.com or emailed at

jjwalker@walkerandassoc.com