For filmmakers and creatives living in the Live Music Capital of the World, it may seem attractive to make a documentary about a band or a singer amid the music struggle. But experts on a recent South by Southwest panel warned that while music documentaries are surging in popularity and profitability, they are laden with complex legal issues.
One of the first hurdles to address is whether the artist or subject of the film will be involved with it. Chris Lopez, a TV and film producer who recently completed a four-part docu-series about the Wu-Tang Clan set to air later this year on Showtime, told the audience that involving the subject may help you attain music licensing rights, but then you likely won’t be able to tell the story you want to tell.
Lopez added that the legal team, director, and executive producer all need to be working in tandem to make sure the film stays on track or filmmakers will suffer costly delays.
Michelle Skinner, vice president and counsel to Endeavor Content, said one significant hurdle to music documentary filmmaking is a push in the last several years for artists to own and control much more of the licensing rights to their work. That push to empower artists has led to some difficult situations, Skinner said, recalling a deal that fell through after an artist insisted that he or she should own all of the intellectual property rights to the film being made about the artist. After trying to explain that the film is a separate creative art from the artist’s music, Skinner’s team had to walk away from the project, she said.
Faced with audience questions about the extent of fair use or analyzing when you need to seek out music licensing rights, Skinner responded, “I hate to say you need a good lawyer, but you kind of do.”