Copyright Law

What happens when a musician dies? How to protect your music now

It’s better to be safe than sorry, so make sure your music rights and assets are all set to go in the right places so your music can live on after you pass.

By Reshaun Finkley, Esq.

The recent passing of music legend Jimmy Buffett reminded me not only of his unique, tropical-inspired songwriting but also about the not-so-enjoyable legal issues that can arise when a recording artist dies. 

Truth is, when musicians pass away, anyone and everyone attached to their music comes crawling out the woodwork in search of their piece of the remaining fortune. Even when those claims are legitimate, the unraveling of recording deals and related agreements can be messy.

But there are steps musical entertainers can take – while they are still alive – that can make the inevitable legal process smoother and ensure their fair share of profits pass on to their estates.

For starters, I recommend my clients have a “toolbox” where they keep all of their contracts, recording and distribution deals, side-artist agreements, production agreements and any other documents they’ve signed regarding their music. And don’t put the toolbox in your garage or closet; best keep it with your manager or lawyer.

Next, make sure your music is officially registered with a legitimate organization. There’s nothing worse than learning a deceased artist is receiving zero of the credit – and money – for their songs only because they were not registered or properly registered. 

Registering is fairly easy and can be done through such non-profit groups as The MLC (The Mechanical Licensing Collective) and SoundExchange, or through a PRO (performance rights organization) like ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) or BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), the largest of the PROs and whose clients include Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.

By registering, artists allow these organizations to track all uses of their music and collect and pay the royalties. By not registering, artists leave a huge opening for legal claims, counterclaims and large legal bills – so don’t skip this step.

Once all songs are registered, the entertainer needs to start making a comprehensive list of them. The list should include the title, the type (single, album, mix tape, etc.), the release date, producer, who else performed on the song, and the agreed-upon splits between the producer, writer and other talent. That way, if tragedy strikes, the artist’s life work can be monetized.

Having a complete list of your music catalog will be of immense help when dealing with music publishers, who are often tasked with collecting on the deceased’s behalf – frequently across multiple platforms. Their understanding of the negotiated splits will assist them in collecting the right amounts and distributing the money equitably.

Another reality of a musician’s death is the inevitable rise in sales of their biggest hits. Fans want to play those songs again as they grieve. This is why, once again, it is important to have a toolbox and a comprehensive list of all songs and who owns them so that only those who have legitimate, legal ownership will be compensated for their contributions. There’s nothing wrong with them wanting a share of future royalties, but having a clear understanding of what was agreed upon will thwart legal challenges and get money to your estate.

I’m not a trusts and estates lawyer, but you should hire one because you need to have  at minimum a will in place before you die. Don’t join the list of recording artists – including  Amy Winehouse, Prince, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac – who passed away with no will, leaving lawyers and the courts to decide who is in charge of administering and managing the artist’s estate.

We recommend a will to all of our entertainment clients so they can know who, posthumously, will be in charge of their estate. Otherwise, things can get messy. Children may be involved. Perhaps the artist’s parents, who may or may not get along, and who may or may not have been involved in their career, are suddenly made co-managers of the estate. A will lays out instructions for who will be in charge of what, and how business affairs will be handled.

Finally, be smart in who you choose as the estate administrator. We recommend the individual be  familiar with the music business. That way, they will know how best to monetize the artist’s catalog of music, seek out new publishing deals, renegotiate old deals, and sign new recording contracts for any unreleased music. 

Taking these steps will ensure your music – and your estate – will live on for generations.

Reshaun Finkley is an intellectual property and entertainment attorney at Townsend & Lockett, where he has worked with numerous recording industry artists and musicians. He can be reached at

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