It was a brutal audition. Before a scrutinizing panel of judges, Howard Siegel took center stage for a key performance during the second season of “American Idol.” But this contest wasn’t shown on television, and the singers in the room sat in quiet examination, listening to Siegel’s explanation of what a respected entertainment lawyer could do about their contract situation.
19 Entertainment, true to its pedigree as producer of the phenomenally successful singing competition, had organized a mini-contest among several lawyers so the show’s finalists could select one to represent them collectively in deal negotiations.
After a quick vote, Siegel won the job, which he passed to other lawyers after that season. Now, in the show’s sixth season, Siegel is back representing all 24 finalists.
It’s a job that, at first glance, might not seem terribly complex. After all, what kind of leverage does Siegel, a partner at Pryor Cashman, have in negotiating for clients who have been plucked from obscurity and given the opportunity of a lifetime?
But Siegel says his efforts do make a difference for the aspiring “Idols.”
Like most reality programs, “Idol” requires everyone featured on the show to sign a broad release and rights grant before auditioning. If chosen as a finalist, contestants must sign additional contracts with producer Simon Fuller’s 19 Recordings Ltd., 19 Merchandising Ltd. and 19 Management Ltd. Producers get management and merchandising rights and also have an option to sign the winner and others to a recording contract with Sony BMG, though that option is not always picked up.
During the show’s first season, portions of a 14-page agreement that contestants signed were leaked on a popular music listserv. In the contract, contestants granted broad exclusive rights to Fuller, including the “unconditional right throughout the universe in perpetuity to use, simulate, or portray … my name, likeness (whether photographic or otherwise), voice, singing voice, personality, personal identification or personal experiences, my life story, biographical data, incidents, situations and events which heretofore occurred or hereafter occur …”
Besides putting their publicity rights in 19’s hands, the finalists’ long-term management contracts gave the company a huge cut of any future fortunes derived from record royalties.
But Siegel says that contracts have been improving in finalists’ favor since the first season and that contestants now sign “much more generous” term sheets than the typical new act with a major label. These contracts “are certainly not anywhere near low-end deals,” he says.