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What Happens When the Band Breaks Up?

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Band break ups are kind of like divorces. Sometimes they're amicable, but often they're not. Whether your band breaks up over "creative differences," personal relationships or some other reason, the process can be emotionally draining. Also like divorces, sometimes there are some "assets" to be divided. Making the wrong calls here can have long lasting implications for all of your music careers. Find out how to manage a band break up while protecting your rights, keeping your sanity in tact and maybe even preserving enough good will to survive your reunion tour in 20 years.

Band Break Up Step One: Check the Contract

If you have a band contract, stop right here. You may not need to go any further. The contract should have provisions that dictate how to deal with things like unused recordings, songwriting credits and more, so all you have to do is abide by it. Easy, right?

OK, I know you probably don't have a contract. Few groups do. If the dog ate your contract, or if your band has outgrown it, here are the steps you should follow:

Make a List of The Issues

How many issues you have to deal with when your band breaks up is generally related to how long you were together and how much work you've done. Some issues will be more contentious than others, and you'll have a much easier time working through all of them if you clearly identify them and treat each one as a separate subject as much as possible. Although each band's situation will be different, some things you may need to address are:

  • Songwriting credits
  • Unreleased recordings
  • How to split up gear the group co-owns
  • How to resolve the group finances
  • Leftover stock if you self released your album
Let's take some common issues one at a time:

Songwriting Credits

This one is really important if your group is earning royalties or if anyone in the group hopes to use some of the group's songs in future projects. In reality, this conversation is one all bands should be having well before a break-up enters the equation. You might be surprised how differently you all view your own contributions and hammering these things out when things are tense is tough.

If you have made agreements in the past when it comes to songwriting credits, stick to them. You might be angry now, but if you have agreed to share all the credit for the music equally in the past - even if only one of you actually did the work - take some deep breaths and honor the agreement.

If you all share ownership of the songs, you should discuss what that means. Will you all have free reign to "cover" the songs in future projects? What happens if one of you joins a new band and suddenly has a hit on your hands with a song that was co-written with this band you're leaving now? In that case, the people who share songwriting credits are due a royalty - you can see how complicated this can get. It will get more complex if it becomes an issue sometime down the line and you haven't discussed it now. So, discuss it.

Unreleased Recordings

If you have unreleased recordings sitting around, what are you going to do with them? When you've invested a lot of money in recording, then obviously the idea of trying to recoup that money by selling the music is appealing. But, if the band break-up is not amicable, working together to get this done might be more trouble than it is worth. What is the best option?

First, if you have a record deal, you might not have a choice. If you have signed a contract with a label that obligates you to deliver an album, then you're going to have to deliver the album or buy yourself out of the contract. How much that costs depends on how much the label has invested in your band and what they think they could have made from selling your record. If you're dealing with a small indie, you might be able to come to some sort of agreement between all of you - you might even be able to get away with not buying out of the contract at all. If you're dealing with a larger label that has lawyers involved, then you'll need to get a lawyer as well. Note that in some cases, you may even be obligated to do a certain amount of promotion for the record.

If you don't have a deal, things are easier. If you're still friendly and can work together to try and sell the record, great. Just make sure you discuss things like how you'll divide the work, the expenses and the profits. If you can't work together, then you might have to chalk it up to experience. If some members of the group have invested more financially into the project than others, the good thing to do is try to reimburse them somehow. In the real world, without a contract that specifies that the investment will be recouped, this doesn't always happen. It's a tough lesson to learn, but sometimes the lesson is all you're going to get from the situation. You'll be smarter for next time.

Dividing Co-Owned Property

Many times, groups don't just invest in recording together, but they also sink their cash into gear for the group. This should be an easy one to handle. If you chipped in for a drum kit, but you don't play the drums, don't fight for it. The drummer can pony up the cash to pay everyone back their share, or you can all sell the kit and split the cash. If emotions are running high, people can think of all sorts of reasons why they should get X, Y or Z, but save yourself the hassle and don't make a federal case out of it. Split it up and move on.

Group Finances

The finances have of course been touched on when we talked about splitting gear and what to do with unreleased recordings, but here we're talking about the nitty gritty. Who paid the rehearsal space? Who paid for the gas when you drove to shows? Who always paid for the beer?

In bands, you often find that some members are in a position to contribute financially way more than others. This set-up has a way of being fine when everything is fine with the band and not so fine when everything with the band is not so fine. As tough as it is, unless you have some agreement that states otherwise, if you're the one who has been shelling out the cash, you can't make anyone pay you back. Of course, everyone should try to make this kind of stuff fair, but it often doesn't happen.

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