When I was a kid, we used to play the Oregon Trail game in our computer labs in elementary school. In fact, there’s a whole micro-generation of Americans whose schools believed they were on the cutting edge of education by teaching kids with video games.
The way the game worked is you started out in Independence, Missouri, and you had to prepare for a journey to Oregon in a covered wagon. Before leaving, you’d choose the professions of your crewmembers (e.g., doctor, carpenter, tracker, etc.), your supplies (food, medicine, ammunition, spare parts, etc.), and other factors such as the timing of your departure.
Along the way, you encounter a number of challenges and decisions that have to be made. You’re out of food? You can hunt, you can scavenge, or you can try to find a trading post. Come to a river? You can try to ford it, but your oxen might drown; you can try to float across, but your wagon might tip; you can go two days south to the crossing, but you might not make the mountain pass before winter sets in.
Theoretically, we were supposed to learn about the challenges that pioneers faced while on the actual Oregon Trail, though most of us spent all of our time hunting as much digital game as we could even though our poor 8-bit pioneers could only carry 100 lbs of the 1200 lbs of game we shot in the hunting minigame. And in the end, everyone dies of dysentery. Say what you will about modern science; at least no dies of dysentery anymore.
Since I started practicing law, I realized that the role I play now to my clients is like the guide on the Oregon Trail. A lot of artists and entrepreneurs don’t realize the role an attorney plays except when there’s a lawsuit involved, or maybe a large contract. But if you have someone helping you plan your route to your goal, helping to avoid the rattlesnakes, the quicksand—and yes, even the dysentery—you might get there faster and safer.
Most people who are running modern-day music businesses and startups don’t regularly encounter quicksand and rattlesnakes. But you are making decisions all the time that affect your journey. Love your new band name or business name? Let’s make sure no one else has the trademark before we plow ahead with it. Want to issue a sync license for your song for a TV show? Great! Let’s make sure no one else has any rights that would prevent you from licensing the song. Looking at independent distribution vs. signing a record deal? Let’s examine both paths and see which one might get us to our goal faster and safer. Somebody wants to invest? Let’s take a close look before they join your wagon train.
So, just as the pioneers on the Oregon Trail could have benefited from someone with knowledge of the path helping them make tough decisions and avoiding pitfalls, artists and entrepreneurs can also use their team, including good legal counsel, to make decisions and avoid legal and business traps.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. True in covered wagons and true in business.