All the small things: Why you should always read the fine print

How many times have you ticked a box, dismissed a new Facebook privacy “upgrade” or skimmed over terms and conditions on a streaming service? Sydney singer-songwriter BRENDAN MACLEAN discovers first-hand what happens when you don’t read the fine print.

On September, 30 2012 I received an email from music service Off The Record. Their mission statement asserts their dedication to “finding the hottest up and coming new artists around Australia and providing them with alternative avenues to getting exposure.” They deal in publicity, distribution and, as I found out, compilations.

The email

Hey Brendan – hope all is well. Really enjoying your tracks.

Well I love everything about this email so far.

Just wanted to see if you’d be interested in featuring a track on the upcoming compliation [sic] CD to come out on the cover of YEN Magazine. There are 30,000 copies distributed nation wide on every cover of YEN.

Yen! I love Yen, they’re like Frankie’s slightly frumpish but still groovy sister! Yes, my answer is yes!

Just to give you an idea of the Yen CD (if you haven’t seen one before): We have a range of big artists to small up and coming artist, last one we had had a range of artist from Lisa Mitchell down to artist like Charlie Mayfair, Richard In Your Mind and Cameras. This CD, Grimes is the opening track, it’s also the Xmas and 10th year anniversary issue so we’re working on making it very exciting. As well as featuring on the covermount CD each artist is featured in a two page editorial in the Magazine.

I am aware of all of these lovely artists. And even despite this man’s terrible sentence structure this is the most wonderful email to happen in the history of emails.


Publication: YEN MAGAZINE (National)

Title: TBC

Artist: Brendan Maclean

Track Name: Artist choice

Track# & Price: 13 – $700

Content deadline: Nov 2nd

Scheduled release date: December 5th

Wow! $700? They must really love my track! $700 in my pocket just in time for Christmas and major kudos from Yen Magazine: sign me up.

I’ve put some details below, to see the terms and condition go to [Contract URL]

Filling out the average name, address and phone number form on my iPhone I giddily swipe my thumb upwards and whoosh down past bundles of “We reserve the right to…” and “You retain the rights of…” technical jargon and smack the approve button. Why wouldn’t I? Yen like me, they really like me! And they want to pay me $700 for my song? That’s like 800 iTunes downloads or thousands of streams on Spotify. I hit confirm on the Off The Record contract page and head back to the rehearsal studio with a new bottle of Hendricks and a stupid grin on my face.

Then on November, 13 2012 “I got mail” again:

Hi Guys. Please pay 50 per cent deposit within seven days, balance within 30 days.

Come again?

Invoice attached. Balance Due: $770.

Oh God. I rush out from a recording session to phone in the blunder. I leave voicemails on three phones. I explain there has been a misunderstanding, I chuckle at my goofy mix-up and apologise. It is only my pride that was bruised. But then, looking back at the contract, I realise this isn’t going to go away.

Please Note $200 admin fee for cancellations.

What happened next…

Two days went by before Off The Record called me back. There was a soothing yet official voice on the line. I sprung into a purposely awkward but emotional speech about my clumsiness and how sorry I was to have wasted their (surprisingly expensive) administrative time. I cordially implied that I should not have to pay the cancellation fees as I had never really wanted their service.

“That’s fine Brendan” the voice replied, “Honest mistakes happen. You can just pay the money off over a longer amount of time instead.”

I doubled back and offered to pay out the cancellation,

“Sorry mate, it’s too late for that we’ve already printed the CDs.”

And upon hearing his best impersonation of what I think was supposed to be empathy, I sighed deeply into the phone and hung up.

From then on demands for payment became a daily occurrence in my inbox. I enquired with a lawyer to see if perhaps I could claim I had been misled: My argument being that my interpretation of the word “price” in the original email did not match the intention in the contract. The response was what I expected; the T&C’s cover them, not me.

The lawyer was right, of course. And not just that, the small print was littered with threats of late fees and the right to charge more if an artist withheld payment.

While I studied the contract, as I should have upon first being linked, I noted just how far down you had to scroll through the floating text box before discovering what direction the money was heading. It was at clause five. More than halfway through the contract I would have found that, as opposed to a $700 reward for my art, I was paying to be lumped in with a dozen local bands and a few major label artists – who I imagine either didn’t pay or who budget these things into their PR.

Like those poetry books where writers pay for their “big chance to be published”, a spot on this compilation means little to nothing for a local artist. Off The Record pumps out all sorts of these mix tapes, one for every genre. Then they team up with magazines and charge independent artists through the nose for the chance of “mass exposure”.

“Alas, a good month after the issue hit the street, I can count on one hand the people who have reacted to seeing my song.”

For all my moaning about my lazy screw-up ultimately the single was now going to appear on Yen’s compilation. Surely there would be some upside? Alas, a good month after the issue hit the street, I can count on one hand the people who have reacted to seeing my song, ‘Only Only’, on the comp. There has been no sales increase, no rapidly growing fan base, not a single person on my music page has even mentioned it. Pointless. Had I consciously signed up to their service I would have been asking for my money back.

Can I be mad at Off The Record? Probably not. If someone gives you a contract you should read it – but to say they come off squeaky clean would also be wrong. The original email was personal, positive and everything suggested that the $700 was going to be in my pocket. I later discovered that their initial contact was a cut and paste job with my name slapped at the top. And even after I accept that I had signed the dotted line/ticked the allotted box, the first personal notification I received about owing money came so late I couldn’t choose the cancellation fee.

As we all get used to agreeing to endless iTunes, Spotify and BandCamp contract updates it is evidently all too easy to breeze over a vital sentence or two and send a month’s worth of sales profits down the tube. My advice: stop, read, give it a day and read it again.

Brendan Maclean is a Sydney musician and actor. Follow him on twitter @macleanbrendan.