Can a band sue the producer for not liking the mix?

June 5, 2012

Dear Music Lawyer,

I'm a producer and run a recording studio. An artist is threatening to sue me because they didn't like how I mixed and mastered their album. Can they sue me?


Dear Aaron,

Frankly, people can often find a way to sue when they're unhappy. The question is usually whether the unhappy person would win.

The most likely way for a band to get a producer into court would be to claim breach of contract. In other words, the band would file a complaint with the court to say that you had a deal and you didn't do what you promised to do. Bear in mind that services contracts do not have to be in writing to be enforceable so the band could file based on breach of a verbal contract.

Now, if the band's only complaint is that they didn't like how the recording sounded (as opposed to you accidentally deleted a bunch of files or didn't deliver on time), I think they'd have a very hard time winning the case. After all, whether a recording sounds good or bad often depends on the subjective ears of the listener.

On the other hand, if there's something objectively awful the band could point to such as you left the lead vocals out of the mix entirely, or it was agreed that you would be producing a clean acoustic sound, but you decided on your own that it would be cooler to add in crazy effects or distortion, then the band may have a better claim. Also, if you had an enforceable agreement with the band that promised complete satisfaction or unlimited remixes until the band is satisfied, then you could have a problem. (Note: I would never recommend that a producer agree to such complete satisfaction language.)

Unfortunately for any defendant, there's an expense -- time, money, or both -- whether or not he/she ultimately defeats the claim. That's why it's a good idea to have clear expectations set in writing in advance.

If you are truly concerned about this artist suing you, you would be wise to talk with an entertainment litigator about the specific facts and circumstances to get a sense of your likelihood of successfully defending against a claim. (Tip: You may want to seek free consultations from a few litigators.)

In the alternative, since you work in a largely reputation-based industry, then it might be worth simply trying to compromise on this one (e.g., give portion of funds back or offer to remix/remaster with the artist present), avoid the possibility of going to court, and make sure expectations are clear with future clients.

—Amy E. Mitchell is maintained by experienced Austin music lawyer Amy E. Mitchell. Please feel free to ask any music law related questions. You will be notified by email when your question has been selected for response, and the response will be posted on this site.

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