American Idol Contracts: Read the Fine Print, Contestants

March 2nd, 2011 by LindseyO

american-idol-contracts ss_84149650Many people aren’t exactly big on reading long, legal documents. Ironically, these long documents full of legal jargon often determine the reader’s fate, but it’s simply too much to read through. People skim through the legalese, make their assumptions, and sign on the dotted line without much of a second thought. For American Idol contestants, this could be life changing.  Note to them:  Spend the $275 (or so) to have a lawyer read through your contracts.

Despite the show’s wild popularity in the United States, very little has been publicly known about what is contained in the American Idol contracts that each performer must sign before appearing on the show. The contract dictates the terms of payment for each finalist; it also includes a strongly-worded policy that prohibits contestants from working with the show’s judges or guest stars for at least six months after appearing on the program.

Winners of the show get $175,000 when they win the contest, and another $175,000 when they begin recording their debut album. From there, each successive album is worth a few hundred thousand dollars (side note [and shameless plug for a show I'm excited about =)] here: Simon Cowell’s “X Factor” will give the winner $5 million – straight cash, AND a recording contract with incentives).

But, a contestant looking to make big bucks from their American Idol win will have to stick with the production company all the way through six full albums just to make $1 million. That can be a daunting prospect for many artists, as six albums is a rather high number (think about how many albums your favorite band has released, and how long they’ve been around).

The runner up gets $150,000 for their efforts when they begin recording their first album. They second album can net them between $225,000 and $400,000. For third place through 12th place, there is a glimmer of hope: if the label decides to sign them, they can walk away with $100,000 for their debut recording (not bad for not even winning).

Overall, the contract is far less controversial than many reality shows’ agreements. A $100,000 payout for not winning the contest (if you get signed, of course) is a pretty great deal in a very tough industry. Even second place makes out pretty well.

But where the contract becomes dominating and excessive is its treatment of the winner, who is basically wholly owned by the label through an astonishing six album releases. Then again, this policy focusing on six albums may be why American Idol contestants seem to all have a string of very quick, very popular hit singles that all sound vaguely the same. This strict contractual requirement may explain why most American Idol acts are essentially reduced to generic versions of the genres they represent — they’re simply trying to work their way through the contract and move on.  Does this make them put out music that is not to its creative potential?  Possibly…

As with all things, contestants should be diligent when reading the fine print and use their discretion when signing their name to such a document. But winning American Idol is a big deal, and six albums is a small price to pay for the fame and future fortune that can come from such a victory.  Even still, American Idol contestants:  read your contracts – I know you want to win, but you need to know what you are signing up for!

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and the author alone, and do not reflect in any way the opinion of the web site or any of its affiliations or partnerships.  Lindsey is a contributor for in the Legal Entertainment category.

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