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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Gasparka

Wisconsin Entertainment Lawyers' Association: Helping Artists Professionalize + Protect Their Work

The band Laurel Sulfate and the LOL on stage at Radio Milwaukee.
Still image from Reimagine Milwaukee video, by Tank Think.

Let’s say you’re in a band, rocking steadily in the upper Midwest for years and your following explodes. A song from your latest album is highlighted on a Spotify playlist, and your social media content is popping off. Suddenly you're reaching new audiences near and far. Then you get a call from an unrecognized number, and it’s a rep from a record company. Next thing you know, you’re being courted by record executives who present you with a promising contract... and piles of associated paperwork full of legal jargon. What the heck do you do next? 

Your first call—after you call your mom to tell her the exciting, possibly premature news about “making it"—should probably be to WELA. The Wisconsin Entertainment Lawyers’ Association was established in 2018 to support the growth and development of arts and entertainment communities in Wisconsin through offering relevant legal services. The network also functions to advance the practice of entertainment law in the region, and to educate the next generation of lawyers who wish to support creatives, to empower artists and spark collaboration and community-building.  

WELA was established by attorneys Bryan Kroes, Peter Strand, and Robert Arthur. Each of the founders comes from a background in creative practice in music. Kroes is a songwriter and musician, Strand is a bassist and composer, and Arthur has served as a band manager and producer/engineer. 

“I heard an old saying a long time ago: if you can quit the music business, you should. And many of us that got involved in it just haven't been able to walk away completely, you know?” reflected Peter Strand. “I am a bassist, and many of the WELA attorneys similarly have artistic pursuits. One lawyer came from radio background and does work with radio stations, and there's a comic book artist who’s now a comic book lawyer. So, there's all kinds of creativity that is channeled into providing legal services for creatives.” 

Photo courtesy of Peter Strand.

“You'll find a lot of people who go into entertainment law are either ex-musicians or actors or are in production,” said Robert Arthur. “Having that kind of background gives you sensitivity to the industry, and an understanding of the norms.” 

WELA attorneys focus on areas of law such as copyright, contract formation, and intellectual property. The creatives and entities whose work falls under the category of entertainment is ever-expanding with the rise of influencer content, entrepreneurship, and rapidly emerging industries like gaming and AI technology. 

The formation of WELA has also been a means to connect creatives within the field of law and support lawyers' learning and growth. 

Photo courtesy of Bryan Kroes.

“A big part of the mission is to foster entertainment law in the state of Wisconsin and find other entertainment attorneys, and then help folks coming out of law school in that process,” said Bryan Kroes. 

“WELA offers continuing education programs for other attorneys on legal topics that are entertainment law related. We also will go to industry-specific groups; for example, Peter and I have the Songwriting 101 program that we've done for a number of groups. We did a program at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival on the legal fundamentals of law in short film. And so we've got multiple things happening and we’re trying to build this community of lawyers and creatives all over the state of Wisconsin,” said Kroes.  

Two filmmakers peer into a view finder to look at captured footage.
Photo by Rob Ran.

As they continue to build the network, WELA leaders are seeking to collaborate and align with WI-based arts and culture organizations that can help them connect attorneys with potential clients, including a budding collaboration with Imagine MKE that will take the form of a late summer event. Though they’ve been able to amass a large cohort of engaged attorneys, they are looking to build awareness within artistic communities.  

That being said, law itself can be seen creative practice. Much like music, practitioners of law learn a special language, have the ability to perform, focus on a specific area of interest, and, in some cases, improvise. And, like all art forms, technology keeps changing the field. Kloes and Strand have each found that they draw on creativity in areas of their legal work—and that focusing on supporting creatives encourages them to embrace their creative sides.  

“Technology changes the law dramatically. Record contracts that I first started looking at in the 1990s are almost obsolete,” offered Strand. “There's pages and pages of provisions that are completely irrelevant today. So, yeah, it is creative in a sense. You start with something, and then you have to frequently build out provisions to accommodate whatever the new technology or the new art creative is.” 

Two people are in a sound engineering station, looking at screens in a dark room.
Photo from WiX.

“There's a creative element in how you present your case to the court, that, at times, approaches theatric,” remarked Kroes, who does a good deal of litigation within his practice. “It's a chameleonlike thing that you sometimes do have to do as attorneys. But I find that my clients find comfort in that we understand them from a creative side. We understand where they're coming from. I have many clients who've said, ‘you know, I really appreciate you for being you, rather than being this caricature of what I imagined an attorney to be.’” 

There is a social justice angle to what the WELA lawyers do, too. Though they can and do represent creative businesses, because of their own artistic backgrounds, many of the attorneys do what they do as a way to equalize the playing field in a world where corporations and their dollars can oftentimes dominate independent artists.  

“Artists get tossed a contract or offered opportunities and it feels like everybody's

got a lawyer except them,” remarked Arthur. “You know, I've been in that situation as a band manager where I was talking with a record label and it just felt like all the guns were against me and my band. And this is one of the reasons why I added entertainment law when I graduated from law school. I wanted to be a leveling influence. We can level the power continuum.” 

Photo courtesy of Robert Arthur.

In order to make that equity a reality, according to Arthur, the services WELA attorneys offer are often more affordable rates for services than typical lawyers. 

“We are more affordable than people think,” reflected Arthur. “We are not free, but some of us do free consultations sometimes. We can also do different payment arrangements and things like that. There's a lot of lawyers in our association; if people poke around and start asking the right questions they might be able to find somebody in our association that would be able to help them.” 

Because WELA lawyers are located within WI, to their diverse client base they can offer both a neighborly regionalism (in Arthur’s words “we’ll understand you when you make a Packer reference”) combined with comprehensive knowledge of federal law, and connections fostered with major entertainment enterprises like record companies, all over the nation.  

So, how exactly do you know if seeking counsel with a lawyer who focuses on entertainment law is right for you? According to Strand, start by determining if you’re at the point of professionalizing in whatever you do—or if you wish to approach it as a hobby.  

From there, according to Arthur, you should ask yourself a set of questions.  

“What is the next thing that you're seeking to do? Is it to organize the business into, you know, some sort of structure like an LLC or an S-Corp?”  

Alternatively, if you’re lucky, sometimes an opportunity to professionalize presents itself in the form of an offered contract. If you sign something without guidance, you might find yourself in a challenging situation where your rights have been compromised without your full understanding of the long-term implications. 

“The worst thing we can hear is, ‘Hey, I just signed this thing, can you look it over?’” said Arthur.  

The WELA founders also have some words of wisdom to offer up for those who don’t yet know if they will be on a professional track with their creative output. 

"Learn to make business a part of your relationships with other creatives,” offered Strand.  

“When you're co-creating something that you both are invested in, you're not thinking about how that might sort out in terms of ownership, in terms of income distribution, or control,” said Strand. “At the beginning, when there's no money, there's no market value to it yet. But of course, when things change suddenly the memories get fuzzy. People think that their contribution was more important than someone else's. So, my recommendation would be that they follow the advice that all three of us have given creatives we’ve worked with: sort out the how, when, what, where, why of the control or income of ownership of the creative work.” 

Learn more about WELA and check back with Imagine MKE later this summer to learn more about how we are collaborating with the organization to offer accessible legal services to Milwaukee creatives.  





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