Houston Musician Nick Gaitan shares his advice on copyright protection for emerging artists

By Jade Boldenow, Fresh Arts

Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and artistic background?

Sure. My name is Nick Gaitan. I’m a native Houstonian, and I’ve been performing music live since the summer of 99. I picked up the guitar at a younger age, but that’s when I kind of got going in bands whenever I could actually get out of the house and do that thing.


What experiences led you to realizing the importance of copyright protection?

I was about three years shy of 30 and I joined the country music circuit with a country songwriting legend, Billy Joe Shaver. It was my biggest gig to that point. After several months on the road we were playing a show and he was so generous with the stage. That night he says, “Hey, Nick, there are cameras in the house. Do you have a song that you wrote recently that you might want to perform? Jason [McKenzie] and Jeremy [Woodall], they’ll back you up, if you can just teach it to them real quick.”


And that weekend, I had just written a song that I thought was a very cool song in about eight minutes while I was waiting on a ride. So, the concert went on…He was looking at me after the audience was clapping, he goes, “Damn, that’s a good one.”


We get in the bus that night…and he says, “Man, I like that song. What do you call that?” And then he kept talking about it the next day, and a few days later, and he would keep singing the chorus. One day he just says, “Man, I need to record that song and give myself some closure. It’s so catchy, I feel like I wrote that song.” I said, “Well, I wrote it while I was on the road with you. But if you record it, it would be an honor.”


We ended up recording it, which sent me into saying, “Okay. This is the first step.” So what do you do there, when you have this piece of intellectual property and you don’t really know the rules, the ins and outs of it, but you do want to succeed, but you don’t want it to outgrow you to where you can’t have your credit for it.


No matter where you are, respect your intellectual property as things can get published and be a mark that you leave. Just make sure it comes back to you. If something happens to you, if you have a family, if there is any kind of monetary benefit or something from that, then it goes to them.

How did you then go about learning how to copyright your work?

The funny one I used to hear all the time was “When you write that song, just mail it to yourself in an envelope. That’s the way you copyright something.”  I was like, “That sounds real!” And I did it.  I received a letter from myself and that’s all it did. I was like, “There’s got to be something else.” 


But I started to research it. I said, “Let me go pick up a few books on copyright.” Which was one of the smarter things that I’ve done.I remember finding one titled, The Plain and Simple Guide to Copyright and Publishing. I still see it on the websites that you can buy your books at. It’s all over the internet and it’s so cheap; worth buying anyway. It kind of guides you through scenarios of how you’re protected with copyright. 


So I’m reading these things and then I found my way to copyright.gov, which is where you copyright any intellectual property, just about. So I started with one piece of music. And it’s really kind of like signing up for anything. There’s drop menus. They ask very specific questions. And then you upload your content. You upload the music, the lyrics, and basically every part of that piece of art, and then you hit send, you review…it’s like anything else that you do when you’re signing up for something. 


So I did that, and that was a real cool step into saying, “Okay, it’s not so bad.”


There’s a fee, of course, like anything else. You end up getting the certificate, or the proof of copyright. There are things filed. There are fees associated with that. When I did it the first time, it was about $35. 


So I’m like, “Okay, well, what if I wrote a thousand songs?” So I ended up finding out that you can copyright a body of work. As long as I’m the sole writer of the work and there’s no other collaborators, then you can do that up to a certain point. I don’t know the exact limit these days, but there’s a way to get that done. And that’s what I did with my songs. And then I went and individually copyrighted the ones that were collaborations.


On a side note, I learned something in 2012 from a real good producer and master engineer friend of mine, Chris Longwood, when I was recording at Sugar Hill and putting out my second album, which was called Bridges and Bayous. He told me about the International Mastering Code, and that’s another thing that protects you when your music is distributed digitally or whatnot, where it all funnels back to you, because there is this one serial number that is unique to that one piece of work. So [say] you’re getting played in a country far away [and you never knew] you were getting lots of radio play over there. Well, it comes back to you. 


We hear those stories about people like that Singer Sixto Rodriguez, who was famous in Africa. He’s working construction in Detroit now. He was an old man when they said, “Hey man, you’re famous down here” and he’s like, “Get out of here!” There’s an old documentary about it. 

Can you talk more about the process of protecting your work when you created it in collaboration with others?

Obviously if you’re writing it yourself, then let’s just call it common sense that you should protect yourself. But with collaborations, you know, people move away, people die, people disagree, or people just will say, “That’s mine.”


I’ve been on the end of it where, from the beginning, you lay out things and you say, “I don’t want to collaborate on this unless I’m getting 50 percent.” Or let’s say you joined a band situation. You can come in and say, “Hey, I’ve written all of these songs. Here you go.” Which happens in some cases. You’re doing their music. Or if we form a band where we’re all equally responsible, creatively, then I would say to come up with some agreement that says, “Everything is down the split, four ways.”


As far as disputes and disagreements…Is the juice worth the squeeze, really? 


I’ve been in a situation where I said, “Oh, we wrote that song together” and [someone else] is like, “Well, you just did this…” Kind of like now we’re itemizing right? What are you sacrificing at this point? And is it worth it? Is this worth the disagreement and the loss, or do I stay here and continually get this treatment? Or do I resolve this on the front end next time?


And furthermore, make a contract. Put that in writing. You can do that.  


I’ve had the situation where somebody was putting together a video for a neighborhood festival that was happening, and I’m sitting there watching the advertisement for it and I’m like, “Man, that’s a catchy tune…Oh, that’s mine. That’s right. Why didn’t I hear about this?” It was copyrighted already. I took that step early on. 


I said, “Look, I’m flattered, but let’s do this the right way. Do you think that it doesn’t cost thousands of dollars to record and produce this music?” You pay money going into the studio. You pay money to your engineer,  you’re paying money to mix it, to master it, to buy those discs or whatever you’re putting out. So for it to get used just like, because it’s just there. No, that’s why we have these rules set in place.


So I hit my publisher up and said, “Hey, I have a problem. Um, somebody is using my stuff. I was not notified, like there’s been no business talk about it.” 


Luckily that was resolved. We got paid. [They can] keep using it. The publisher [takes] about half. All good. That’s the kind of ideal outcome that happens. I guess the fortunate thing is like, they were close enough in arm’s reach for me to go, “Man, come on, let’s be better.”


How important is having someone like a publisher or an agent on your side?
As important as you think it is. If you’re putting out albums, I would say, why not give those songs legs, try to get them on a commercial. Some people don’t want that [but] I would say, find some way to publish your stuff. 
Digital streams and all that… It’ll funnel in. It’s just, you gotta get a lot of plays to get anything big. Some months you log in and say, “Oh, cool I got some money in here,” but it’s not anything like other royalties. I mean, that’s why people tour. That’s why they land TV and radio spots. 
I’m currently working on an animation that’s coming out soon. I’m doing the music for that. So that’s one of those things where I’m going to create a library for, for example., and have my entire library accessible to my team. But then also, those sound effects, those little, whatever jingle jangle songs I’m coming up with for this cartoon, then they can also be used in other places. Or there’ll be the ones that this client uses. And then I have a whole set of other ones that I can shop around and maybe get some more animation work.
Are those opportunities something that you go out and find, or is that where something like a publisher or even like a talent agent becomes helpful?
Once you put it out there and you start actually searching, then things start popping up. Talent agents are good. Or, you know, the internet is full of people showing what they do professionally and if they are the types of folks that will answer you, or they have a professional contact, sure, maybe you could submit something. I use just social media. I shop around on that.  What do you have to lose to reach out to somebody?
There was a particular show that I was like, “Man, I would really love my music to end up on there. And it just sent me down a wormhole finding other music supervisors and stuff that, when I have more work, I know at least where I’m going to point it. 
Have your plan set up before you’re gonna do it. ‘Cause once you have that folder or that library of music that you wanna share, you’re gonna then want to share it.
A friend of mine, about 15-20 years ago, was always walking around with that camera of his, recording stuff, doing film projects. Then one of his friends had a tortilla company.  So they’re putting together little 30 second ads or whatever and they needed music. So that kind of put me on that path. And with all the technology we have as musicians today, we can do that at home essentially.  
That was a paid gig type of thing, work for hire, one time fee, they can use it as much as they want. I mean if, let’s say, a big beverage company were to hit me up, I probably want to work something out if this was going to be an ad that [went] on forever. 
I saw something recently about the guy, he’s a man now, but he was a young boy whenever he did the voice for the Lion King…They were going to pay him a flat rate. His mom said, “Hold on, let’s talk about this. And they worked out something that still gets him paid [to this day].”
How can you ensure your rights are adequately protected through contracts and what, in your experience, is the importance of having accessibility to legal counsel?
I’ve never signed a contract when I’ve joined a band, honestly, and I’m a quarter century into it. 
Now, performance-wise is different. I’ve signed contracts representing my entire group for a festival. So if anything happens back here, that might affect us up there, that’s on me. And I have to remember that because that’s my name on there. And if I’m the leader, I’m the one sending them their pay. So I have to handle those situations. 
Have I had to consult a lawyer for any of that? No. Cause I’m just reading carefully. And again, I’ve never had a situation that has come back [like] “I got you!” You know? We’re working with good people. We’re working with places that are established, that treat you right. 

Sometimes you [just] step carefully and hopefully it works out.

The object of the game for me was to keep [gaining] better contacts, keep playing places, and grow with these other people that were coming up with [me]. Maybe somebody is a friend that you just happen to also be working professionally with. That happens a lot because for creatives, that’s a small world.  The same people that were booking shows when I was there in my early twenties are still in the scene, still hustling, but now they’re doing another business and they’ve had the longevity that I’ve had. They just had a couple of different turns as we all have. So you remember other people are growing too, and relationships are good in the artistic community. 

If you’re not the one that wrote the contract or you don’t have [much] experience: One thing that has worked on my side, even when it was just a very minimal style contract is when you invoice somebody. That also serves to protect. There’s one version of it and we all have it. That makes it easy on you and it also keeps you legit. 
Other tips or resources before we move on to the fun ones?
The other thing is performance rights organizations like BMI, CSAC, and ASCAP. If my music lands anywhere, that’s where it’s reported to. If you’re a songwriter, start looking into that. That’s a great resource.


Now for a few fun ones. Do you have a favorite spot in Houston that inspires your creativity?

Wow. I love our city, okay. So there’s tons of inspiration here for me. I like the history that comes from the banks of the bayou. My family’s history [is] in the East End and Second Ward, right off the bayou. So Buffalo Bayou, especially since the trails are so beautiful now, that’s a very nice and healthy source of inspiration because you’re walking in the heart of your city. 


I’ve written so many Houston songs that…the city’s always inspired me one way or another. The Donnellan Crypt, Old Frost Town, the history of El Barrio de la Lacran, which was right there under where present day 59 North is. That used to be an old barrio, and I’ve written an instrumental as a tribute to that and my East End roots. 


So like, the history of the city inspires. And I’m also a big fan of books about Houston, like Sigbert’s Houston is my number one. There are places in that book that continue to exist, or let’s just say buildings that exist, that are leftovers from that book, which was published in 1950 or 55, perhaps. And, uh, that all inspires me.

I wanted to ask “If you could create a song that represents Houston, what would it sound like?” But it sounds like a lot of your songs already do!

Yeah [my songs] sound like Houston to me because I mix in country music with East Texas, South Texas, and Southwest Louisiana. That’s our region and Houston is the heartbeat of it. We’ve had the early days of Zydeco. There’s been Swamp Pop played along all Highway 90. There’s Tejano, there’s Cumbia, there’s Western Swing, Country, Rockabilly. 

So my songs…they sound like different things. My song, the instrumental called El Barrio de la Lacran, is a tango, more or less. And I don’t know that Houston’s been known for tango in a large way, like compared to the other genres, but I always felt like I created this tango Tejano. What was really cool was that I had a great Houston tango pianist, Glover Gill, play on my track when I recorded it at the historic Sugar Hill Studios. So there is history upon history. Like not only in the song itself, but in the performance too. And it was intentional.

Let the readers know where they can find more of you online!

You can find me on social media if you search “Nick Gaitan Music.” My music is on Spotify. The band is called Nick Gaitan and The Umbrella Man, and there are my two albums on there. I’m also on about five hours worth of music on Spotify from different artists, the band Los Canales, The Octanes. So that’s where else you can hear what I do and the different styles and genres that I play.

Resource Alert: Initiative to Promote Diversity in Copyright

Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts (TALA) is partnering with the Copyright Alliance to assist artists to complete the copyright registration form and cover the costs of registration for qualifying BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) creators. Don’t fit in the BIPOC category? Don’t worry. You can still get assistance from TALA volunteer attorneys to answer questions and help you complete the form.


The Initiative to Promote Diversity in Copyright (IPDC) was created by the Copyright Alliance to address the fact that although marginalized and underrepresented groups have made significant creative contributions in the United States, these groups have faced barriers to reaping the benefits of their contributions. The Copyright Alliance has partnered with TALA to provide legal and financial support to BIPOC creators who wish to register the copyright in their works. Not only are the fees covered – a TALA volunteer lawyer will walk through the copyright application with you, so you can have the knowledge to register future works.


To learn more and complete the form, click here.  Act fast! This program only lasts through March, 2024!


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