What Does Commercially Acceptable Mean in Music?

Musicians recording music. Credit: Blend Images - Andersen Ross / Getty Images

The term "commercially acceptable" is a term of art, a word or phrase that, in a specific, legal context --  in this instance, artist contracts with record labels  --  has a particular and well-defined meaning that differs from what the words ordinarily mean. Unless you've run into the term before, perhaps in a contract you've signed with a label, "commercially acceptable" probably doesn't mean what you think it means.

Here's what it really means and what it doesn't.

Why "Commercially Acceptable" Appears in Recording Contracts

To understand the term a little better, it helps to understand two common circumstances that prompt its appearance in contracts in the first place.

  1. Often by the time the artist and her label come to the end of a multiple-album deal, the balance of power between artist and label has changed. The artist may have dissatisfactions, and so may her label. She may already have signed a new recording deal with another label offering better terms. Yet, it's almost always the case that before the artist can leave the label and record for anyone else, she has to deliver the final album specified in the original contract. The artist may be tempted to hand in abandoned demo tracks instead of her newest, best work.
  2. Other artists may begin a multiple-record deal recording "radio-ready" tunes. As the artist matures he may be attracted to music that only college stations might play. Herbie Hancock's first album with Warner Bros, for example, was 1974's "Fat Albert," a tuneful and funky collection appealing to a wide audience. But Herbie's interests changed. His last album for Warners, "Crossings," was deeply Afrocentric and electronically avant-garde. It had only three tunes, the longest lasting nearly a half-hour. Warners at first rejected it as not commercially acceptable. Only after Hancock's producer argued for its validity did Warner Bros accept it -- and even then only grudgingly. 

    The Labels' Defense

    The requirement for "commercially acceptable" music in a musician's contract means that if the artist's musical direction changes in almost any significant way during the contract period, the label has the right to reject the resulting record.

    From the label's point of view, the "commercially acceptable" requirement rises from actions by artists that arguably violate the spirit of the recording agreement, as in the examples above.

    What About Artistic Freedom?

    Artists don't like the "commercially acceptable music" requirement because it can make it difficult to grow and change. Artists of every genre -- Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Glenn Gould -- all changed directions to the great displeasure of their labels, and in every case that new direction resulted in both new growth and greater popularity; in other words, the change actually was "commercially acceptable." But a "commercially acceptable" requirement in the artists' contracts could have prevented these breakthrough albums from being released.

    What "Commercially Acceptable" Means in Your Contract

    If you're being offered a recording contract and it contains the "commercially acceptable requirement," you may want to discuss the issue with your attorney. If it's your first contract, your bargaining power is limited. Your attorney will weigh the advantages and disadvantages of opposing the label over it.