Corner Office: Power Lawyer Kenny Meiselas on EDM's Giant Paydays, the Industry's Streaming Standoff and Guiding Gaga

Matt Furman
Kenny Meilselas, Partner, Grubman Shire & Meilselas, photographed at Carnegie Hall Tower in New York City on Oct. 21, 2014.

While most music attorneys are thought to be hipper than their buttoned-up colleagues in corporate law or litigation, you'd be hard-pressed to find one with the cool cred of 58-year-old Grubman Shire & Meiselas partner Kenny Meiselas. From the way he landed his first major client, Puff Daddy (by getting the then-19-year-old aspiring mogul fired from a project); to how he met his wife of 11 years, former publicist Beth Katz (Jennifer Lopez and Puff, then a couple, helped make the match), with whom he has one child; and his more recent notoriety as a viral video star who saved his young daughter from being trampled by a 200-pound basketball player at a game ("Diddy & Lady Gaga -- Our LAWYER's the Toddler-Saving Hero from the Bulls Game," read a TMZ headline from December 2013); Meiselas, dad to three sons from a previous marriage, by his own admission, "has a story for everything."

That's thanks in large part to an impressive array of music clients he has accumulated during two decades in the industry, including Nicki Minaj, Usher and Avicii. But it also comes with the territory -- specifically, working with veteran entertainment attorney Allen Grubman, 72, who has famously represented the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and David Geffen as well as MTV, DreamWorks, Facebook, OWN and HBO. Today, the firm, which Meiselas joined in 1997 (Larry Shire is also a partner), represents hundreds of clients. Its unifying creed: being "in the superstar business." Meiselas, a native of Plainview, N.Y., who attended law school at Hofstra, is himself a faithful subscriber.

Who was your first client?

The Exciters were a group from the 1960s whose song "Tell Him," was used on the soundtrack for The Big Chill and they had not been compensated. So they came to me, and I was trying to break into the field, so I embraced it and turned over every stone until I found where the money was coming from. And I was able to get the group paid. Two years later, Cory Rooney, whose mom was the lead singer of the Exciters, and his friend Prince Markie Dee had a group called The Fat Boys, but they aspired to become serious songwriter-producers and wanted out. So I was able to get them out of the deal and their first project was on Uptown Records for an artist named Father MC. The 19-year-old A&R-ing the record was a guy named Puff Daddy.

Was that how you first connected with Puff?

I got him fired from the project so that Father MC could control and A&R it himself. Well, with all respect, the world hasn't heard of Father MC since, but Puff came to me a couple months later and said, "I like the way you did that, will you represent me?" It's been 20 years now.

Many of your clients have branding and endorsement deals, but sponsorship was once a dirty word among music artists…

Look, even back in the days when record companies made million-dollar videos, you could be on the phone screaming for a big budget and then you'd have another artist who didn't believe in videos. There are artists who want their fragrance deal, their clothing line, their spirits deal, and then there are those who, if I even brought up something like that, they would never talk to me again. So you really have to know your artist and what their goals are.

At the same time, we need to understand the economic realities of music because they've changed. It used to be, you went on the road to sell your record. Now, you can put out a record for free or at a reduced price and be able to make money touring, selling merch, getting endorsements from Pepsi, Coke, a mobile company ... that's all part of it.

Also, if you're going to be doing a deal for someone to be a judge on American Idol or The Voice, or a movie, like the one Usher just started with Sugar Ray Leonard and Robert DeNiro, another client of the firm, you need to have great film and television lawyers. For this reason, several years ago, Allen had the vision  to diversify the firm. My partner Larry Shire heads the film, television and theater department at the Firm and also represents athletes and models such as LeBron James and Kate Upton in their branding and licensing endeavors. Diversification into all aspects of entertainment and media representation is what this firm is really all about."

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You started working with Allen Grubman in 1997, what's the best advice he's given you?

To figure out a way to make people come together and to close the deal. Nobody makes money if a deal is not closed. And I think one of Allen's greatest talents over the years has been the ability to get a superstar artist or even company A and B to find a way to work it out.

How does that play out when a new artist explodes and looks to renegotiate a standing contract?

You fix the contract. It happens routinely, because historically record companies have been very good about recognizing that that no new artist agreement will ever compensate fairly based upon future success. So we'll work out a deal which can correct and improve the royalties, provide advance payments, [raise] entire levels of compensation.

What happens when a client and a manager split up, as Lady Gaga and Atom Factory's Troy Carter did in 2013, and what's your role?

You get calls from people you've known for many years and those you don't know at all. For an artist at that level, everyone's interested. I'll be straightforward with folks if an artist is going to start an interviewing process. Gaga wasn't looking to make the change in that way. She had a great relationship with Bobby Campbell, who had been working with her previously at Atom Factory [and is currently representing her]. My goal in that situation is to understand what the artist is looking for going forward.

Several major artists have deals that are about to expire, including Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and your client, Usher. What are the expectations on both sides when it comes to re-signing?

I've never known a record company to treat an artist unfairly at the peak of their career. But in the last five years, virtually all deals include 360 rights, which makes it difficult in the case of an artist who the label only has record rights to. Take Usher's contract -- he's on his last album and the label [RCA] desperately wants to keep him but they don't have any 360 and Usher's not going to give them any. So we have to see if we can figure it out. Mary J. Blige's contract ended and we figured it out -- she switched within Universal Music Group, where she always had a great relationship with Jimmy Iovine. But Jimmy's no longer at Interscope, and now she's with Capitol and about to have a big Grammy moment.  

With recorded music declining as much as it has, and artists complaining that they don't make enough from streaming, how do you navigate that?

The industry's going to figure it out. There are some great leaders addressing the issue. Lucian Grainge at UMG is very focused on this, as is Sony's Doug Morris, the veteran who's experienced everything in this music industry, and Stephen Cooper and the folks at Warner Music. Everybody understands that streaming and the move away from acquiring and owning to subscription is the future of the business. It has to be an approach similar to the movies -- where something is out for pay and ultimately available on subscription. But there has to be window when it's not available for free. I'm confident that we'll get it right. All the talk, the articles in Billboard, the Taylor Swift-Spotify situation, it's an attempt to figure it out and get it right. Remember: at first it was denial and sue everybody. Then it was, make deals with everybody. Now it's, make smart deals with everybody.

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Irving Azoff, on behalf of his Global Music Rights publishing clients, is threatening YouTube with a billion-dollar lawsuit alleging the company hasn't properly licensed songs for streaming. What's your take?

Irving is right. The issues with all of these companies -- Pandora, YouTube, SoundCloud and so on -- need to be resolved in a way that's fair to both the record labels and the artists and not the digital companies who are streaming and/or playing the music without appropriately compensating. It's the most urgent matter facing the music industry. Irving, who is a genius, is 150 percent right on this one and needs to be supported.

You were an early cheerleader for EDM and represent several top DJs, including Avicii, Axwell & Ingrosso and DJ Snake. Is the genre here to stay?

For the foreseeable future, yes. People said rock'n'roll would never last, then people told me hip-hop will never last. And I said, "Yeah, that's what you said about rock'n'roll." But EDM has been internationally an important type of music for a long time. It might be harder for the older generation to relate to, but every kid has a computer. And every kid can be a DJ or an EDM star. It's really an extension of who they are and what they do.

Are the giant paydays -- $1 million a night to DJ in Las Vegas -- justified?

They're justified because the DJs draw the crowd -- and those people spend a lot at the casino. Also, if you've ever seen an Avicii crowd, it's a good-looking, money crowd.

A video of you went viral last year when you saved your nine-year-old daughter from being trampled by a Bulls player at a Knicks game…

As soon as the ball was tipped off the backboard, I saw it coming, so I immediately started to grab her. It was just a quick, immediate reaction. I was captain of my high school team, so I kind of had the basketball instincts to know. When it went viral, I was just happy that I did the right thing, otherwise it could have been really embarrassing. [Laughs]

A version of this article appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of Billboard.