Michael Reinert on Streaming Deals, Fighting Cancer and Why Copyright 'Ownership Is Not the Holy Grail'

Jenny Regan
Michael Reinert photographed in his office on Jan 22, 2018.Behind him is the Swedish poster for the Mel Brooks movie “The Producers.” 

The legal affairs veteran is the recipient of this year's Entertainment Law Initiative Service Award.

When Fox Rothschild partner Michael Reinert receives the Entertainment Law Initiative (ELI) Service Award at the organization's 20th annual event Friday (Jan. 26) expect him to be more entertaining than most honorees: he may be the first who has written and performed two one-man shows. Both are about his experience as a multiple myeloma patient, which he mines for both pathos and humor.

"I don't go into the gory details but I talk about the emotional pain -- it's laugh-'til-you-cry kind of stuff," says Reinert, 60, who has an original Swedish movie poster for Mel Brooks' The Producers, hanging in his office.

Reinert worked in business and legal affairs for Universal Motown Republic Group for more than a decade, most recently as executive vice president; now, at Fox Rothschild, he represents independent recording and publishing companies, as well as artists like Stevie Wonder. At the ELI lunch, which will be held at New World Stages and feature New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a speaker, Reinert plans to discuss, among other things, how streaming has revolutionized music.

"We've lost the concept of ownership," Reinert says. "I must have three different versions of the Allman Brothers 'At Fillmore East' because technology allowed us to go back to the consumer and sell the same product again. But people of a younger generation are no longer as interested in having it, collecting it, touching it."

Reinert sat down with Billboard recently to talk about legacy artists, being a theater geek, and why owning your own copyrights might actually be overrated.

Congratulations on being honored with the ELI Service Award. How did you feel when you found out about it?

I was surprised and humbled. If you look at the list of the original recipients – Don Passman, John Frankenheimer, Joel Katz, Russell Frackman, John Branca – these are guys who were established leaders when I came into the business.

You're on the ELI executive committee -- how did they keep this a surprise?

I kept saying, 'We have to pick an honoree,' and I couldn't get anyone on the phone. Finally, I get a call from [Atlantic Records Executive Vice President, Business & Legal Affairs] Michael Kushner: 'Schmuck, didn't you put two and two together? The reason you weren't in the meetings is because you're the guy.'

It's a very exciting time in music law: There's a copyright reform process and a potential change in the way mechanical royalties are distributed, plus the whole industry is becoming a streaming business. What are some of the most significant legal issues the business faces now?

It worries me that Spotify could have the same dominance over streaming that Apple has over downloads, although it does have competition in a way Apple didn't. But the most important issue is this concept that upends the traditional concept of copyright. The idea that Spotify is questioning whether a mechanical license applies [to on-demand streaming] is outrageous to me. And terrestrial radio should be paying for music -- especially when you look at the same station paying for the same broadcast when it's online.   

One of your major clients is Stevie Wonder. How important is streaming for legacy artists like him?

Very. I have friends with younger kids who are really into what their parents are listening to -- whether it's the Allman Brothers or Bonnie Raitt or Yes -- and they're discovering that music through streaming. Streaming is so important to legacy artists – just not necessarily for the legacy audience.

The 1976 Copyright Act allows for creators to get their work back -- a process called 'reversion.' How are you advising your artist clients to approach that?

Record labels seem to be having a harder time dealing with this than publishers, which have a more progressive view. But the downside of a master reversion is, 'Be careful what you ask for.'

How so?

What will you do with it? If Warner or Sony or UMG has had your catalog for 40 years, they understand it. So you're going to give it right back -- on better terms. Also, if you're only getting back a piece of the catalog, it can be hard to exploit as well as the whole thing. So what you often see is a renegotiation

I have a position that's somewhat sacrilegious: Ownership isn't the Holy Grail. Being able to control how your intellectual property is used can be more important than owning it -- you don't want anyone to schlock your product. So what I often tell my clients is -- and I used to say this at the label, too - focus less on what you own and more on what you control: Synch, branding, sampling. There's such an emphasis on owning something, but you can't always monetize it as well as you can with a partner.

The legal position of the major labels is still that master recordings aren't subject to reversion, right?

Yes, and it's very expensive to litigate these things. So there's a cost-benefit analysis in how far to take the argument -- especially if you can get what you want, which is a better deal. In the negotiations I know about, neither side conceded the legal point -- it was, 'You argued this, we argued that, here's what we're going to do.' It's going to be interesting when it finally gets adjudicated.

Now that the recorded music business is growing again, how are label contracts evolving? Are you still seeing a lot of interest in "360 deals?"

The 360 concept wasn't the panacea the music industry thought, and the labels' attitude is, 'We get it -- we can't make that kind of land grab anymore.'

Since on a per-stream basis streaming still brings in a negligible amount of money, a lot of managers are saying they'd rather have a share of profit than a royalty. That's after recoupment -- if there are profits. You're betting long. It's more prevalent in the indie label world, where they can't pay big advances.

You have multiple myeloma and you're on the board of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.

I'm nine years, six months, and eight days since diagnosis. I went though a cutting-edge chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant, and then I had a relapse about a year and a half ago, but I'm back in remission.

The Foundation runs an annual gala where we've honored Stevie [Wonder], Clive [Davis,] Elie Wiesel, Tom Brokaw. And every year I produce the show -- we've had John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, and Earth, Wind & Fire. This year we honored Monte and Avery Lipman and had Tony Bennett perform. It's a labor of love and I do it for one simple reason: Here I am.

And you turned all of this into a one-man show?

Before I became a lawyer, I was a theatre geek and I've always wanted to be an actor or a writer. For many years, I dabbled as a playwright with the group Naked Angels and I wrote a scene for them where the first line was, "A lot of things went through my mind when I found out I had cancer." And the creative director said to me, 'If you keep writing this, I'll direct it.' So I kept writing scenes throughout my initial chemo and eventually it became my first show, "So Tell Me, What Can I Do?" We did four nights at Playwrights Horizon. Then, two years ago, I did another one, which was more professional: "So Tell Me, How Are You? Because You Look Great!" I just started writing another one: "So Tell Me, Are You Still Here?"

That sounds dark.

That's OK -- I write it as it comes to me.