Trisha Yearwood

Founder and co-president of Vector Management Ken Levitan, Trisha Yearwood, and executive VP of business affairs/general counsel Julie Swidler attend the Trisha Yearwood: The Song Remembers When exhibition opening at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on June 30, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum

All it takes for a hit career is the right mix of melodies and lyrics -- and lawyers.

Never has the role of legal advisers in the music business been more crucial, as opportunities for the use of an artist's songs expands with new ­business models -- and complaints about the ­misuse of copyrights wind up in court.

In the past year, disputes over music rights have grabbed public attention and headlines in the mainstream press, whether inside the courtroom (the $5.3 million "Blurred Lines" verdict) or on social media (Taylor Swift's challenges to Spotify and Apple Music).

Disputes like these fill the days of the 26 ­lawyers in this report -- chosen for negotiating the hottest opportunities for music's biggest stars and the newsworthiness of their recent actions -- ­including in-house counsel, talent representatives and litigators.

GENERAL COUNSEL

JEFFREY HARLESTON, 54
General counsel, executive vp business and legal affairs, North America, Universal Music Group

Harleston is the top lawyer at the world's ­largest music company, where he's a 22-year veteran and right hand to UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge. A music dealmaker at heart -- he personally handled Tori Kelly's pact with Capitol Records -- Harleston lately has been focused on streaming and data deals, such as UMG's January partnership with Havas Group to form Global Music Data Alliance. "I call them 'deals of first impression,' " he says, "meaning it's something we've never done before. It's all being created from whole cloth." As the Boston native and father of four continues to hammer out UMG's digital future, he says the music industry must regain its "swagger" from the tech firms by coming together: "We're spending far too much time bickering among ourselves." In February, he was honored by the John M. Langston Bar Association, the African-American bar association in Los Angeles, as its attorney of the year. "To be recognized by [my] peer group was really special for me."

Greatest Career Accomplishment: Building a UMG legal team that's "smart, strong [and the most] diverse in skill set, race and gender that you'll find in the industry."

 

PAUL ROBINSON, 57
Executive vp/general counsel, Warner Music Group

WMG may be the third-ranked label group in market share, but thanks to Robinson's efforts under CEO Stephen F. Cooper, it's often the first major to ink deals with streaming services -- SoundCloud, Apple Music and Vessel among them. Improving transparency for digital payouts among WMG artists is a priority, too, following the company's $11.5 million settlement for a class action lawsuit, led by Sister Sledge, over digital download royalties, and its newly announced policies to ensure full accountability for streaming payments. "I was one of the architects of that policy, and something I'm very proud of," he says. Robinson, a 20-year veteran of WMG who lives in suburban Manhasset, N.Y., declares: "We always need to be on the same side of the page as our artists."

Greatest Recent Accomplishment: "The Apple [Music] deal. Our team worked all through the night [before the service's June 30 launch] to get that finished. So we all have high hopes that Apple will be a great competitor in this space and turbo-charge the paid subscription model."

 

JULIE SWIDLER, 57
Executive vp business affairs/general counsel, Sony Music Entertainment

New music services can be made or broken by the involvement of Sony Music's roster, and Swidler has spent the past year finalizing deals with Tidal, Apple Music and YouTube's forthcoming Music Key, as well as yanking Sony songs from SoundCloud while the service finalizes its monetization strategy. This summer she has seen Jamaican reggae artist OMI climb the Billboard Hot 100 with "Cheerleader," a result of the 2013 deal she cut between Sony and Patrick Moxley's Ultra Records. Swidler -- who cuts job stress by swimming "anywhere I can: a pool, lake or ocean" -- credits Sony Music CEO Doug Morris for her continued drive. "He is such a fierce competitor that it makes our company very competitive," she says. Her latest task? Making weekly trips to Sony Nashville -- home to artists from newcomer Chase Rice to veteran Trisha Yearwood -- where she was helping lead Sony Nashville prior to the July 8 appointment of Randy Goodman as the label's new chairman/CEO.

Hardest Business Lesson Learned: "Flexibility, ­flexibility, flexibility. I could wake up and think I am going to work on five things and then come to work and be faced with some other emergency."

 

NEXT: TALENT LAWYERS / LITIGATORS / PERFORMING RIGHTS & RADIO

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