ICE phishing and ass-kicking were among the topics raised by music attorney Dina LaPolt today at the Recording Academy’s 21st Annual Entertainment Law Initiative lunch Friday afternoon (Feb. 8), where she accepted the organization’s Service Award from client Steven Tyler, who had some messaging of his own.
“Dina LaPolt is only the second woman in 21 years to receive this award. WTF comes to mind,” said the bad-boy Aerosmith frontman. The event was a female-empowerment double-header, a first in the history of ELI, with a keynote speech delivered by Buckley Sandler’s Tina Tchen, head of the Recording Academy’s diversity and inclusion task force.
LaPolt, legal counsel for the Songwriters of North America (SONA) and prime mover in passage of the Music Modernization Act last year, fought back tears as she talked about her client, 21 Savage (Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph). The rapper has been “unlawfully detained” at an ICE facility in Atlanta since his arrest last Sunday (Feb. 3). LaPolt’s voice cracked with emotion as she shared that “76 percent of black immigrants are deported because of over-policing and racial profiling in black communities.”
“As a lawyer it is my duty to advocate for clients,” she continued, “but as a person the hardships I have faced in life have [instilled] in me a need to advocate for those who do not readily have a voice to advocate for themselves.”
In a speech that leaned in on personal integrity and helping others, LaPolt quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., stating, “Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about things that matter.” There can be nothing more difficult than “just helping people expecting nothing in return, or getting involved because it’s the right thing to do, especially when not getting involved is easier or more lucrative.” LaPolt’s first high-vis professional feat was helping Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni, access royalties and recordings held by Interscope and Universal. That, as well as the many hours LaPolt spent fighting for the MMA were emphasized by LaPolt and through video testimonials, demonstrating that the 52-year-old attorney has lived her values.
LaPolt described her long journey from a firm of four to employing nine attorneys. Over the years, her three guiding principles have not changed: “The first is to be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” Second, “always get the contract signed and quickly. I know in this room that is not traditional,” she said prompting laughs among an audience of label execs, including Sony’s Julie Swidler (the first woman to receive the ELI Service Award, in 2016), Universal’s Jeffery Harleston and Warner’s Paul Robinson, each EVP and general counsel. Lastly, avoid conflicts of interest: “That was the hardest because the more relationships I formed the more people wanted to hire me, including record companies and publishing companies.”
Having crafted a career mainly as a transactional talent attorney, tunesmiths found a special place in LaPolt’s practice — and her heart. “Songwriters like me around the world who had long been silenced and denied the compensation and true recognition of our work have finally been heard because Dina LaPolt never took no for an answer,” Tyler said in welcoming LaPolt to the stage. “We won the battle and the long, dirty war. Your work and resilience continues to push me, this industry and the world so far forward.” He closed his introductory remarks with what had the ring of a new meme of endearment: “I love us!”
Thanking Tyler for the introduction, LaPolt choked back sobs, calling him “a great friend and a great partner in recovery,” then pivoted to a more lighthearted turn. She recalled how at their first meeting, “he said, ‘I love your purse! Turn around,’ and I thought, ‘He’s for me!’ If I wasn’t a lesbian I’d be married to Steven Tyler.” LaPolt’s actual wife, RCA Records SVP Wendy Goodman, looked on good-naturedly and chuckled with the rest of the room.
Her association with Tyler began in 2009 when the singer was in rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic and LaPolt visited every Sunday for over two months. On release, he recalled driving “straight to her office, in desperate need of advocacy and advice,” and someone to craft his America Idol deal. LaPolt, herself a recovered substance abuser, had been sober for 11 years by that time, and Tyler found her “a New York pistol, a woman after my very own heart.” She went on to briefly manage him, “but I drove her batshit crazy.” It must have been crazy in a good way, because they’re still together. “Today, I don’t work with dishonest, abusive assholes,” LaPolt said, prompting claps and whoops. “This is a business of peaks and valleys and when you’re in a valley you want people who pull you up, not push you down.”
For those who look to her as a role model, LaPolt had special advice. “I want to encourage every woman in this room never to second-guess yourself or question your instincts,” she shared. “If the strategy feels wrong, it most likely is wrong, so speak up. Do not be intimidated because you’re a junior lawyer at the company or not a partner at the law firm.” People respect those who have a point of view and are confident in themselves, she added, urging “jump in! And if anybody emotionally abuses you or gaslights you, call me and I’ll kick their f–king ass!”
LaPolt was followed to the stage by keynoter Tchen, former chief of staff for Michelle Obama and now a Chicago-based partner at Buckley Sandler. Tchen, who works extensively with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, said the org has had more than 4,000 women — two-thirds of them low-income — seek help for workplace sexual harassment across 60 industries. Tchen then cited a 2015 EOC study indicating two-thirds don’t report, “and they probably don’t because that same study says of those who do report, three out of four were retaliated against for coming forward.” Tchen’s conclusion: “We need to holistically change the culture, and that means not just our offices and shop floors, but our recording studios, songwriting sessions and tour buses.” Tchen gave a shout-out to the Recording Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow for his role in recruiting her for the Academy’s diversification efforts.
The proceedings started by acknowledging the winner of the ELI student writing competition, UCLA’s Cameron Berkowitz, along with runner-up Asha Madhukar, who won $10,000 and $2,500 scholarships, respectively. Atlantic Records EVP Business and Legal Affairs and ELI executive committee chair Michael Kushner announced four new committee members: LaPolt, Laurie Soriano of King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano, Epic Records SVP Business and Legal Affairs Stephanie Yu and Sony Music Senior VP Business Affairs and Deputy General Counsel Wade Leak.