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Universal Music’s Jeff Harleston Honored with 2020 ELI Service Award: ‘We Need to Embrace Change’

The Recording Academy presented Universal Music Group's Jeff Harleston with the 2020 Entertainment Law Initiative Service Award -- the annual honor that celebrates attorneys who have "demonstrated a…

The Recording Academy presented Universal Music Group’s Jeff Harleston with the 2020 Entertainment Law Initiative (ELI) Service Award — the annual honor that celebrates attorneys who have “demonstrated a commitment to advancing and supporting the music community through service” — in a ceremony held Friday afternoon (Jan. 24) in Santa Monica.

Prior to taking the stage at the event held at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows, Harleston, the company’s worldwide general counsel and executive vp of business & legal affairs, was praised by Universal chairman and CEO Sir Lucian Grainge, who called him a “brilliant attorney with an ear for talent and a mind for business.”

“He’s also a man who never forgets that — beyond any transaction — it’s ultimately the artists who matter most,” he continued. “As Jeff knows, it’s their talent and their work that actually inspire fans from generation to generation.”


Also lauding Harleston was rapper Common, who provided voiceover for a video tribute that highlighted Harleston’s early career accomplishments, including his work as part of the independent counsel investigating the Iran-Contra scandal and subsequent pivot to music, where he rose up the ranks after first joining MCA Records in 1993. The rapper additionally underscored Harleston’s history of charitable giving, including spearheading a UMG fund that provides financial assistance to R&B artists of the ’50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

“Jeff, I just want to congratulate you and say how significant you’ve been to this music industry, to executives, to us artists,” said Common, who worked with Harleston while signed to MCA/Geffen, via video. “What you’ve done for my career, I just want to say I’m more than grateful. It was such a monumental time and a pivotal time, and you really stepped in and knew each aspect and side of what the artist needs and what the label needed. You were able to translate that and give it to us straight up.”

Upon taking the stage, Harleston kicked things off by remarking on the one thing that has eluded him — “an invitation to Clive’s party,” he quipped — before reminding the crowd he has been at the same company for nearly 27 years (MCA was renamed Universal Music Group in 1996). He went on to praise members of the UMG management team including Grainge, Boyd Muir and Jody Gerson; his UMG legal team; and his wife and four children, who were not on hand. (“I’m not sure what that’s about,” Harleston jokingly remarked of their absence.)

After giving thanks to his fellow lawyers (“I have benefited from the collegiality that you have shown,” he said), Harleston remarked on the rapidly-changing industry and called on those in the room to embrace it. 

“We don’t need to just embrace change in our business,” he said. “We need to embrace change in our companies, we need to embrace change in our law firms, we need to embrace change in our institutions. Embrace is really the word, because only through change will we continue to grow and evolve. The only reason our business is strong today is because we figured it out. We didn’t run from it; we didn’t stick our head in the ground. We figured it out.”

In his conclusion, Harleston drove the point home by noting that he is the first African American to be honored with the ELI Service Award in 22 years, while 2016 recipient Julie Swidler was the first woman. “We are examples of change, of evolution,” he continued. “It’s fine. We are in the midst of change as we speak, but I know we are strong and resilient, and we will get through it. When we come out the other side, we will be better, we will be stronger, and the world will be great.”

Friday’s event additionally honored the winner of this year’s Entertainment Law Initiative Writing Competition Christopher Chiang for his paper “Copyright Protection Designed for Music’s Illusory Innovation Space: A Sliding Scale Framework of Broad to Thin Protection,” along with runners-up Graham Fenton and John Gilbertson. Also featured was a panel discussion on California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) moderated by the Recording Academy’s Daryl Friedman and featuring panelists Jordan Bromley, Ari Herstand and Morgan Kibby.