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A-List Lawyer Joel Katz Talks James Brown, Negotiating for Jon Platt and Why Labels Are Adding Moral Clauses for Execs

The veteran attorney reflects on working with James Brown, negotiating for Jon Platt and the future of the music biz.

Joel Katz is widely known as one of the top attorneys in the entertainment industry. As it turns out, the founding chairman of the global entertainment and media practice at Greenberg Traurig also officiates weddings — including marrying Sandbox Entertainment founder Jason Owen and his husband, Sam Easley. “I do a great wedding,” says Katz. “Believe me, you’d cry.”

It’s a wonder that Katz, who starts his day at 5:30 a.m., has time to handle nuptials, given that he represents many of the top executives in the music business, as well as The Recording Academy, Antonio “L.A.” Reid‘s Hitco, the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba and the Michael Jackson estate, for which he is co-general counsel. In 2018, he took 47 trips, roughly 25 percent of them out of the country, and brokered a 10-year, $250 million deal with Univision for the Latin Recording Academy. He continues to serve as chairman of the board for the T.J. Martell Foundation and, in one of the most talked-about deals of 2018, negotiated longtime client Jon Platt‘s deal to exit Warner/Chappell Music to become chairman/CEO at Sony/ATV Music Publishing, a role Platt will assume on April 2.

The Atlanta-based Katz, 74, grew up in the Bronx, but headed south to attend the University of Tennessee Law School on a scholarship while working nights at a Holiday Inn. (The law library at UT now bears his name.) The divorced father of two settled in Atlanta, but makes frequent trips to Nashville, Los Angeles and New York. He spoke to Billboard about his recent successes, the record industry’s return to prosperity and his future plans.

You helped Jon Platt get out of his deal at Warner/Chappell, where he had almost two years left on his contract. Why did they let him leave?

The people at Warners are really good people and they understood the opportunity for Jon; and Jon, frankly, had the discussion with [Warner Music Group] at the highest of levels. I can’t take credit for any of that.

Joel Katz
“I was Michael Jackson’s lawyer when he died,” says Katz. “Michael was much more personable and more a real human being than people gave him [credit] for. He called me ‘Roosevelt’ because I was supposed to make all his new deals.”  Raymond McCrea Jones

What’s the significance of his hire at the world’s biggest publishing company?

It shows that our business is finally recognizing excellence and not barring deserving individuals, which is great.

Last year you negotiated a new 10-year deal with the Latin Grammys and Univision for an amount said to be $250 million. Did you learn anything from negotiating the Recording Academy’s 10-year Grammy deal with CBS in 2016 that helped?

I really believe in long-term contracts for television for music because most of these organizations are non-profits and they need the stability. The television license fee is very, very important in terms of the amount of money they will receive toward their overall budget. With the Latin Academy, they receive the license fee and the costs of the show are [covered] by Univision. It gives the Latin Academy the [opportunity] to really grow and spend money on a variety of things, both charitable and to advance Latin music all over the world.

As general counsel to The Recording Academy, you are part of the search for a new chief executive to replace Neil Portnow, who will retire in July. How is that going?

They have a committee of Recording Academy trustees who are supervising that search with [executive search firm] Korn Ferry. I don’t believe they’ve had more than four to five meetings. I don’t think this is going to finish until summer.

Joel Katz
“I was Michael Jackson’s lawyer when he died,” says Katz. “Michael was much more personable and more a real human being than people gave him [credit] for. He called me ‘Roosevelt’ because I was supposed to make all his new deals.”  Raymond McCrea Jones

Is there a focus on hiring a woman or a person of color?

I can’t tell you whether it will be a white man, a black man, an old man or a woman. Hopefully it will be the best person who could lead the academy. That should be the qualification.

The music industry — especially the labels — have begun to thrive again. How is that affecting executive contracts?

Executive deals differ from company to company, [but] streaming is putting so much more income into the hands of these companies [and] enabling more artist signings. As more money is generated, I believe bonuses will grow for executives. Salaries are already fairly high right now in both publishing and records. The key element is the bonus.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, are labels putting moral clauses into executive contracts?

There’s language being added in terms of the behavior of executives. If you’re an executive in this business, you’re going to be held to a higher standard than perhaps you were 10 or 15 years ago.

Is that what labels need to do to protect themselves?

I don’t think it’s just a matter of protecting the labels, but being good to your employees and creating a [quality] environment. You should want to create that kind of environment and there should be more opportunity and diversity in terms of people who are participating in this business. It shouldn’t be just a white man’s business.

Joel Katz
From Willie Nelson’s cannabis line. “I worked for Willie as his lawyer for over 40 years,” he says. “There’s no marijuana in the package. It’s not legal in Georgia.” Raymond McCrea Jones

What percentage of your clients are minorities?

We have many. Remember, we’re in the Latin business, we’re in the executive business, we’re in a variety of businesses, like the hip-hop business. Our clientele is very broad. We live in Atlanta. The ruling class in this city is African-American.

The first artist contract you negotiated was for James Brown in 1971. What’s the biggest thing you learned from him?

Patience. He was very patient. He was one of the smartest people I ever met. He wasn’t educated; he had a doctorate of street-ology. [Laughs]

You’re close to a lot of politicians, including former Senator Orrin Hatch and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD). What could the music industry learn from the world of politics?

Survivorship. People can have long careers if they learn how to change and learn how to react to how the world really is — and our music business is a microcosm of the real world. Be very open-minded because the world is always changing, and be adaptable. Be willing to learn from different cultures. Just because people may live in a different culture doesn’t mean they aren’t better than us at many many things, or aren’t as smart as we are or as developed as we are, they’re just different.

What part of the business do you see becoming most important in the future?

The most important element is management. That unique relationship between the manager and the artist — which will, in the next 10 years, greatly expand in terms of what they own, how they own it and how they deliver that content to the companies that stream, market, promote and sell the content — will be the whole key to our business.

Will labels be less important?

No, they’ll just be different.

Joel Katz
Guitar from George Strait’s “final tour.” Raymond McCrea Jones

Your firm acted as legal adviser for Hitco, with Raine Partners acting as its investment banking adviser. Is there a lot of money out there?

There is more money out there than there has ever been. For the first time that I’ve ever seen in my 50 years in this business, investment bankers are interested in music. The intellectual property that’s being created has become important to them, which it was not up until recently.

You represent so many of the top record executives, acts and companies. What’s the best way to avoid conflict of interest?

It’s very hard. Even though all of us don’t want conflicts, we get them — and we try to get them in writing, signed off upon. But you kind of can’t win. You do the best you can and you’re honest and disclose any conflict that you know of. You know, many clients come to you because of the conflicts you have — if you represent not the record label, but a substantial amount of that record label’s executives, you know that label very well because you know the people who are doing the work.

What do you wish the new crop of lawyers knew that you know?

Don’t do everything you do for money. Give back to the organizations that are good, get involved with the City of Hope, with T.J. Martell. Help people do things. It will make you a better lawyer, it will make you a better person, and you will rise in the community of this business.

You turn 75 this year. Do you think about retiring?

I think about retiring. I think you can do different things in your life and make meaningful contributions to many different things based on the experience that you have, and I’ve gotten 50 years of experience in the recorded arts, music publishing and media business. I know I’m going to work in some way [in the future]. I don’t ever want to be sitting watching a television set or sitting in my movie theater just watching movies. I want to be doing things that have some value to other people besides me.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 16 issue of Billboard.