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Music Attorney Julian Petty on Biggie, A Tribe Called Quest & Childish Gambino’s RCA Deal

How one music lawyer went from aspiring rapper to attorney to some of music's biggest stars.

For a place with a population under 10,000 ­people, the ­village of Amityville, N.Y., ­carries an outsize ­reputation. For some, it’s The Amityville Horror, the book and film from the 1970s; for others, it’s the wave of crime in the 1980s that turned it into a ­microcosm of the drug war ­tearing apart the ­country. For music attorney Julian Petty, Amityville was the breeding ground of a hip-hop scene that was both ­sanctuary and a way out, and which shaped the ­decisions that would take him to the ­highest reaches of the music industry.

“I remember hearing De La Soul‘s first single, ‘Plug Tunin’,’ as a demo,” says Petty, 40, now a partner at Los Angeles-based law firm Nixon Peabody ­representing the likes of Childish Gambino, A Tribe Called Quest, Vince Staples and the estate of The Notorious B.I.G. “I ­remember seeing Rakim driving around with his pearl-white Benz. Prince Paul was a local legend, and he lived a couple of blocks over. Hip-hop was just omnipresent.”

That immersion led Petty to a brief local rap career and then, during a ­summer break while studying at Howard University, to an internship at Def Jam in the mid-’90s, where he witnessed ­firsthand how heavily involved attorneys were in the everyday operations of the music business. “I felt like urban artists weren’t schooled on what was in their deals,” he says now about the experience. “So I just thought that if there was ever anything I could do about this, one day I would.”

A few years later, while working at AOL, Napster’s digital revolution ­captured his attention. While in law school at Fordham University, Petty came across a copy of Black Enterprise magazine with attorney L. Londell McMillan on the cover; a cold call to McMillan’s office led to an internship, and then his first job as a music-business attorney after graduation. “He had Prince, Stevie Wonder — the crème de la crème,” recalls Petty. “He gave me a shot and had me working on Michael Jackson deals. I mean, shit — how can you be mad at that?”

Julian Petty, 2018
Public Enemy hip-hop figurines.  Peter Bohler

Now, over a decade later, Petty has turned that experience into a thriving practice with artists both established and new. He most recently cut the deal for Gambino’s move to RCA Records in January, which was announced just days before he won his first Grammy Award for best traditional R&B performance at the Jan. 28 event. Petty spoke to Billboard about his early days as a music attorney, ­navigating deals in an evolving industry and this year’s Grammys.

What was your introduction to music?

Rakim, EPMD, De La Soul, Public Enemy, all of these folks were from Long Island, and I remember either seeing them or being exposed to them in some shape or form. I had a colorful ­upbringing; my mother was a heroin addict who was in and out of my life, my father was also a drug addict and an alcoholic who was in and out of jail. So this music that I ­connected to and wanted to become part of was escapism: I was in the middle of it, but it also helped me see beyond the ­craziness going on.

What did you learn from Londell?

He exposed me to high-level executives and managers, so it was a great ­education. To read those deals, see how they’re structured and what the A-list can get, then at the same time get brand-new ­artists. I was educated on the importance of artist advocacy and artists’ rights. Londell also litigated. Most people don’t want to do that, because everybody’s friends and you want to still get the next deal.

Julian Petty, 2018
A Sprite can that included famous Notorious B.I.G. lyrics as part of the Obey Your Thirst campaign; client Staples was also part of it.  Peter Bohler

What were some of those first deals you were working on?

Michael’s Mijac catalog was being ­administered by Warner/Chappell, and there was a period of time in which we were renegotiating that deal and I was pretty much acting as the administer of Mijac, which was bananas. If you could just imagine the number of synch requests that the Mijac catalog gets every week, it is just crazy. My first week as an intern, Londell’s entire office was immersed in [Prince’s 2004 album] Musicology — it was the tour, the album, the marketing around it. I learned the importance of not just being a paper lawyer but being a team member. Another big one was Thriller 25, the re-release of Thriller, which included new songs and videos, and that was an experience; I think Londell and Julie Swidler must have been talking about 10 times a day during that period. Those were the types of things that a kid in law school and just out of law school was exposed to.

What challenges exist in entertainment law now?

The structuring of a typical record or publishing deal is still there, but it’s almost out the window. Things are moving so fast that if you are not pushing the envelope or finding a way to stay on the forefront, you’re doing a disservice to your client. With branding, you want to make sure you’re aligning with the right partners. That’s almost as important as the deal. So we spend a lot of time getting to know the partners, making sure you’re not doing a deal just for a check. Vince Staples has done an incredible job with the number of partnerships, but they also make sense, between Coke and Levi’s and Converse.

Julian Petty, 2018
Poster for A&E’s Notorious B.I.G. documentary.  Peter Bohler

How did Childish Gambino’s RCA deal come together?

I met Donald [Glover] and his team close to three years ago, and they were ­looking to make changes on a number of levels. And what struck me was just how ­thoughtful he and his team were about this process and about identifying the right partners for his vision. A lot of guys are like, “Who’s going to cut me the biggest check?” With him, the numbers were the last thing we talked about. Of course we wanted to make sure it was an extremely competitive deal; we structured something very unique that was about ­maximizing value for both partners. There were three main players: Atlantic, Interscope and RCA. This is no hit to Interscope — [John] Janick is incredible, Joie [Manda] is incredible — and this is no hit to Atlantic — Julie [Greenwald] and Craig [Kallman] are both incredible. It just really came down to what RCA is doing. They saw the vision and we thought they could really execute on it.

What other deals have you worked?

I’m still happy that we did the Tribe-Epic deal. Those are some of my childhood heroes, and to be able to play a part in helping them release their first record in 18 years in a deal that was structured where they have true equity, that to me was important. I got to do some right by some of my childhood heroes. We also closed and aired the first estate-endorsed documentary on Biggie on A&E. That ­little kid who wanted to rap in Amityville is now helping launch a Biggie ­documentary, helping A Tribe Called Quest launch their final album, helping Slick Rick — you can’t write that stuff, man.

Julian Petty, 2018
Gold plaque for A Tribe Called Quest’s comeback album.  Peter Bohler

What trends are you monitoring?

We’re all riding high right now because of Spotify, but the existing model they have is not sustainable. There have been a number of initiatives they’ve made in terms of outreach to artists and doing more things directly or through ventures with other tastemaker executives in the industry. I haven’t seen any of those really turn into anything. But I’m curious to see this IPO and see what other things they’re doing. They’re just losing money. The thing that’s making us all happy and that we’re all cheering, it’s the same thing that we need to figure out how it’s gonna make money.

There’s also definitely a challenge in the music industry with respect to the pipeline for black executives. Which is interesting when you think about the impact of the music that is being sold, because a lot of that is urban music and black culture. You can’t just have a few folks there. You have to do a better job. We’ve gotta figure that out.

One of the biggest trends I see is more artists choosing to go the indie route, especially since there are so many sources of financing nowadays — brands, crowdsourcing, venture capital. My colleague Carron Mitchell has a client, Brent Faiyaz — literally every label has tried to sign but him and his team are successfully navigating the indie route. They invested their own capital, they handle accounting through Stem, they’ve leveraged the hell out of Brent’s feature on Goldlink‘s “Crew.” I can’t find a compelling reason for them to go to a major at this point, and this is the same dilemma that more and more artists are going to wrestle with.

Julian Petty, 2018
Limited-edition “Awaken, My Love!” vinyl with VR headset allowing fans to access exclusive content from Glover’s Pharos festival. Peter Bohler

What did you think of the Grammys?

Dave Chappelle giving Tribe a shoutout meant a lot. I can’t believe JAY-Z didn’t get an award; 4:44 is an incredible body of work. It was good to see Donald win some hardware; that was an incredible record that resonated with a lot of people. I don’t think he makes art to get accolades, but it’s still great to get them. Did you see that performance? It was incredible. Come on, you didn’t know he had that falsetto in him live. He made Madison Square Garden feel intimate.

How can he build on that now?

Peter [Edge] and those guys over there, they know marketing, promo and radio very well. I think he just has to deliver the records, and then we just build with them and maximize. This is just progression and growth and experimentation. The musicianship is there, the creativity is there, the live performance is there. When [Rob] Stringer and Edge put the machine behind it, it’s going to be crazy.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of Billboard.