Music’s Most Powerful Attorneys: From Litigation to Performing Rights, Radio to General Counsel
All it takes for a hit career is the right mix of melodies and lyrics -- and lawyers.
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.
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
JOHN BRANCA, 64
Partner, Ziffren Brittenheim
DAVID LANDE, 48
Partner, Ziffren Brittenheim
Through a mix of strategic thinking and steely negotiating, Branca and his law partner of 20 years, Lande, have helped generate tens of millions of dollars for an A-list clientele that includes Enrique Iglesias and the estates of Kurt Cobain and, most notably, Michael Jackson, which Branca estimates has grossed “$75 million to $100 million” every year since 2009. Branca — “a huge UCLA basketball, football and baseball fan” — is also part of Mariah Carey‘s “comeback team” and serves as a consultant to Snapchat. Meanwhile, Lande, a “workout fanatic” who represents Beyoncé, Shakira and Selena Gomez, played an integral role in Justin Timberlake‘s 128-date 20/20 Experience World Tour, which grossed more than $200 million, according to Lande.
Hardest Business Lesson Learned: Lande: “There are either winners or losers; there’s no medal for effort.”
Most Treasured Possession: Branca: “I have one of the biggest vintage baseball card collections in the world.”
JOHN FRANKENHEIMER, 69
Chairman emeritus, Loeb & Loeb
Don’t think for a minute that Frankenheimer’s chairman emeritus role means he rests on his laurels. The attorney for Quincy Jones Productions and Diana Ross (among many others) brokered a deal in April for client Superfly Productions to sell a controlling interest in the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival to Live Nation for an undisclosed price. While Live Nation took control of the storied festival, Superfly gained the resources for future growth. “I’ve worked with the Superfly guys for well over a decade,” says Frankenheimer, who booked college concerts early in his career. “It’s very gratifying to see them realize this kind of economic success and industry recognition for what they helped build over the last 14 years.”
Reason to Boast: “Recognition of the [firm’s] music group by American Lawyer [in a] survey of our peers and major companies throughout the music industry. I take a lot of satisfaction in that.”
GARY L. GILBERT, 68
Co-chairman, entertainment and media practice, Manatt Phelps & Phillips
Gilbert’s got the beat. He has helped his 450-lawyer firm dive deeper into the EDM world this year with the hiring of David Rappaport, 38, who brings such high-profile clients as Diplo and his Mad Decent label to the firm and will oversee the growth of Manatt’s music transactional practice in New York. Next up, Gilbert — a Long Beach, Calif., native who represents Death Cab for Cutie, Dixie Chicks and Foreigner, among others — heads to London this fall with fellow attorney Jordan Bromley to expand across the Atlantic. “Maybe we’ll affiliate with an English firm,” he says. “We think that’s very fertile ground.”
Hardest Business Lesson Learned: “Clients can be gullible and not know who to listen to. You’ll be at a point where a guy says, ‘Hey, this is what my gardener says my royalties should be.’ Your gardener?”
ERIC GREENSPAN, 65
Senior partner, Myman Greenspan Fineman Fox Rosenberg & Light
AARON ROSENBERG, 38
Senior partner, Myman Greenspan Fineman Fox Rosenberg & Light
Working on The Grateful Dead‘s farewell shows in Chicago earlier in July, Greenspan’s career had come full circle — back to a show he promoted as a Duke University student in 1971 with the Dead, The Beach Boys and Paul Butterfield. “Everything in my career dates back to that,” he says. Greenspan negotiated deals with SiriusXM and YouTube, among others, for the Dead’s concerts. Rosenberg, nearly three decades younger, shares his colleague’s passion for his clients that include John Legend, Jennifer Lopez, Jason Derulo, Meghan Trainor and Justin Bieber, who was 13 when they met. Recalls Rosenberg of Bieber, “He was into skateboards, video games and had that great hair. He’s just as kind today as the day we met.”
Greatest Recent Accomplishment: Rosenberg: “My first child, Gabriel, was born in January.”
Any More Dead Shows? Greenspan: “This is not a Kiss farewell tour [lasting] for 10 years.”
ELLIOT GROFFMAN, 61
Founding partner, Carroll Guido & Groffman
Groffman has an affinity for the live music business — credit his years growing up on the Jersey Shore, where he hired a young Bruce Springsteen to play at his high school in 1969. He later represented Springsteen as a partner at Grubman, Indursky & Schindler before teaming up with law partners Rosemary Carroll and Michael Guido to form their eponymous firm in 1998. Today, the Greenwich Village resident no longer represents Springsteen but is the attorney for the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam and Kanye West, among others; indie labels like Beggars Banquet Group; concert promoter The Bowery Presents and Coran Capshaw of Red Light Management. “You look for what’s real in our business,” he says. “It’s not just about closing deals.”
Reason to Boast: “Some of my favorite memories are of Bruce and his early bands. You knew this guy was going to be a rock star — and he has always been my rock star, long before The E Street Band.”
ALLEN GRUBMAN, 72
Partner, Grubman, Shire & Meiselas
KENNY MEISELAS, 58
Partner, Grubman, Shire & Meiselas
If any attorney has mastered the art of playing both sides of the coin, it’s Grubman, who started out representing superstars like Elton John and Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s and went on to add top-ranking executives (UMG chairman Lucian Grainge) and corporations (MSG, Live Nation) to his client list. What does he miss about the old days? “The laughs, the fun, the characters,” says the married father of two adult children. Meiselas has carried Grubman’s legacy forward, representing an impressive roster of veterans (Usher, Lady Gaga) and newer stars (Avicii, The Weeknd). Potential clients get “my own eye-test evaluation,” he says. “Is this somebody who has the potential to be a true superstar?”
Greatest Career Accomplishment: Grubman: “There aren’t many law firms that are 40 years old — forget entertainment firms. I’m proud of that.”
Best Business Mantra: Meiselas: “In the words of Allen Grubman, ‘It’s not about the money, it’s about the money!’ “
JOEL KATZ, 71
Chairman, global media and entertainment practice, Greenberg Traurig
BOBBY ROSENBLOUM, 46
Co-chairman, Atlanta entertainment and media practice, Greenberg Traurig
Katz, whose client roster of stars across genres includes Pitbull, Gregg Allman and George Strait, has added sovereign states: He now represents the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, for a venue management deal with AEG, and Gabon, where negotiations are underway with Berklee College of Music and the Grammy Museum to build Africa’s first music university. Closer to home, for Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records, Katz negotiated a renewal of a distribution pact with UMG. Of his negotiating style, the father of two (and grandfather of four) says, “I like people to feel that any transaction we did was good for both sides.” Rosenbloum’s client roster includes digital upstarts and big names like Slacker, Samsung, Deezer and GoPro. Recent success stories include negotiating on behalf of rapidly growing social network Flipagram and SoundCloud’s new subscription service. The industry’s next biggest challenge, he says, is keeping investors interested in services where the long-term profit is now squeezed tighter than ever: “We need to be more focused [on] the preservation of the [music] ecosystem. Distribution was pretty mundane [before]. Now, it’s become the future.”
Most Treasured Possession: Rosenbloum: “A custom Les Paul guitar given to me by Les and Henry [Juszkiewicz, chairman/CEO of Gibson Guitars] after closing some deals for them.”
Greatest Career Accomplishment: Katz: “When Dallas Austin was arrested in Dubai [in 2006] with some form of drugs, the punishment was hanging. I folded up my law practice for four months and concentrated on getting him out of Dubai [with a pardon]. That was the most important thing I’ve ever done, because saving a life is more important than making a dollar.”
DINA LaPOLT, 49
President, LaPolt Law
When LaPolt set out 15 years ago to open her own law firm, “People said, ‘You can’t do it; you’re a woman who’s never done that before,’ ” she recalls. No one doubts her now. From her first deals on behalf of the estate of Tupac Shakur, LaPolt has gained a reputation as an artist advocate who represents the likes of Steven Tyler and Deadmau5. A native of the Hudson Valley college town of New Paltz, N.Y. (“I saw Joan Jett & The Blackhearts in the late ’70s at The Chance Theater in Poughkeepsie”), LaPolt is married to RCA vp promotion Wendy Goodman. Known also as an outspoken defendant of songwriters’ rights, LaPolt was a featured panelist discussing copyrights at MIDEM in June and the 2014 ASCAP Expo.
Greatest Recent Accomplishment: “Getting my kids into preschool in West Hollywood,” says the mother of twin toddlers with a laugh. That feat, she says, was “way more complicated than getting Tupac’s masters back from Death Row Records.”
DONALD PASSMAN, 69
Partner, Gang Tyre Ramer & Brown
Passman has done more than most attorneys to share his knowledge with aspiring artists as author of All You Need to Know About the Music Business, now in its eighth edition (with a ninth on the way). “There were a lot of changes with digital rights and performing rights organizations,” says Passman, a married father of four (including son Danny, who is an attorney at his firm). Passman has represented clients including R.E.M., Taylor Swift, Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. “I’ve been privileged to be involved in the largest record deals ever made, and we were able to reshape a lot of [contract] concepts and put it out there so anyone can do it. That’s more interesting than a routine deal.”
Most Treasured Possession: “My grandfather’s fedora. It’s a Stetson from the 1920s or ’30s with silk linings.”
PETER PATERNO, 64
Partner, King Holmes Paterno & Soriano
“You’re only as powerful as your clients,” says the notoriously press-shy Paterno, who has represented Dr. Dre and Metallica for decades and credits his career breakthrough to taking on Guns N’ Roses in the 1980s. “I went from being a service lawyer to representing one of the biggest bands in the world — they got huge, and I became talented,” he jokes. In fact, the seduction of this Los Angeles native by the music business goes back even further, to The Doors‘ infamous show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968, which Paterno attended as a teen. “I was even at Altamont — that was an interesting experience,” he deadpans. These days, it’s clients like Pharrell Williams and Iggy Azalea that keep him busy — not to mention the 2014 sale of Beats to Apple for a reported $3.2 billion.
Reason to Boast: “Working with Dr. Dre in connection with all the deals he’s been involved in has been very gratifying,” he says.
LEE PHILLIPS, 77
Senior partner, Manatt Phelps & Phillips
It’s a safe bet Phillips does know “the way to San Jose” and can tell “Alfie” what’s it all about. In 2014, Phillips negotiated the sale of lyricist Hal David’s share of the Burt Bacharach/David catalog to BMG Rights Management for a reported $42 million. The deal marked the end of an era, says Phillips, with very few individual catalogs of such importance still available. The New York native, who now lives in Santa Barbara, is the attorney for superstars like The Eagles and Barbra Streisand. Less than two years ago he helped broker the deal granting the rights to Brian Wilson‘s life story that turned into this summer’s critically acclaimed film Love and Mercy. During his tenure at the firm, he has seen it grow from 50 lawyers to 450 and expand into health care law, environmental law, advertising law and more. He notes that music contracts have grown complicated since he started practicing more than 50 years ago. “It’s a big fight over a pot that looks smaller per unit — you’re talking about pennies — but a lot of usages,” he says. “It’s a different kind of business.”
Reason to Boast: “Mentoring young lawyers in the law and practice in the music industry is something I am proud of.”
PREVIOUS: GENERAL COUNSEL // NEXT: LITIGATORS / PERFORMING RIGHTS & RADIO
RICHARD BUSCH, 50
Partner, King and Ballow
MARK I. LEVINSOHN, 58
Founder, Levinsohn Associates
Busch won a surprise jury decision in the “Blurred Lines” copyright infringement case and $5.3 million in damages for the estate of Marvin Gaye, sharing credit with Levinsohn, the Gaye family’s transactional lawyer. But was the victory really unexpected? Consider Busch’s track record. “We’ve had manya jury verdicts and victories that are important in the area of copyright law,” says Busch, a married father of three. He previously won landmark victories regarding the need for licenses in music sampling (Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films, 2005) and the treatment of digital downloads for determining royalty payments (Eminem’s F.B.T. Productions v. Aftermath Records, 2010). With “Blurred Lines” songwriters Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams appealing the verdict, Levinsohn hopes he might cite a settlement “as next year’s greatest accomplishment.”
Most Treasured Possession: Busch: “I was nearly killed in a bike accident in September 2013, and I received the most beautiful, handwritten get-well note from James Taylor and his wife, Kim.”
Never Get on a Plane Without: Levinsohn: “Good headphones.”
RUSSELL FRACKMAN, 69
Partner, Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got out of law school,” says Frackman, who joined his firm after graduating cum laude in 1970 from Columbia University’s law program. “I sort of fell into doing what I do.” Two key mentors (litigators Arthur Groman and Howard Smith) and 45 years later, Brooklyn-born Frackman is one of the country’s top intellectual property litigators. In 2001, he was the lead lawyer representing the music industry in its successful precedent-setting suit against Napster. “We established the principle that uploading/downloading sound recordings via the Internet was actionable infringement,” he notes. In June, Frackman won a $210 million settlement from SiriusXM on behalf of ABKCO Music & Records, Capitol Records, Sony Music Entertainment, UMG and WMG in a class action suit regarding royalty payment for use of pre-1972 recordings.
Greatest Recent Accomplishment: In February, he received the Entertainment Law Initiative Award from the Grammy Foundation for his career work. “Of all the various awards I’ve been given, that’s been the high point.”
HARVEY GELLER, 56
Of Counsel, Gradstein & Marzano
HENRY GRADSTEIN, 59
Partner, Gradstein & Marzano
Following SiriusXM’s settlement in a related case involving payment to major labels for use of pre-1972 recordings, Geller and Gradstein hope the radio giant will conclude their similar suit on behalf of The Turtles, who seek royalties for their pre-1972 hits. “Our case laid the groundwork for that [June] settlement,” says Gradstein. He and Geller were the first to bring an action in California that established a performance right for pre-1972 master recordings. While The Turtles‘ Howard Kayland and Mark Volman won summary judgment in California and were granted class action status, the trial on damages awaits. The artists also won in New York, but SiriusXM has appealed and, in Florida, SiriusXM was granted a summary judgment. On July 8, Gradstein filed to have the $210 million SiriusXM payout held in an account under the court’s control, saying that the award was “a brazen attempt to interfere with the class action process” that he and Geller began in their suit on behalf of The Turtles.
Most Treasured Possession: Gradstein: “My grandfather’s gold watch from Poland. He escaped the Warsaw Ghetto with it. I have been wearing it since I was a teenager.”
When Not Working: Geller: “I’m watching sports and playing poker.” (His wife, Shari Geller, blogs about poker and politics, and is the author of Fatal Convictions: A Novel of Revenge.)
PREVIOUS: GENERAL COUNSEL / TALENT LAWYERS // NEXT: PERFORMING RIGHTS & RADIO
BETH MATTHEWS, 47
Prior to her January jump to CEO, Matthews had been executive vp/general counsel of the performing rights organization since 2013. She previously spent nearly 15 years in the top legal role at Viacom Media Networks. At ASCAP, Matthews has been driving the effort of the organization to have the Department of Justice revise the outdated, 75-year-old consent decree that governs how ASCAP does business, affecting millions in performance royalties paid to songwriters and publishers. Matthews — a married mother of two who favors Twizzlers and Diet Coke at work — also was lead counsel in the rate court case in which Pandora won a decision to pay 1.85 percent of its revenue to ASCAP. Matthews declared the ruling “reaffirms what we already know: The ASCAP consent decree and rules that govern music licensing are outdated and completely out of step with the way people listen to music today.” With Clara Kim named new ASCAP general counsel in May, Matthews leads an organization in transition, following a six-year strategic plan that Matthews helped write when she first arrived at the organization.
When Not Working: “Travel and good wine. My mother continually tells me I have no hobbies.”
STUART ROSEN, 56
Senior vp/general counsel, BMI
Rosen, a two-decade veteran of BMI, enjoyed one of his greatest wins for the performing rights organization in May, when a rate court ruled Pandora must pay 2.5 percent of its revenue for its blanket BMI license. Pandora had sought to pay no more than 1.85 percent (the rate it obtained in a separate rate court case involving ASCAP). The victory, says Rosen, involved “the whole BMI team and will have ripple effects that will be beneficial for songwriters and publishers” throughout the music industry. (The team celebrated with eight dozen cupcakes that put the office “into a sugar coma,” says Rosen.) The Brooklyn native, who is married with two adult children (“My family photos are all over the house”), also leads BMI’s efforts to have the Department of Justice revise its consent decree that dates back to 1941. Like ASCAP’s, the decree severely limits the flexibility of the organization to license performance rights to music to new digital services. DOJ actions on the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees are expected within the year.
When Not Working: “I like walking around the city with my wife, grabbing a bite to eat and going to a concert.”
Greatest Career Accomplishment: “Spending 20 years at BMI and moving up through the ranks. I ended up working where I love being.”
CHRIS HARRISON, 47
Vp business affairs, Pandora
The head of business affairs for a music publishing company calls Harrison “the evil genius behind Pandora’s effort to lower rates.” But Harrison says he is just one of a team that puts together Pandora’s rate strategies — although he concedes, “I am the public face of those efforts.” Those legal strategies have included Pandora’s 2013 application to buy a small radio station in Rapid City, S.D., to gain a lower performance royalty available to terrestrial broadcasters for webcasting. Pandora achieved mixed results in recent rate court actions in New York aimed at minimizing performance royalties it pays to ASCAP and BMI. Harrison was a key witness in both trials.
Role Model: “My father was an orthopedic surgeon who started a rehabilitation hospital that he sold to HealthSouth. He took that money and started a charity called Cure International, which operates hospitals in a dozen countries around the world.”
PREVIOUS: GENERAL COUNSEL / TALENT / LITIGATORS / PERFORMING RIGHTS & RADIO
Contributors: Ed Christman, Leila Cobo, Frank DiGiacomo, Thom Duffy, Andy Gensler, Shirley Halperin, Andrew Hampp, Gail Mitchell, Melinda Newman, Glenn Peoples and Ray Waddell
This article first appeared in the July 25 issue of Billboard.