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Lessons on Lawyering Up in the Music Biz

For a minute, forget about the “Blurred Lines” verdict, the lyrics and whether or not you love Marvin Gaye.

The New York Times just ran a profile on Richard S. Busch, the lawyer who won the $7.4 million case for the Gaye estate.

In explaining how he did it, Busch says something I hope all artists caught:

“By being on the outside,” he said, “everyone who hires me knows that they get 100 percent of my loyalty.”

Why is that noteworthy? Because there’s an assumption that you can hire an entertainment attorney—that’s the guy on your side, remember—and not get 100 percent of his/her loyalty.

It’s pretty hard to win a legal battle with a lawyer who might not be riding with you. You’d think loyalty was a given, but, as Busch casually explains it, that’s not the case.

Did you catch it? The Times did, and went on to explain:

Many top entertainment lawyers see themselves primarily as deal makers, whose connections to both artists and the studios and record labels that hire them are often viewed more as synergy than as conflicts by those involved. And even the tough-minded litigators among the core firms seldom push against the status quo quite as aggressively as someone like Mr. Busch.

Meaning: Your big shot lawyer has a better relationship with the people on the opposing side of the bargaining table than he does with you. He’s probably got other deals going on with those same people, and whatever issues you have in a negotiation may not rise to a level where those relationships need to be bothered.

Because, seriously: How many deals will you make in a lifetime? In contrast, how many deals will an attorney make? How many will a label make? How many will they make with each other? And who’s got the lowest number, there? Well, it’s you, fellow artist.

So, the potential upshot at a bargaining table is that you are a) the one creating the product, b) the one paying the fees, and c) still the least important person in the room.

How, in that too-comfortable climate, can your needs best be served? How will outrageous, or simply outdated, deal points ever be challenged, when no one but the smallest guy in the room stands to benefit?

What is the point of having a lawyer who has no incentive to lawyer up?

And what does that mean for an artist when they are looking for an attorney?

In his industry bible, All You Need to Know About the Music Business, author Donald Passman gives some guidelines on picking a team. (Fellow artists: If this is a book you don’t own, stop everything and read it.) A few of his points that resonated with me:

First: Is your music even ready to start looking for representation?

Before looking for teammates, you have to be able to live or die based on the music you make. (You and your team may be asked to do just that.) When your song comes on in a lawyer’s office, and you have a twinge in your gut to give disclaimers—“This is a rough mix,” or “My dog barked in the middle of the second verse, just ignore that part”—then you’re not quite ready. Get the music ready.

Ready? Then start checking references.

Busch’s comment is a good reminder that everybody knows everybody, so whomever you have on your team comes with industry baggage. Rummage through that baggage.

Do other artists like him? Ask them why. Ask the successes, but also ask the non-successes.

Do other lawyers dislike him? (That can be a sign of respect.)

Does he or she do any advocacy work? (As in, do they take the time to walk the walk on behalf of artists like yourself?)

Have they been out to a show lately? Not just yours—anybody’s? (The real question is whether they are plugged in to what is presently going on. Are they aware of market trends, and can they contextualize you within them?)

How big should I go?

Passman goes into detail on each member of your eventual team, but to paraphrase loosely, there are three basic types:

  • 1. A big shot who can change your life with a phone call
  • 2. A midsize guy who will work late for you
  • 3. A little guy who will kill for you
  • Any of them can work, but as Passman implies, passion can trump experience, and a true champion, at any level, is something you can’t buy.

MY LEGAL DISCLAIMER: I’ve made good deals and bad deals in my life, and getting legal advice on the Internet (from me) is as smart as diagnosing yourself using Google, but I’ve come to understand how rare passion is, and that applies to your lawyer as much as it does to your drummer.

It’s a passion business. And it’s hard to stay passionate when it’s so comfy on the inside.

Find passion.

Mike Errico is a very talented acoustic and electric guitarist and also a gifted and insightful writer and teacher. More from Mike Errico at

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