This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Owen Sloane, Attorney; Chair, Entertainment & Media Group - Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane, ALC
Owen Sloane is a pretty smart cookie.
A partner in Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane in Marina del Rey, California, he is, in fact, one of the most highly respected attorneys in the entertainment industry.
The former Los Angeles office of Berger Kahn re-formed as Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane, ALC in Aug. 2009 with Sloane and Leon Gladstone heading up the entertainment department.
The firm handles a diverse range of complex litigation, insurance, business and corporate, professional liability, aviation, labor and employment, bankruptcy, real estate and trials and appeals.
An expert in copyrights and intellectual properties, Sloane’s clients over 40 years have included top-name entertainers, publishers, record companies, managers, producers, and songwriters.
His client list over the decades is impressive.
The list includes: Elton John, Kenny Rogers, Chris Daughtry, Suzanne Vega, Bonnie Raitt, Jeffrey Osborne. Roseanne Cash, Olivia Newton-John, Fleetwood Mac, the Judds, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Donna Summer, Joe Cocker, Barry Manilow, Leon Russell, Rickie Lee Jones, Steve Winwood, and Rob Thomas.
Sloane continues to oversee legal matters for the Frank Zappa Estate, and has handled the Harry Warren Estate.
Sloane advises and represents clients dealing with talent contracts as well as recording and production, music publishing, distribution, music licensing, sponsorship, song placement, merchandising, and live event agreements.
He also represents clients on copyright and intellectual property matters, and on varied issues relative to the internet.
Sloane also serves as an expert witness and litigation consultant in disputes involving contracts, copyright, calculations of royalties, recording and publishing, music industry custom and practices. He has testified as an expert witness in over a dozen court cases.
Sloane is an honors graduate from Cornell University (with a B.A. in Government) in 1962, and an honors graduate from Yale Law School in 1965. At Yale, he graduated Order of the Coif, earning a Juris Doctor degree. He was also a member of the Yale Law Review.
He has served on the board of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and the city of Los Angeles’ Grammy Host Committee.
The music industry is in flux today. A litigious time as well?
Oh yeah. (The industry is) in transition. That’s what the problem is. Nobody knows how it is going to shake out in the long run. So, everybody is scrambling and trying to do the best that they can under the existing circumstances. But things are so much in flux. The old traditional methods are just not the easy way to do it anymore.
Today, aren’t there major artists quietly fighting to regain their recording catalogs?
Yes. I think that a lot of the major artists that are branded are waiting for their contracts to run out. They aren’t going to re-sign (with their labels). They are going to do it themselves. Once they have a branded name, they don’t really need the record company anymore.
Right, like the Eagles don’t really need a label.
I don’t think so. I think that it is just a matter of time until an indie breaks through to sell quantities (of product) large enough to be significant. The relevance of major labels today is more in the pop area where acts do need radio; they do need the machine; and have to spend a lot of money. But a lot of the indie and rock acts don’t really need a label.
You know, the two major strengths that the labels had were: One, they pretty much controlled radio with all of the promotion and marketing people. To get on big radio, an act needed to have a connection with a major label. But today, radio hardly ever breaks acts anymore. Most people find acts through the internet, blogs and that kind of thing.
The second strength was that the major labels controlled physical distribution. It was very difficult to get into stores if you weren’t distributed by a major. Today, music doesn’t really sell at retail anymore. We have Wal-Mart and a few major (retail) people selling records, and they are making direct deals (with artists). So the power base of the majors has been destroyed by the changes in the business. So what are they offering?
Few significant acts have been created by major labels in recent years.
You take the big explosion of Lady Gaga. She did a lot of that (build-up) before she got to Interscope. They helped blow (her career) up. There’s no question about it. But she’s a phenomenon, and it’s a whole different situation with her. But, if she came with demos, and made a deal with a major label, I don’t think she would have made it. In fact, she had deals before.
[Lady Gaga initially signed with Def Jam Recordings at the age of 19; and was dropped after only three months.]
Artists used to be on the hook for 10 albums in signing with a major. What are the majors seeking today?
Usually, three to five albums. Some still hold out for more. It depends on your leverage. If it’s a brand new (act), they want more, obviously. People don’t think of long term careers. So you can sometimes get away with three to five albums. The old days of 10 albums and all that are gone.
Record company contracts are better today in giving artists a higher royalty, but they are worse in the technicalities of royalty calculation. Labels are trying to develop other sources of income by doing different deals—360 degree or whatever—to get other rights. In doing that, the labels risk alienating artists.
Unless labels supply value in other areas in which they are taking money from the 360 degree deal, they are basically slitting their throats. It’s a desperation move. It basically says, “We are going to grab money from whatever other sources that you are making it from. But we aren’t going to add anything to that.”
The theory is, “We’ll break you as a recording artist; therefore everything else is more valuable to you.”
There’s a logic to that, but I think that it is a flawed logic. The fact is, that their business is not in the other areas. I remember years ago, when I was negotiating a deal with Jerry Moss at A&M, I said, “The royalty is very low. It’s hard to get much money out of the records.” He said to me, in all seriousness, “You don’t expect to make money off of the records. You have everything else.” He said, “We make the money off of the records, and we give you your career.”
Berry Gordy Jr. would make that argument at Motown.
With 360 degree-type deals, could major labels run afoul of anti-trust laws? MCA had to divest of its booking agency in the ‘60s.
It depends, I suppose, on what they are doing. If they are just taking cash participation out of other areas, I don’t think that raises the issue. If they are signing those areas exclusively, and they are becoming a full service kind of (company,) I suppose it’s possible. I’m not an anti-trust expert so I can’t really answer that question. But, I think that in an industry that is having trouble, and they are offering a full type service, it may be okay.
At this point, most of them are grabbing. Warner Bros. (Records) has a good merchandising operation, but most of the others don’t have anything. All they are saying is, “Pay us a percentage.”
[In order to acquire a controlling stake in Universal Pictures in 1962, MCA president Lew Wasserman was forced to dissolve MCA's talent agency—which represented most of the entertainment industry's biggest names—by the Department of Justice, as owning both the movie studio and a talent agency would violate anti-trust laws.]
Conflicts of interest have gone on for decades in the music industry.
Yeah, but not at a major label level. When I first started practicing, labels used to like to make publishing and record deals at the same time.
They would cross-collateralize the contracts.
Exactly right. Then, their leverage shifted and labels got out of forcing people to make publishing deals. Now, we are sort of back in the situation where they are not necessarily forcing you to make a deal for other (revenue) areas, but they are requiring you to pay a percentage of the income on the theory that they are generating (future revenue). That they are making it possible for you to become a big arena act, because of what they are doing in the record area.
Labels have come to believe there is not enough money in records.
To me, that’s an admission of the fact that their core business is not a profitable business, and that they can’t figure out how to make it a profitable business. The only way that they are trying to solve their problem is by saying, “Give us participation in everything else.” But, there’s a flaw in that. If your basic core business is not profitable, and you are not diversifying into actually providing services in other areas—that you are just taking money from other areas—that’s a serious admission that you have a serious problem with your core business.
Labels once wouldn’t sign a singer/songwriter unless he signed with their affiliated publisher.
That stopped a while back. The only time they would throw that in was when you said the record deal wasn’t enough. They would say, “We could put you in touch with our publishing people and they might make a deal on the publishing side.” But they never forced the issue.
Why can’t American lawyers get rid of the three-quarter controlled composition clause in recording contacts?
It’s very tough. Again, it’s a question of leverage. That used to be a (negotiation) trick too. They would say, “Well, if you make a deal with our publishing company, we will pay a full rate. Otherwise, you will get a three-quarter rate.”
[The controlled-composition clause permits a record company to lower or put a cap on the number of musical compositions on a physical album for which a label is required to pay a full mechanical royalty.]
The three-quarter rate is still in effect in the U.S. for physical goods.
It depends on the leverage (of the act). Sometimes, the (labels) aren’t sticklers. They have resigned themselves on paying on ten times whatever the stat rate is. Those deals you can make, if you cap at 10 (songs).
The misuse of music has always gone on. Today, people often don’t consider all of the rights in starting new music ventures.
Sometimes people will come to me with a business plan or an idea. I will call attention to certain (legal) things and they will say, “Oh yeah, I thought that was the case. But how much am I going to have to pay?” The biggest misconception is what constitutes “fair use.” People will always think that they can get the use of copyrights for free, because they think that it is a “fair use.” It is a very misunderstood concept. It doesn’t apply to most of the things that people think it applies to.
[Under United States copyright law, one of the rights accorded to the owner of copyright is the right to reproduce or to authorize others to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords. This right is subject to certain limitations. One of the more important limitations is the doctrine of “fair use.” The doctrine of “fair use,” developed through court decisions over the years, has been codified in section 107 of the copyright law. The distinction between “fair use” and “infringement” may be unclear, and not easily defined. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.]
Music copyright is so much more complicated today.
Well, it is because you have so many potential usages and outlets for music that need to be cleared, that it is a lot more complicated. It is not just radio airplay or a phonograph record (use), and there are different rules that apply for different kinds of usages. If you digitally stream something it is one thing, as opposed to if you download it; and, if it’s permanent versus a temporary download. It is very complicated to clear the rights.
Online music services and others argue that the music industry has made clearing rights too complicated.
Well, it wasn’t us. It was partly the law, and it is also partly the attempt to accommodate different interests. It is all the result of compromise. The people who are the users of music versus the suppliers of music go to Congress and the legislatures in the different countries, and they try to work out some kind of compromise. When you have a compromise like this, it obviously becomes complicated. It’s not just an easy solution, because they try to accommodate a lot of opposing interests. I think that is part of (the legal scenario).
The basic concept is that, "if people use music, they should be paying for it," is there. It is just a question of how much should they pay; how do you calculate it; and what usages—whether there’s a compulsory license or whether you have to negotiate the usages. But those are all the results of compromises.
Also the music industry was very slow to react to the digitalization of music.
Oh yeah, absolutely. They were taken totally by surprise. The Napster thing was a shock to most people.
How should the music industry have handled Napster in 1999? Day one, should labels and publishers have said, “This is great. We want in,”?
Absolutely. I said that from the beginning. When you see that there is a demand among consumers for a service like this, the approach is not to stifle it and try to prevent it, and try to do away with it, because, you know, the consumer is always right. [Napster) had what, 80 million subscribers at one time? If they could have turned that into a $10 a month subscription service, it would have had a $800 million a month business which is $9.6 billion over a year.
That’s a big money pool to participate in.
And, if you are running a company like Napster, you don’t really have to take much out of the pot to run your operation. You are making money from other things. Basically, the royalty participants would have shared in the bulk of (monies). However, the response was, “Let’s stop this.” Instead of saying, “We could build this pool to a point where it could be so significant that we would have a big amount of money to split.”
The funny thing was that the big companies—who had the most to gain from that kind of a subscription service, because they have deep catalogs and would get the lion’s share of the money out of it—they fought it tooth and nail. They should have been the first ones to say, “Hey, if we are participating in a pool where we’ve got a real deep catalog, we are going to get more money than the guy with one hit.”
As well, a $10 a month subscription could have evolved. Look how the cable companies have utilized tier pricing.
Yes, exactly. You could have easily have started that (subscription rate) by trial-and-error and testing the market instead. But the attitude was to stop (Napster) in its infancy. Kill it, as opposed to saying, “Let’s find a way that we can make this even more profitable. We see that there is a demand and consumers want it. So let’s figure out a way to meet consumer demand.”
At the same time as the emergence of Napster, the labels decided to stop selling singles. The argument was that singles were cannibalizing album sales.
It was always viewed (previously) that the single was for the promotion for the album. That you always went with the single, released it, had people acquaint themselves with the music, and they bought the album. The problem was, that (labels) started to put only two or three good songs on an album. Just filler crap, and they kept pushing (albums) to 13 and 14 songs. None of the tracks, other than two or three, were really worthwhile. It wasn’t like they were putting out a Pink Floyd or a Stones’ album, or that the bulk of the songs were great. Most of them were throwaways. Who wanted to pay $16.98, or whatever for an album that only had two or three good songs on it? So, (fans) would buy them (as singles) or steal them individually (online).
Today, we are back to that track-by-track world.
We’re back to a singles world.
And the music industry has gone from making dollars to dimes.
The biggest problem, in my view, is how do you adapt to a new economic model, which allows you to make a profit off of selling less? Either by making it up in volume, or by cutting your costs—which are substantial—so that you are making a profit on individual sales. That’s the key. These record companies are so top heavy in terms of infrastructure and (are set) in the old ways of doing things. The business used to be geared to selling a limited quantity of a very highly marked-up product, which was the CD. Today, those sales are declining substantially. So, they have to figure out a way to run a lean, mean machine, where they can make a profit from selling items for a dollar or $1.29.
You think major labels are still too top heavy?
Oh, yes. Well, I think that the salaries of some of these people alone… If they cut those people out, that would immediately go to the button line. They have trimmed down their staff of people, and they outsource stuff, but they are still too top heavy.
The publishing side of the music business has traditionally run lean.
Well, they were used to making pennies. Then, when the (mechanical royalty) rate went up, and they were all in good shape because, as you said, they ran a lean machine. It was a nickel and dime business.
[The U.S. royalty rate remained the same from 1909 to 1976 when Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976, which provided for the establishment of the Copyright Royalty Tribunal. It determined that mechanical rates should be raised to 2.75 cents/0.5 cents per minute, which took effect on Jan. 1, 1978. Another royalty increase came a decade later at 5.25 cents/1 cent per minute. A mechanical royalty rate of 9.10 cents per song (per unit sold) came into effect Jan. 1, 2006.]
What is your role as an expert witness in court cases?
Most of the time it is in the context of a law suit. An expert witness is supposed to testify to what the custom, the practice, and usage are in the context of the dispute. So the expert educates the jury in an area that is specialized and that they have no expertise in. It is not interpreting a particular contract or opinioning on the merits of the case.
You aren’t a neutral party though.
I’m adverse in the sense that, obviously, if I take something on, and I believe in it and I express my honest opinion to it, it is probably going to be contrary to the interests of the other side.
Singer/songwriter Smokey Robinson and Claudette Robinson divorced in 1986 following 27 years of marriage, and you were later called as an expert witness for Claudette in determining a settlement.
In the Claudette Robinson case, it was consulting with the lawyers, and the accountant as to how the business works so that they could isolate sources of income on the publishing side and explore those to see that she was being paid properly under a previous divorce decree.
Most of the time, (being an expert witness) is partly consulting, but it is also partly testifying to the context and the custom and practice in the industry.
You were an expert for The Rio Hotel in Las Vegas in its case against Rod Stewart for a cancelled show in 2000.
My testimony was based upon the significance of what a live performance would be. One of the issues was that he didn’t play New Year’s Eve in the Millennium, which is what he was originally booked to do. He didn’t play New Year’s Eve, and he wanted to pick some other dates when he was on tour in April or May (2000). One of the issues in that case was about the shows having the same significance. New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas is a lot more significant of an engagement, and is worth more than April or some other time. And, there were contract interpretation issues too, as to whether there was a right to re-schedule or not to re-schedule. (Stewart’s lawyers) were claiming that he had a right to schedule or that (the hotel) had an obligation to re-schedule, if he was ill.
[In 2005, Rod the Mod was ordered to pay $2 million to The Rio Hotel in Las Vegas for a last minute cancellation in Dec. 2000. At the time, Stewart maintained he was unable to keep the commitment because he was recovering from throat surgery after two tumors were removed from the his thyroid.
Harrah's Entertainment, which owns The Rio, was seeking the return of his fee plus interest and attorney's fees. Stewart's lawyer, Louis "Skip" Miller, said that his client had offered to do two performances in order to make up for the show he missed. According to Stephen Morris, an attorney for The Rio, the casino was interested in discussing the possibility of more Stewart performances, but first wanted the fee returned. When Stewart refused, the entertainment company pushed ahead with its suit.]
You continue to represent the Frank Zappa Estate after his passing in 1993. You started representing Frank Zappa in the ‘70s.
Yeah, it was in the ‘70s when I began representing him.
What was your impression of Frank?
He was a genius; and he was a very intimidating—not that he meant to be—but he was such a different thinker. When you talked with him, you always felt like he was on a different planet, that he was way ahead of everybody else. So, it was very interesting dealing with him.
But he was also a very regular guy.
Everybody thought he was into drugs or was really weird but that wasn’t the case. He did a great job with his kids. Between him and Gail, they turned out some really good kids, and they had a nice family life. He was much more normal than people would have thought, but he was just on a different planet when it came to the industry.
[Gail Zappa is the executor of The Zappa Family Trust. Her and Frank were married in 1967 and had four children, Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva. Since Frank’s death in 1993, Gail has overseen the release of his recordings under the Zappa Family Trust. The Trust holds title and copyright to Frank Zappa's musical products, as well as his commercial image.]
Was Frank a good businessman?
A lot creative people aren’t. As well, in the ‘70s taking care of business was practically frowned upon by artists.
People would then say to me, “Owen, you do what you think is right,” which was not a conscionable position for me. It wasn’t my music, it wasn’t my life, and it’s wasn’t my money. So I would have to try to force them to listen to me, and give them all of the pros and cons to make a decision.
But I’ll tell you, that when Gail became involved (in her husband’s business) it became a lot more business-like. But, you are right, in some sense, he had very good ideas. He was the first independent guy that set up his own company, and sold directly, and he had relationships directly with fans. All those concepts, he definitely originated.
Can you imagine Frank with the Internet?
Well, you know in 1986 or maybe a few years before, Frank wrote (an article) saying that one day music would be delivered over telephone lines. That was in the ‘80s. So he predicted that. As I said, he was way ahead of everybody else.
It was Frank who zapped the bootleggers in the early ‘90s.
I remember that we sat and talked about doing that. We were saying, “How do you fight them?” So we came up with, “Why don’t we just bootleg the bootleggers?”
That was radical at the time.
Oh yeah. Then we made the deal “Beat The Boots” (with Rhino Entertainment). I designed the contract for that so we weren’t actually licensing bootlegs because we didn’t own them. The deal was that we told the record company that we wouldn’t sue if they put out the bootlegs. But, we were not going to license the tracks to them, or agree that they had the rights. We agree that we won’t sue as long as they would pay us the publishing on (the releases), and whatever they sold, we would participate in (for mechanicals).
[“Beat the Boots” is a collection of bootleg recordings by Frank Zappa, which were originally distributed illegally, but were released officially by Rhino Entertainment in 1991 and 1992. The first 8-disc set spanned a 15 year period from 1967 to 1982. The 7-disc “Beat the Boots II” included “Swiss Cheese/Fire!,” which documented the famous 1971 concert at a casino in Montreux, Switzerland where the venue burned down, inspiring the lyrics of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water.”]
You basically flooded the market.
Yeah, and (the releases were) better quality because they remastered some of the stuff and used different artwork. So, who was going to complain? That was a great concept. I do remember working on that with Frank and working out the legalities of how to do it.
[On the opening track of “As An Am” from “Beat the Boots I,” Frank Zappa offers his thoughts about bootlegs: “As far as my material goes, it’s (bootlegging) a very big business. I don’t think it’s the work of a couple of individual guys who went out to make a record for fun. It’s one or two people who are releasing vast quantities of material…They’ve already got the stuff recorded live in concert before I can even release it on a record, and that makes me mad.”]
Gail Zappa is very well versed in the music industry. Generally, families of successful artists or songwriters aren’t well versed in the music business, and are often taken advantage of.
That happens all of the time. We had a situation with the Harry Warren Estate, where the copyrights had come up for renewal, and Warner (Warner/Chappell Music) made a deal with some people in the family to continue. They had no right to do that, because they were dealing with the wrong people at the wrong time. We busted that deal, and Warner had to make a new deal. A lot of the songs written originally were in (Warner) movies. The old agreements used to provide that they could use those songs, not only in that (original) movie or a remake or a sequel, but in anything produced or distributed by Warner without paying any more. The estate for years was getting nothing on other usages. We corrected that and made a deal where they had an in-house schedule which we agreed to for synchronizations for usages not in the original movie.
That’s one example of a situation in which the estate can definitely be taken advantage of, especially now with all of the termination rights (for copyright) coming due.
What advice would you give a family who loses someone with a significant catalog of copyrights?
It depends on how sophisticated, and how much time and effort that (the family) want to put into it. They would certainly—at the very least—have to have a good advisor; like hiring a lawyer that knows the whole (copyright) area and can advise them on it.
But, if they don’t want to spend the time, and they bring in a professional who would run the operation, they still have to have enough knowledge to be able to supervise and to make sure that that the representative that they picked isn’t going to rip them off or is doing a decent job.
So they need to put together a team?
If they have some sophistication and are willing to take the bull by the horns, they still need someone who knows the business. The essential participant would be a knowledgeable lawyer. From there, (they can determine) if they want to make an administration deal with an existing publisher or a publishing deal.
Families can be overwhelmed. I’m thinking of the difficulties Jimi Hendrix’s father Al Hendrix went through after his son died in 1970.
Oh God, what a mess.
Al and Janie Hendrix had to fight to claw back the rights to Jimi Hendrix’s legacy.
That’s it. You really have to have the gumption. Look, you also have to have the financing to be able to do it. If you are operating on a shoe string, it’s very difficult because everything costs money. You have to be vigilant, and go after people and fight battles that are sometimes years long.
[Al Hendrix died in 2002 at the age of 82. By this time, Experience Hendrix, the company he founded and entrusted with preserving and protecting the legacy of Jimi Hendrix, had gained control of his master recordings. Under Janie Hendrix, adopted by Al Hendrix in 1968 when he married her mother, Experience Hendrix today makes every effort to safeguard Jimi Hendrix’s legacy.]
The Bing Crosby Estate has had an ongoing battle for years with Universal Music Group over disputed royalties.
Yes. I was an expert witness in that case for Bing Crosby. He had contracts before 1943 but most of the big (hit) stuff was recorded under the ’43 contract. The interesting question in that case was how do you pay, because it was all shellac records—singles—in those days and (labels) had penny (mechanical) rates in their contracts.
The issue was dealing with CDs, downloads and all the other stuff. Do labels have those rights? And, if they do, how do they pay for them? You know the record companies would say, “Our policy is to pay on CDs.” They had a formula (for CD mechanical rates), and they just applied it.
But most labels didn’t have new technology clauses for older catalogs until the mid-70s.
Correct. There is a (companion) case still pending in the Bing Crosby dispute which is about that exact issue. The issue is, whether under the old contracts, Universal is entitled to exploit the (Crosby) masters digitally. There is no new technology clause in the contract at issue.
[After a decade-long battle, the heirs of Bing Crosby finally got their day in court. On June 30, 2010, a jury in Santa Monica, California awarded them in excess of $2 million in their lawsuit against Universal Music Group.
Crosby’s daughter Mary said, “Recording artists have a long history of being taken advantage of by their labels, and despite the incredible contribution my father made to the world of music, he was no exception. I give my mother a lot of credit for her willingness to hang in there for over a decade. It seems that record companies prefer to keep things in litigation for as long as possible because most people don’t have the resources to stick it out. This tactic generally works, because the majority of artists settle out of court for far less than they’re due.”
Bing Crosby, who died in 1977, recorded exclusively for Decca Records from Aug. 1934 until Dec. 1955. The Decca catalog—of 1,200 Crosby recordings—later became owned by Universal Music Group.
Crosby has sold close to one billion recordings, cassette tapes, CDs and digital downloads around the world. He may be the biggest selling recording artist of all time. Crosby had sold 200 million records by 1960, and the figure had doubled by 1980. The Guinness Book of World Records reports worldwide sales for his recording of “White Christmas” at over 100 million copies.]
You did some film and television work when you started practicing in 1969.
I did. The first project that I did in the entertainment business was legal work for “Medium Cool,” which (cinematographer, film producer and director) Haskell Wexler did. It’s a film about the 1968 Chicago riots during the Democratic Convention.
An interesting story about that is that there was a criminal libel statute in Illinois, and (the film makers) were worried that they could be prosecuted under that (statute) because of Mayor Daley. So, they asked me for an opinion. I gave them an opinion that the Illinois statute was unenforceable because it was unconstitutional. Then, they decided that an opinion from Owen Sloane might be right but they needed somebody bigger. So they went to (former Associate Supreme Court) Justice (Arthur) Goldberg, who had retired from the court (in 1965). He wrote an opinion, which was exactly what I said. So, I was vindicated by an (Associate) Supreme Court judge.
[In Aug. 1968, the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. Intended to showcase Mayor Richard Daley’s civic achievements to national Democrats and the news media, the proceedings instead garnered notoriety for the mayor and city.
Today, Wexler’s 1969 cinéma vérité styled film “Medium Cool” is studied by film students all over the world for its breakthrough form. Distributors, however, at the time considered the film controversial; its receiving an 'X' rating delayed its release. In 1970, it was re-rated 'R'. Discussing this, Wexler said: "They also objected to the language and the nudity, things which ultimately meant the film received an 'X' rating. What no one had the nerve to say was that it was a political 'X'.”]
That was a pretty political time.
Oh, God yeah. It was really charged. It was an interesting time. Then, I started to do more and more in the music area. I did some film and television work but I became more active in the music business. I basically concentrated on that thereafter.
Who was your first music client?
The first was Delaney & Bonnie in 1969. I was approached by their manager Allen Fraser while I was doing the work on “Medium Cool.” He said, “Delaney & Bonnie are signed to Stax Records in Memphis, and Jac Holzman (founder & CEO, chief of Elektra Records and Nonesuch Records) wants another rock band in addition to The Doors. He wants to sign our band, so I need a lawyer to help me get out of the Stax deal, and make the deal with Elektra.” He said, “Can you handle that? I said, “Sure.”
You then flew to Memphis to meet with Stax?
I picked the manager up (to drive to the airport) and the first thing he does is light a joint in my car. I’m thinking, "Oh gawd.” We get to Memphis, and I am paranoid about being in the South, and being with a hippie. It was like “Easy Rider.” He’s got a beard, he’s dressed like a hippie, and he’s smoking dope. Memphis had an underground music community at the time with musicians like Don Nix and others. They all came to the hotel room and hung out. They were smoking pot and I was throwing the roaches down the toilet and trying to clean up the air. I had struggled so hard to get through law school, and I had this vision of myself spending the rest of my life in a Tennessee jail.
The most exciting part was when I went to Stax at the converted movie theatre. There, I met (Stax co-founders) Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. They took us around. Booker T (Jones) was there and some of the Stax acts. It was so exciting to meet these legendary people. We got through that (negotiation). The next step was meeting with Jac Holzman. We made that deal. From then on, (my practice) just started to grow.
Do you look back at the ‘70s and early ‘80s, with the likes of Jac Holzman, Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert at A&M, Bob Krasnow at Blue Thumb, and Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic being there, as a golden era in the music industry?
There’s no question about it. Even Clive Davis (at Columbia and Arista) you can add to that list. He was a major force. These people were really musically oriented. The thing (success) starts with the music and the songs and developing a real artist. I have oftentimes said that a great artist isn’t discovered, they are developed. The development process for an artist now is mostly on their own, as opposed to being guided and developed by somebody like a Wexler or A&M. I don’t think that (development) exists anymore with labels. (Executives) do pay lip service to that and say, “We do develop acts.” But, to be honest with you, I don’t think that’s the case.
As well, artists recording and releasing their own music themselves often lack expert guidance.
That’s true. The development part of (creating) with an unbiased neutral party listening and making you work harder and perfect stuff and not accept second best, that’s missing. Just little refinements. I remember sitting with Jim Weatherly, who I represented for years, and producer Jimmy Bowen in L.A. Weatherly had written a song called “Midnight Plane to Houston.” Bowen said, “You know, there’s something wrong with that title. Why don’t you change it to “Midnight Train to Georgia?” That is an example how subtle (a neutral party can be). But, it made a big difference.
[Jim Weatherly recorded "Midnight Plane to Houston" for Jimmy Bowen's Amos Records. In 1972, R&B singer Cissy Houston released "Midnight Train to Georgia” as a single. The following year, the song was released by Gladys Knight & the Pips, and reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.]
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.
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