This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Natalia Nastaskin, Head of U.S. Music Operations, United Talent Agency.
If Natalia Nastaskin was a political candidate, she’d have no difficulty selling her American success story.
The Soviet Union-born live music industry trendsetter, who came to America in 1979 with her family, holds one of the most powerful jobs in entertainment as Head of U.S. Music Operations for the United Talent Agency.
Based in New York City, she is responsible for corporate business development, and steers the company’s business affairs.
Nastaskin had served as both general counsel and CEO at The Agency Group, the world's largest independent music agency, since 2013, and had been its chief counsel and dir. new business development from 2009.
Prior to that she had operated her own New York law practice, representing clients in entertainment and sports, and handling legal affairs for The Agency Group starting in 2005. Earlier, she was a partner in the New York-based firm, The Music Law Group.
United Talent Agency is a global talent and literary agency representing figures in entertainment and media, including motion pictures, television, music, digital, broadcast news, books, theatre, video games, fine art and, of course, live entertainment.
In Aug. 2015, the United Talent Agency acquired The Agency Group representing over 2,000 clients, Including Muse, Paramore, and Guns N' Roses . The acquisition included nearly 100 agents working across 7 offices in London, New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Toronto, Miami, and Malmö, Sweden.
Since the acquisition, United Talent Agency has signed such leading music clients as Chris Brown, DJ Khaled, and Toby Keith
How does your working life differ following the acquisition of The Agency Group by United Talent Agency last summer?
It is basically the same.
Every day is different for you?
Every day is different. It’s an adventure.
Do you still receive the 2 am phone calls?
Not that many now (laughing). Our music CFO Perry (worldwide CFO Paurooshasp Perry) is based in London. So he and I start at 6:30 am and 7 am, my time. Then there’s L.A. By the time things wind down there, it is probably 8:30 pm or 9 pm my time. So the days are long. But I just love what I do. The young kids in the office, they laugh when they ask me in the hallway how am I doing, and I say, “I’m living the dream.” But it’s the truth.
In the last few months such artist as Chris Brown, Toby Keith, and DJ Khaled have signed with United Talent Agency.
We’re so proud.
Three major signings.
And each has different areas that they are interested in exploring outside of music. As you know, each has specific interests and passions and they would like to have a team around them to help build that. We are certainly happy that they chose us to be that team.
United Talent Agency also has a big footprint in films, the literary world, and even the art space that potentially can provide musical clients with increased career opportunities now. They don’t have to go elsewhere.
Absolutely. I keep saying when asked about how has it been to exist in the UTA fold after the acquisition; I keep using the words that, “It’s a game changer.” And that is really it because it has been game-changing in respect to what our music artists, and our music clients are able to be a part of and can experience within the UTA fold. So all of the different divisions, different agents with different specialties—it’s really extraordinary coverage for our clients. We couldn’t be happier. Truly game-changing.
How were the initial meetings with your counterparts at the United Talent Agency leading up to the acquisition of The Agency Group? How did it feel exploring the varied opportunities of everything under the same roof?
It was inspiring. I had an opportunity to meet (United Talent Agency’s CEO, co-founder, managing director) Jeremy Zimmer, and listen to his vision. Not only hear about his history and his present work, but his vision of how he saw the music division exist, and develop within the UTA fold. It was almost dreamy listening to him because it is what I’ve always wanted for our clients. To sit there and to realize that this actually may be happening was spectacular.
Jeremy Zimmer is certainly a forward thinker. In 2006, United Talent Agency became the first major agency in the broadband era to launch a dedicated online division to identify and represent emerging internet content creators.
Well, there’s a culture of excellence. Anything that the board and the partners decide to do is going to be at the highest levels. Nothing is taken lightly, and nothing is done without a strategy or without a calculated effort. So that anything that Jeremy and the management directors decide that they are going to pursue is going to work. There’s nothing that is haphazard about the group.
Besides The Agency Group being a perfect fit for the United Talent Agency the acquisition was well-timed. Rob Prinz, who had launched UTA's music division in 1991, and agent Nikki Wheeler had left for ICM a few months earlier, along with such clients as Hall & Oates, Celine Dion and Bob Seger, among others. There was a gap there. I’m not sure if the acquisition would have happened if Rob and Nikki had remained.
I can’t really say. I just know that the circumstances were what they were. Our companies came together. I can’t really say what would have happened if they had stayed. We know what happened with them going.
Previous to the announcement there were no expectations that The Agency Group would be sold. Certainly the firm’s then CEO Gavin O'Reilly never signaled anything in advance.
It was truly a moment of the stars aligning. It was truly one of those moments that when you look back, you can say that you couldn’t have written a script for this. It was the universe acting.
What your reaction in receiving news that the acquisition deal would happen?
This is a combination of two companies. The way that The Agency Group and UTA came together--holistically, organically, authentically--was always something that I had hoped for, but I didn’t know where it was going to come from.
Had you believed that The Agency Group would have had to acquire other companies or expand in order to compete in the new entertainment environment?
Certainly, 2014 was a pivotal year for The Agency Group with the acquisitions of the Bobby Roberts Company in Nashville, the Bond Music Group in New York and Los Angeles, the partnership with Coalition Talent in the UK, and the creation of a Miami office to focus on the Latin American markets. There was also the launch of a branding division, and the creation of dedicated college, corporate and casino divisions.
It’s part of the reason why we started looking to bring in the Miami office, expand our corporate, college, and casino areas. Bring in electronic music. Obviously, the deal with the Bobby Roberts Company. We knew that we had to expand, but we also knew, specifically in regards to the U.S. business, that with our clients that once they attained a certain level of success, and were able to explore other areas that may be of interest to them, we knew we would have to be able to service those areas or there was a danger that we might not be able to hold onto the client, irrespectively how incredible the booking agent was. So when it became apparent that clients reach a certain limited of celebrity and stardom and they look into fashion, for example, we needed to be able to fill that desire or somebody else was going to fill it.
One sector The Agency Group had become heavily involved in was electronic dance music with the acquisition of The Bond Group, Coalition, and previously Autonomous Music. You obviously saw EDM as a growth area for the business. It’s a sector that many agency people were then still skeptical of.
Well, there’s always a team on one of these things. I may love an idea, and say it would be great to bring an electronic presence, or an electronic division, or an electronic agent, but ultimately the collective of senior people has to decide that it’s a good idea. Specifically, with electronic, we were exploring that area for years. We sort of saw it happening around us as The Agency Group, and we were really seeing the music becoming meaningful in America in a big, big way.
My professional career when I was representing clients on my own, when I had my own practice, I started in electronic music, in dance music—really house music as it was called at the time. So I already had been exposed to all of the incredible things that were happening in that genre in Europe. Going to MIDEM, ADE (Amsterdam Dance Event), and PopKomm. All those international conferences that not very many people in America would go to because we had different things here.
Americans would annually attend MIDEM.
Exactly. They might go to MIDEM, but not necessarily explore the electronic space because it wasn’t doing anything at the time here. That music really didn’t make an impact (in American mainstream) until very recently, but it has always had been an area that I had worked in, and the rest of the globe was very much into it. So once it became clear that electronic music was coming here (to the U.S.), and that it was coming here to stay--Just like any other music, it’s going to make impact. It’s going to develop. It’s going to have its own trajectory. It’s going to change. There will be an ebb and flow to it--I just knew that if we got together with agents that were like-minded—similar to The Agency Group being entrepreneurial, progressive and forward-thinking culturally, we would have to be aligned, and then they would have to be people that had their finger on the pulse of what was going on in the electronic. We felt that what the Bond Music Group had been doing as a company by itself seemed to align well with where we wanted to be in the electronic space. So that’s really how the deal came about it. We had been talking to Kris (Bond Music Group CEO Kristopher Krajewski) over a period of years, and we just decided that it was the right time for us to get together.
As well, among the things that had changed industry perception toward EDM in America was the popularity of Gary Richards’ HARD Event festivals, and Live Nation launching Live Nation Electronic Music division, and then acquiring the successful British promoter Cream Holdings.
Yes, and then Insomniac Events (in 2013).
EDM has since shifted from its early underground warehouse roots to the big festival main stages worldwide, and DJs have become celebrities globally. The single most unique aspect of the electronic genre is that it can be taken anywhere in the world.
Without a doubt, and it’s not like you need to route a tour every time. You can have 365 one-offs, if you really wanted to. I’d known about this electronic music space growing up in New York City—well, I grew up in Jamaica, Queens but close enough; It’s a J train ride away. It was a time when I was 14 or 15 years old in the mid-80s, the club culture was so strong here. I mean the real club culture. Not the bottle service club culture that we have today. Bless the DJs that play the clubs now—more power because all genres of music should be out there, and should be enjoyed by the mass populace. I grew up with Junior Vasquez, and Todd Terry, the DJs that really created that underground dance house music culture of New York. Knowing that people were waiting for those nights—12 o’clock, and 2 o’clock in the morning when they would go to clubs, and listen to the DJs, and dance, and that’s what they were there for. That’s the period that I grew up in. That’s always something that has followed me. I felt that if we had an opportunity to explore that deeper within the agency, let’s do it. It’s happening. Electronic music is here. It’s not going away. It’s going to change, but it’s not dying.
So many older music industry figures still ask, “When is electronic music going to die?” I say, “Well, it’s been around nearly 30 years now.”
It will just evolve, but it’s never going to die.
EDM with its multiple sub-genres is as mainstream as it gets today, and there are continually new influences from so many international territories. Having EDM slightly below the mainstream media radar, however, has kept it more vital.
It doesn’t have massive radio probably, but if you go on SoundCloud, Beatport, any of the electronic-oriented outlets out there, or even the music-oriented outlets, you will find that it is really prevalent.
Diplo, Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Skrillex, deadmau5, Steve Aoki, Tiësto, Zedd and others have crossed over into the pop mainstream, but the sector is not yet overexposed, if only because it continually re-energizes itself.
It does. It does, and even myself I find that I am exposed to so much music here because there are so many different signings and clients, and I really try to keep up with everybody’s music. Then I will go to a festival, and just be blown away some somebody’s performance that I have never seen before.
The Agency Group had been late coming to Nashville, but it made its presence felt certainly, with The Bobby Roberts’ acquisition in 2014, but you were building the agency’s presence up in Music City prior to that with Nick Meinema, and others.
It’s amazing in the short span of time what we have done in Nashville. Nick is a killer—and I mean that in the best sense of the word; not in the criminal sense of the word. He made a commitment. He made a decision (in 2012). He committed to that area of the business. He picked himself up and he moved his family (from Toronto), and decided that this is what he was going to do. And build it he did. Our entire business is based on relationships. Nick is incredible about forging relationships. About maintaining and developing them, and through being in the community, and getting to know Bobby Roberts, Lance Roberts, and Travis James, and then alternately that relationship yielding the combination of our company with The Bobby Roberts Agency, now thanks to the relationship that Lance and Nick have with Curt Motley (previous co-head of Paradigm Talent’s Nashville office) that motivated and incentivized Curt to come over (in March 2016) which is extraordinary for us. We are just delighted about the future because if we have been able to do this much in this short period of time we can only fantasize and imagine how great it is going to be in the very near future.
Nashville has been traditionally closed to outsiders.
Indeed, which is why Nick is unique. And having Lance, and Curt onboard, and the three of them being now an entity that people know and identify with UTA, and the kind of progressive things that are happening here, we are very bullish on the future as far as music division as a whole, and certainly our Nashville footprint
Are any further acquisitions planned?
Well, it’s really that we are involved in every area of entertainment. We try to cover every area of music. So I would never say never or not in the cards, but it has to be the right fit.
In 2013, did you have any hesitation in taking on the role as both general counsel and CEO at The Agency Group? There have been few women heading talent agencies in America. Among them were Ruth Bowen, the first black female talent agent, who was the president of Queen Booking Corporation; and Barbra Skydel, the first female principal of a major talent firm, Premier Talent.
I had no hesitation about wanting to take a broader role with The Agency Group.
Was it a position you sought?
Not until Gavin brought it up with me. I was happy doing what I was doing, and it was working for everybody. But Gavin came to me and said, “I don’t understand. You are sort of one foot in. You are with us. and then you are one foot out. You have this other (law) practice. Would you like to come in...
Gavin hadn’t been at The Agency Group for very long at that point.
No he had only been there for four months. He knew that he was going to be without a president in the U.S because Steve Martin (then president of North American operations at The Agency Group) was leaving. This is what I think happened. I think he was really looking for someone who wasn’t polarizing; someone who knew the business; and someone who knew the company because he was so new.
His background was in news and media.
An interesting trajectory. From the outside, it may appear that running a talent booking agency is not so difficult. But I know how difficult it is. You are also talking about a time in our business where things were evolving so quickly, and the business has changed so much.
If you are going to be working with artists, you have to know at least the basic fundamental concepts of our business. Whether it’s the recording side or the publishing side or the brand side, the licensing side, the tour side and know what a manager does. You have to understand all those things. Until you understand all those things, it’s really difficult to maneuver a company like this one.
The role of a talent agency has evolved. At one time agencies soothed clients about their careers or took their fees and moved on. Today, it’s about strategizing. That’s a new concept within the music industry. For decades, music artists’ careers weren’t supposed to last. Three or four years, and artists were expected to disappear. Today, managers seek to establish careers that will go on for years. A manager may not have the tools to do that, but those tools are more available now to a large-scale talent agency.
There’s a lot more of that for sure. You want to be talking to the publicist. You want to know what the label has got going on. You want to be talking with the product managers. The agent is a pivotal member of an artist’s team. As pivotal as ever.
The role of a talent agent has evolved from booking live dates and introducing artists to labels or, maybe, overseeing a film contract.
It’s very different. The expectations are different, and the business is very different. I can talk about how decreasing revenues on the record side may lead artists and managers looking to their agencies to help them explore and exploit other areas of the artist’s talent. So it is a very very different industry than it was 10 or 20 years ago. It’s all very different which is why that 2013 to 2015 period was challenging. It was definitely challenging.
Even with decreasing revenues from music sales, few artists want to be out on tour 250 nights of the year. Still they feel that revenue gap has to be filled in from somewhere.
Heritage acts, and festival headliners don’t want to be touring forever. It seems as if tours are becoming shorter.
I suppose. We have so many artists with so many different levels of their professional trajectory here. We’ve got some artists that never want come off the road. They want to keep building and they want to be in a van. Well, maybe they don’t want to be in a van, but they know that they have to be in a van.
Bands in the early stages of their careers.
Yes, and they keep doing it. Then we also have artists that want to play 20 dates every two years, and that’s it. So it really depends on where the artist is in their trajectory.
With the number of high-powered music clients at United Talent Agency are there senior executive meeting on how to further global careers?
I’m sure that there have been, and are, and will be. We are still in the integration phase. So certainly we get together as a senior management team, and talk about where we are, and where we could be going. But that’s stuff that I would probably want to keep off the record. With some of the higher profile signings, and existing clients there are teams around those artists. The teams will meet and talk.
I would imagine that being under the United Talent Agency umbrella now, it’s not only a period of integration, but also one of discovery. It’s almost like an education for those one the music agency side, with agents and managers, “Hey, check this out. We have this now.”
It happens every day. Every single day.
Your family came to New York from Moscow in 1979?
When the Iron Curtain was still up?
It was. It was still the Soviet Union when we came over. We didn’t come straight shot. We didn’t come from Moscow to New York. It was a process that we had to go through to get our visas processed, and our documents done. It was a long experience. It went on for a few months beforehand. We went from one country to another to another and ultimately to the States. We went to Austria, Italy and to here.
To get out of the USSR in that era was difficult.
Well, my father’s sister was here. She petitioned for us to come over, and there were provisions at the time to enable families to reunite.
There was then considerable persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union which has since declined. Did that lead to your parent’s decision to move from Moscow to New York?
That did to some extent. Yeah, my dad is Jewish, and my mom is Russian Orthodox. So yeah. Most Jewish families opted to go if they had a reason to be here (in America). If they had an opportunity to come to the States or to one of the other countries that were accepting refugees at the time they went.
A big shock coming to America from the Soviet Union?
Yeah, it was an absolutely a massive cultural shock.
Where had your family been living in Moscow?
I have always referred to it as the bowels of Moscow. It is called Medvedkovo.
Not exactly an upscale neighborhood.
(Laughing) Well, there were no upscale neighborhoods. The upscale neighborhoods the regular people didn’t get access to. Let’s put it like that.
Your mother Nadia does commercial real estate in New York?
What did your dad do before he retired?
My dad was a cinematographer in Russia, and he worked in advertising post production in America.
When you came to America, you didn’t speak any English?
No. No. Zero.
Were you thrown into school right away or did you have some tutoring?
We couldn’t afford tutoring. We didn’t know any kind of programs that may have enabled me to have a tutor. That was way outside anything that my parents were focused on at the time. They needed to learn English themselves, and they needed to get themselves jobs.
They didn’t speak English either? I hope your family was living near Brighton Beach with its population of Russian-speaking immigrants.
Well, my aunt took us in for a couple of months. So we stayed with her in Brighton Beach for about four months. About a month after we arrived, my parents sent me to sleepaway camp for underprivileged children in Sussex, New Jersey. So not only did I not speak any English, but I was without my family.
You must have been scared out of your wits.
Yeah. It was not fun at all. When I tell you that was probably the first thing that I did to start building character I’m not kidding. It was really difficult. It was a camp for underprivileged children. So a lot of kids were orphans or were in foster care.
No girls and boys. But separate camps. We didn’t have visitors because not everybody had families so everybody was treated equally. It was kind of like a commune. Everybody was treated equally. We didn’t have visitors. We couldn’t have packages unless we shared with the whole bunk.
How long were you at the camp?
Six weeks. It was long time. But my parents needed to get on with their own stuff. They needed the kids out of the way.
Your brother went to the camp as well?
My brother was too young. So he stayed with my grandparents in Brooklyn. They came over to the U.S. simultaneously with us, while I was sent away to camp.
In Moscow there was then little display of consumer goods unless you were able to go to GUM department store, one of the few stores in the Soviet Union that did not have shortages of consumer goods. What were your thoughts the first time you walked through a supermarket in America?
Completely mind-blowing. My parents used to send me to the store back in Moscow. Often, I’d get to the store, and there was nothing there. Nothing at all. More often than not just empty shelves. Yes, it was pretty incredible in America. When my grandmother came to visit some years later from Moscow, she passed out in a grocery store seeing all the robust shelves.
I thought, perhaps she’d pass out from what she saw on MTV which launched in 1981.
No (laughing). We didn’t even bother with that.
You arrived in America as the music video era was starting.
People often ask me. “What was the first music experience where you felt that you wanted to be in the music industry?” With me, it started with Rod Stewart because I saw a video...first of all I saw a color television. Let’s start with that. We didn’t have color television in Moscow. I saw a color television.
And you probably saw Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs” video.
I did see Rod Stewart doing “Hot Legs.” Here’s a guy with bleached blond hair with black roots, shirt unbuttoned, holding onto to fishnet woman’s legs and singing this incredible song. The guitar is just off the hook, right? And I come from a culture in Moscow where we had entertainment, but it was state-sponsored.
There were independent rock bands in the USSR in the ‘70s. Artists like Boris Grebenshchikov and his band Aquarium.
Yes, but it was quite underground.
If you had a Beatles’ album, you kept quiet about it.
You didn’t talk about that.
The Soviet Union’s state-owned record company Melodia bootlegged the Beatles’ recordings.
Eventually. But at the time my family was living there, if you got your hands on any kinds of Western music, you pretty much kept it to yourself or you quietly played it to your friends. By no means were you shouting about it or making a fuss about it because that could land you in a place where you didn’t want to be.
[Through the Soviet Union’s only record company, Melodia, Soviet fans heard the Beatles song “Girl” for the first time in 1967. In total more than 20 Beatles songs were released in the Soviet Union, all in violation of copyright. In 1988, Paul McCartney gave Soviet fans an official album of Beatles’ songs called “Back in the USSR.” Half a million copies were issued, making it then the most widely distributed album by any foreign musician in the Soviet Union.]
Have you returned to Moscow over the years?
I have. I don’t go often. I will go if there’s an important event or there’s a business reason for me going. But I try not to go back. There’s really nothing for me there. I do have family there, but I prefer seeing them here. Now that there’s freedom of travel it’s easier for them to come here.
Moscow has been transformed in recent years with city-wide improvements in transportation, housing, and public parks.
Moscow, it’s incredible seeing it now. I was there three years ago for a client’s birthday event. Nikolay Baskov is major pop star in Russia. He invited us, and he hosted us. We stayed at The Ritz–Carlton near Red Square. His party was over-the-top. I had to pinch myself because, as a Soviet émigré, and remind myself that I was in Moscow. This is not my grandma’s Moscow. This is not my 7-year-old’s Moscow. This is the Moscow of extraordinary wealth, affluence and excess. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same city. But it’s Moscow’s moment, and it’s having its phase.
You told me once that you learned English from studying album liner notes and reading song lyrics. A good way to learn a language?
Yeah, for me it worked, I think. I feel that I can get my message across now. I picked the language up pretty well back then. I loved music and it was a way that I could relate to kids in school.
They were probably listening to rock and hip hop.
Well, by the time that I started school, we were living in Jamaica Queens so yeah it was the start of hip hop, and there was a lot of rock. It was Queen, Joan Jett, and music like that. I would see kids with those stickers on their notebooks, and I would try to position myself to sit close to them because, at least, I could talk to them about music and make friends that way.
This was in high school?
I’m talking about elementary school. So my parents, we didn’t have a lot of money. We very much lived on a budget. On Fridays, they would leave me a dollar for pizza. Me and my brother. So I would get him his slice and a soda, and I would save my money so I could buy a record. Every time that I could save up enough money I would buy a single or whatever I was waiting on at the time.
Singles being 99¢, and albums were under $10.
(Laughing) Exactly, without dating ourselves. And it was vinyl, right? So you had that juicy sound. I would take my portion of the dollar—my 50¢—and I would save it up, go to the store, buy the record, and I would sit there for hours with my English to Russian translator, and I would translate every single word of every single lyric, and every single thank you, and every single liner note, and anything else I could find. Then I would know what the songs were about. And I would play the vinyl over and over, mimicking the words the way that the artist sang them. I was trying to get my pronunciation just right so I would be able to speak perfectly because I didn’t want to have an accent. As a kid here (in the U.S.) during the Cold War, the last thing that you wanted to be known about you was that you were a Russian kid because Russians were deemed to be Communists all across the board. So that’s how I started to speak (English) was from doing that, and understanding what I was saying.
Name some of artists you were listening to.
I had as many Rod Stewart records that I could lay my hands on because he was really the guy that turned me onto the whole music scene. Then there was Air Supply that we had on 8-track. That was a bit of a complicated thing to have on heavy rotation. And Blondie. Those three were really the ones.
Yes. Totally different. And I loved Joan Jett as well. I loved the women rockers because I was like, “Wow these girls can do this?”
These ladies were empowered.
You would not have seen anything similar in Moscow.
There was no sense of rebellion there for sure. Joan Jett singing “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” and that video, and her hair and her styling. I was like...we had nothing close to that. We had woman taking the stage in full evening gowns, and that was it. And here’s Joan Jett, and Blondie with all of her stylings, and the delivery of her vocals, and how breathy she was, but so punk rock. It blew my mind.
Did you come more into your own during your high school years? Were you a good student?
Yes, I was. School came fairly easily to me until I got to law school.
You attended State University of New York at Binghamton, New York, and then the Columbus School of Law of The Catholic University America in Washington D.C.
Binghamton was undergrad. I studied law at the Columbus Law at the Catholic University.
You interned at the Recording Industry Association of America for two years while in law school. Then you returned to New York to take the bar exam. Was Hilary Rosen still at the RIAA?
Yes, and (RIAA chairman) Jay Berman. My immediate superiors were Jesse Abad and Steven D’Onofrio because I was in the Anti-Piracy Unit
Why a job at the RIAA?
Okay, the reason that I chose that school in D.C. was because they were the first law school in America to have an exchange program with East European law schools. I thought that since I am going to be on the international trade track, I wanted to do the exchange in my second or third year. Then when I got to my first year in law school, and took a job at an international trade firm, it hit me that this was not the future that I wanted for myself. I was just not interested in it at all. I wasn’t really feeling law school so much. I really didn’t like being in D.C. Then I had this job that I wasn’t excited about. I was telling a classmate that I thought that I had made this terrible mistake, and that I need to re-think my life. He goes, “Well you are so into music. Why don’t you do something in music?” Up until that time I didn’t realize that you didn’t have to have musical talent to be in the music industry.
It’s beyond your comprehension that artists on the radio have people supporting them.
Completely. Look I was just in an underprivileged camp a few years back. I didn’t know what was available. My parents were like, “You don’t like the sight of blood, so you should be a lawyer.”
What was your reaction to your friend’s suggestion?
I asked, “What’s there to do in music?” He said, “I work at the RIAA, a lobbying group for the record industry. My passion really is the motion pictures. So I am leaving that post. and going to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) but I can put a good word in for you.” So I said sure. So I interviewed with Jesse Abad. I swear, Larry that I walked into that office, and it was nirvana. It was like the gates of heaven opened up. I felt like, “This is it. This is where I want to be. This is where I belong. I don’t want to leave here. Somebody better give me a job or I am going to be a receptionist for the rest of my life.” Fortunately, the interview went well and they offered me the internship which I had throughout law school, and I never looked back. So music what it always was going to be.
What was your job at the RIAA?
Anti-piracy at the time before streaming, before Napster and any of that of that. It was mostly about identifying piracy plants all over the world. The U.S. music industry was losing something like $2 billion—that’s just what was documented---from Chinese and Russian piracy. They felt that with my Russian background that I could be working with investigators to identify those pirates, and kind of infiltrate those operations. So I did some of that, and I did a lot of case research for some of the lawyers there. I went to hear oral arguments in some cases. It was a little bit of everything. I did some clerical work as well. Just getting in touch with record labels and making sure that we had all the right contact information on file for them. It was just a bit of everything. but it was such a great comprehensive experience.
Were you studying intellectual property law at the Columbus School?
Yes, in my second and third year. But I knew that I wanted to be in entertainment and the adjunct professor that was teaching entertainment law at the school basically said, “Make sure that you take intellectual property electives if you are going into any part of entertainment law” which was good advice, obviously, because that is such a big part of what we do.
After law school you opened up you own firm?
After law school I didn’t have a job because I thought I am not going to take time away from school and interview (with law firms). I was going to pay attention to school. I was going to take my bar, and then “I will get a job. How hard can it be?” It turned out that it’s really really hard (to get a job at a law office), especially in music.
In most law firms at entry level you have to work impossible hours. It’s like being in the mailroom.
I would have taken that though. If it had to do with music I would have taken it. I would have taken a job in any law firm if I could have continued doing what I started doing at the RIAA. But it wasn’t in the cards because established music firms, they want you to come in with corporate or some kind of experience, even life experience which I didn’t have any of that. The RIAA experience wasn’t sufficient. So interviewed with one or two firms, and with one in-house label person, and it just looked pretty grim. I didn’t know what else to do because I really wanted to be in music and I really needed money for my apartment and expenses. So a general practitioner that I used to work with in the summers shortly after I took the bar said he was looking for somebody. So I started working in a general practice firm. And simultaneously building my own music practice after hours. It was Molot & Associates. Valery Molot who owned the firm allowed me to meet my own clients after hours. From 6 pm onward, I was able to do my own work. But after a year it wasn’t really working out, and I wasn’t devoting enough to my own practice. I was telling my family that this wasn’t quite what I was looking for. “Well why don’t you open up your own thing?” My then boyfriend, who became my husband and now my ex-husband said, “Why don’t you just open up your own practice?” I was like, “I don’t know anything though?” and they were like, “You’ll learn. How hard can it be?”
But you need clients right?
But not everybody can afford a top entertainment lawyer like Allen Grubman. A new artist might hire you because you are cheaper.
A lot cheaper. And a lot more available. I’m there 24 hours a day, and a lot cheaper.
With your own practice, you worked with a lot of emerging acts?
Yes. A lot of hip hop, and dance acts. Dance was the culture that I had grown up with, and I knew it. One of my clients Shawnee Taylor ended up having a great career. To this day, she records, and performs some. She happened to be one of those special people. You know some people open their mouths, and out it comes. She was that. She was the best voice in house (music), bar none. Just extraordinary. So she ended up having a great career signed to Subliminal Records, Erick Morillo’s label. There was another client, Michael Buch, who did really well on Eightball Records with a track called “The Playground” that made a bunch of noise. I also worked with Kraze who had the song called “The Party.” It’s probably one of the most sampled records since then (1988).
In that environment, you would learn about management, publishing, and recording contracts, sync licenses, and so on.
I learned from my adversaries. My best mentors were counsels on the opposing side. It was better than law school. You actually don’t graduate law school with a wealth of knowledge about music, copyright or anything. So the best mentor for me were people I was negotiating against. They would object to things and I was like, “I’d better write that down for next time that I am on that side.” I thank them every day.
How did you become a partner in the Music Law Group from 2000 to 2005?
This was a situation that happened. I met Peter Sotos who was a lawyer in a commercial litigation firm. He said, “Would you like to work together because I am desperate to get out of my firm? I have music clients that I can bring in right away. I’m also very passionate about music, and I just want to hit the ground running, and I know that I can do it. You have already managed to build a practice.” At that time, it was probably five or six years into my practice; by which time I was well on my feet, and doing well. He said, “You’ve built your own practice, and together we can do a lot more.” So we teamed up, and started working together.
In 2005, you began doing some legal work for The Agency Group. By then you would have noticed that the recording industry was starting to collapse around you.
That’s basically what happened. Artist deals started to shrink more and more. As a lawyer representing artists, there came a point where I felt bad charging a fee because my clients weren’t making the kind of money that they had made a year ago. So I was having lunch with Steve Martin who I had met some years prior at the Mercury Lounge. He and I had become friends, and we would meet and catch up from time to time and talk about what was going on in each of our worlds. We were having lunch and I said, “Steve, I don’t know, but this is starting to feel really creepy because my practice is not the same as it was in terms of what the artists are seeing. The record labels aren’t paying what they were paying before.”
Meanwhile, he tells you that live music is exploding.
Steve says, “I don’t know what you are talking about. The live side of the music business is thriving.” As an artist lawyer you very rarely got involved with the live side of your artist’s career. Either the agency was handling it or you had a super A level client like Madonna--that I didn’t have--and all of the Madonna lawyers might be combing through all her touring agreements. So I asked what kind of legal work they were doing over at the agency, and we got into it. “Well that’s really interesting.” Steve said, “We have some office space that is available and I was going to offer it to you if you want to come in as a subletter.” So I said, “Interesting. Let me think about that for a minute.”
So your response was?
A minute later I said, “Yes I will do it.” That really how I started at The Agency Group in January ‘05.
Did The Agency Group have legal counsel at that point?
They had outside counsel. Although I would be physically there I would be technically coming in as outside counsel. They used a couple of different people.
Having legal down the hall, even as outside counsel, has its advantages for an agent. They’d be at your door asking, “Would you look at this?”
Exactly. And that’s basically how it went down. Little by little, just more stuff came in. At the time Steve Herman was the CEO of The Agency Group. He was based in Toronto. Shortly afterwards, he was visiting New York, and Steve Martin introduced us. Steve Herman came into my office, and asked “Do you know how to do a settlement and release agreement? I said yes. “Do you know how to do an employment agreement.” Again I said yes. He said, “Do me a favor. Write a couple up for me. This is what I need. There are the deals terms.” Then he reviewed my work, and it was, “Okay, you are going to be our lawyer. Just give us a good rate.” That was February or March ‘05.
Four years later Neil Warnock, then chairman of The Agency Group made you a director.
Yes. Neil and I sat at lunch in New York. He and I had been interfacing and working together since 2005. He said, “What would you like to do?” I said, “I love the legal side of things, but I would love to be able to do more on the business development and the business strategy side of things.” He goes, “Great. Does director of business strategy (chief counsel and dir. new business development) work for you?” I said, “Absolutely.” So that’s how that happened.
It was around the time that Steve Herman left The Agency Group, and went to Live Nation. I was so blessed to have Jack Ross and Ralph James as my mentors in our Toronto office. Still losing Steve Herman to Live Nation was a blow to me personally because he and I worked so well together.
Up to that point what had you been doing?
All business affairs stuff. I still represented clients outside of The Agency Group. I still had my practice. I had the practice until 2013 when I took the position of general counsel and CEO. That’s when I moved all of my pre-existing clients to attorneys in town. I was still doing a lot of the dance representation. My clients really stayed with me from the day that we started working together until 2013 when I had to let my clients go. A lot of them were the same people that I had been working with in 1998.
By then, your clientele had evolved to include the representation of sports celebrities.
Around 2005 or 2006, I started working with the NHL players. I started with Igor Larionov of the Detroit Red Wings. Then I worked with Scott Gomez, and Shawn Avery. Eventually for Alex Ovechkin, and I did some work for Henrik Lundqvist. So my practice was The Agency Group, hockey and music. It was exciting, and it was robust, and it was diverse.
United Talent Agency was founded in Beverley Hills in 1991. Any chance of being seduced by Southern California’s sun-drenched lifestyle, and moving westward?
No. It’s New York City all the way for me.
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, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia,, Ontario, and a consultant to the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta.
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