The old joke goes, ‘How you get to Carnegie Hall?’ The answer? ‘Practice, practice, practice.’ The chestnut could also apply to Kenneth R. Meiselas — known as Kenny — who, as partner and head of the music department at New York-based firm Grubman Shire Meiselas & Sacks, works in the building that houses the iconic concert hall itself. Variety is honoring Kenny Meiselas and his son Ben with its Power of Law kudos at an invitation-only breakfast at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel April 10.
As the go-to attorney for Sean Combs, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, The Weeknd and Usher, Meiselas’ career has seen a similar trajectory to that of some of the biggest music stars in the business. “Kenny’s expert advice and support throughout our journey has been invaluable,” says Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, The Weeknd’s manager.
Ironically, it was only after coming to terms with the sobering realization that he “couldn’t be a rock star,” that the Long Island native leapt into the field of lawyering. “I think I always knew that I wasn’t going to be a rock star, but nevertheless I toyed around with it,” says Meiselas, who earned a B.A. in political science at Washington U. in St. Louis before getting his J.D. at Hofstra U. in Hempstead, N.Y.
“To date myself, I was one of the many who saw the Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan’ and I fell in love with rock and roll, and I knew that I just wanted to be a part of it,” Meiselas recalls with a whiff of youthful nostalgia. “I don’t think I had realistic dreams of being a rock star, but even while I was going to law school I was in a band as the lead singer and songwriter. We played local Manhattan clubs, and I’m very fortunate that there was no YouTube, internet or social media back then.”
They say the most successful music industry executives started out as failed musicians, so Meiselas is in good company. But what also makes a music professional rise above the noise is commitment, something that Meiselas recognized as he graduated law school. “It was a key moment in my life and I looked in the mirror and said: you are not that talented.”
But with career aspirations still deeply entrenched in a passion for music, Meiselas was unwilling to pivot completely away from his love of rock and roll. It was a serendipitous encounter in the late 1980s with members of the 1960s girl group The Exciters, whose 1963 hit song “Tell Him” reached No. 4 on the pop charts, that steered Meiselas toward the “business side” of entertainment.
“The lead singer of the group was Brenda Reid and her husband, Herb Rooney, was the producer and song arranger,” Meiselas recalls. “Coincidentally, they had a manager who happened to work in the same building where I was working as a young lawyer just starting, trying to get into the entertainment world. This manager worked down the hall and he was still fighting the good fight even though [The Exciters] hadn’t had a hit in many, many years. And one day he came knocking at my door and said, ‘Hey, I manage this group, The Exciters, and their song ‘Tell Him’ is on the soundtrack of the movie ‘The Big Chill,’ and they didn’t get paid. Can you help find a way to get them paid?’”
Meiselas placed myriad calls and “turned over every rock” and was finally able to hunt down a small label called Liberty Records. “They were part of EMI and they kind of said, ‘Where have you been? We’ve been looking for The Exciters! Of course we want to pay you!’ ”
That was the beginning of Meiselas’ career as a dealmaker. “It wasn’t a tremendous amount of money, but being an exploited group of the ’60s, it really mattered to them,” says the attorney.
A couple of years later, Cory Rooney, Reid’s son, approached Meiselas for some career advice. Rooney’s friend, Prince Markie Dee, was one of the founding members of the 1980s hip-hop trio the Fat Boys, but he wanted out of the band so that he and Rooney could focus on writing songs and producing.
“[Cory] came to me and said, ‘You were so great to my mom and dad, can you help us? Mark wants to get out of the Fat Boys and we want to do serious music together,’ ” says Meiselas. “So I was able to get them out of the deal and their first project was on Uptown Records for an artist named Father MC. He was on the verge of becoming a superstar. His first album went gold, back when gold was meaningful, and he was on his way to reaching the next level. And the young guy doing A&R on the record was someone by the name of Puff Daddy. I think he was about 19. I got him fired from the project so Father MC could A&R it himself. We never really heard from Father MC again career-wise. But Puff came to me a couple of months later and said, ‘Hey, will you represent me?’”
Meiselas has repped Combs, whose music career exploded exponentially in the ’90s, and has since gone on to mogul status with a diverse portfolio that includes fashion, top-shelf liquor, television and much more, from that day.
“I think when it comes to career, it’s all about luck combined with taking advantage of every opportunity and working hard to create other opportunities,” offers Meiselas. “But you never know where that first opportunity could come from.”
One of those plum opportunities came in the way of meeting Lady Gaga, who was famously dropped by Island Def Jam Records in 2007 before signing with Interscope and launching her Grammy- and Oscar-winning megawatt trajectory. A couple of years later, Meiselas first became aware of Gaga’s artistry. “It was before she really broke,” he recalls. “I’m a huge [David] Bowie fan and I just saw a lot of Bowie in her. I was really blown away by her even before she became a superstar.”
Meiselas officially came into the picture in 2011, “at the height of her stardom,” he recalls of the weeks after the release of Gaga’s second album “Born This Way.” “I get really passionate about artists who are emerging and who I think are special. She’s a throwback. I just saw that greatness in her.” Meiselas went on to negotiate such high-profile deals for Gaga as her residency at the Park MGM in Las Vegas and her starring turn — both on screen and on wax — in “A Star Is Born.”
“To represent a superstar at her level is a true team effort working with great people — Bobby Campbell her manager, her agents at CAA, Arthur Fogel at Live Nation and of course my incredible partners at the firm, in particular Sonya Guardo,” says Meiselas. Meiselas also praises Slaiby and Amir “Cash” Esmailian together with WME’s Sara Newkirk for the similar partnership role they play with The Weeknd.
(Pictured below, from left: Slaiby, The Weeknd, Esmailian and Meiselas)
Indeed, many stars look to Meiselas for legal advice on recording contracts, endorsement deals, publishing, touring and all manner of music business issues, and his roster reads more like a chart than a client list: The Weeknd, arguably one of the most important new artists to emerge in the past decade; pop-R&B hitmaker Usher; the influential rapper Nas; Cash Money/Young Money icons Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne; the estate of Whitney Houston; hip-hop upstarts Rae Sremmurd and NAV; and “Call Me Maybe” singer Carly Rae Jepsen — not to mention newcomers Ella Mai (of “Boo’ed Up” fame, she was Grammy-nominated this year), Madison Beer and, triumphantly, Bebe Rexha.
While Meiselas tends to rep musicians once they are already firmly established, there are instances — as there were with some regularity during the height of firm founder Allen Grubman’s days, when the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Madonna were the upstarts — when a music attorney will take on a developing or so-called “baby act” and help steer the artist towards a recording or publishing deal.
Rexha was one of those. A fledgling songwriter at the time they were introduced, Meiselas says, “It was kind of an instant, ‘Wow, this girl is incredible.’ I literally knocked down the doors to get Bebe her first record deal.”
The investment paid off. Not only did Rexha score a hit as a writer, with a credit on Eminem and Rihanna’s Grammy-winning rap single, “The Monster,” she went on to release “Meant to Be” with Florida Georgia Line, one of the biggest country-pop crossover hits of all time, and she’s well on her way to success on her own solo terms.
The guidance of Grubman cannot be understated. A trailblazer in entertainment law and a key architect of the modern music business, he has been not just a mentor to Meiselas, but also a friend.
“It takes a village,” says Meiselas. “My partners — Larry Shire, who runs the film department, whose team worked side by side with me on ‘A Star Is Born,’ and Eric Sacks, who runs our corporate department, and of course to my mentor — the king — Allen Grubman. This team enables me to represent all of my superstar clientele in all of the diverse areas of their careers from music, film, television and theater to branding, licensing and strategic partnerships.”
Of course, there’s no better use of influence than to help create a platform through which his clients can make a deep, widespread philanthropic impact. It was Meiselas who furnished the legal expertise in 1994 when Combs founded Daddy’s House Social Programs, a New York City-based organization providing recreation and education for underprivileged and homeless urban youth. More recently, Combs has been involved with charter schools in Harlem and in the Bronx. Says Meiselas: “It’s always been very important for him to give back to the community.”
Other clients’ charities include Usher’s New Look Foundation, a non-profit that serves youth through a 10-year program aimed at developing passion-driven global leaders. And there’s Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, led by the singer and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, founded in 2012 to support the mental and emotional wellness of young people “and empower them to create a kinder and braver world.”
While Meiselas notes that he’s “in no way the driving force” of these massive philanthropic endeavors, he’s proud and inspired by his clients as they seek to foment greater good in the world. “When you find someone who’s so passionate about giving back, like Gaga and Usher, I really admire that,” he says. “I represent my clients and their passions are my passions, especially when they care about issues that are important and that I also believe in. Hopefully through the things that we do, be it contributions or attending events or providing pro bono legal aid, it’s helping their dreams come true.”
It’s Meiselas’s eldest son, Ben, who seems to have inherited that same proclivity for giving back. Partner and head of the civil litigation department of Geragos & Geragos, Ben Meiselas has steered two of the most high-profile civil cases in recent American history: Colin Kaepernick’s landmark lawsuit against the NFL and the victorious class-action suits against the now-infamous Fyre Festival and its founder, Billy McFarland.
“The work that he does is really about helping people with some of the more challenging issues that we face today,” says Meiselas. “He’s really the lawyer fighting for those important causes on behalf of his clients.”
But as Meiselas tells it, there was a time when Ben wasn’t certain he even wanted to graduate from college — the son, like father, was seduced by the biz. “He was introduced to the music scene at a very early age,” says the elder Meiselas, noting that Ben’s bar mitzvah party was held at Justin’s, Combs’ now-defunct restaurant in Manhattan.
(Pictured below, from left: Brett, Ben and Jordan Meiselas wearing jackets from Puff Daddy’s 1997 No Way Out Tour.)
“He used to go to the music studios with me and had early contact with all these artists,” Meiselas recalls. “Then he went to George Washington University. One year, he had this fun situation where he was working with Puff in Miami and he was running around with, I think, Bruce Willis and Nelly. He was supposed to be going back to school. He didn’t get on that plane. I tracked him down and he’s like, ‘Dad, I don’t need to go back to school. I’m already working.’ And I was like, ‘Guess whose kid is going to college?’ And he said, ‘Who?’ And I go, ‘Puff’s kid is going to college. And if his kid is going to college, you’re going to college!’ And then, fortunately, he got on that next plane.”
As for what comes next in his career, Meiselas is content with continuing to focus on his role in the music industry — “Remember I’m a frustrated rock star, so I was never looking to be a courtroom attorney,” he says — and spending time with his family, which includes wife, former publicist Beth Katz, and their teenage daughter, Rachel, who has her own radio show at her Long Island high school and aspires to be a sports reporter. Meiselas has three sons from a previous marriage: Ben; Brett, who has won two Emmy Awards working on “The Ellen Show” and now works as a producer and social media executive for Cubevision and the Big3; and Jordan, an advertising account executive for Translation in Brooklyn.
“I have always tried to balance my career in the music industry with being a father to my children — from coaching the kids in every sport to supporting them in their career goals,” says Meiselas.
He also serves as a guest lecturer each semester at his alma mater, Washington U. “In this class I teach they focus on entertainment and music, and the number one question I get is, how do break into the business? And there really is no one story,” he says. “There are a few things I can recommend to someone about how to pursue their passion, but, for me, I was just always looking to find a way to get into show business. Because I really have no desire to be any other type of lawyer.”