Dina LaPolt is one of the music industry’s leading attorneys — and she is almost indisputably the loudest. Outspoken and seemingly fearless, the owner and founder of LaPolt Law represents artists including Steven Tyler, Britney Spears, 21 Savage, Deadmau5 and, for many years, the Tupac Shakur estate.
But Variety’s 2020 Power of Law honoree has arguably made a bigger name for herself representing the songwriting community on Capitol Hill via her work on the pivotal 2018 Music Modernization Act, the first major copyright reform for music creators in decades, and for her role in obtaining the release of rapper 21 Savage, incarcerated by ICE in early 2019, after just nine days. She is also one of the few executives you’ll ever hear unpack the intricacies of copyright law and intellectual property in thick New Yawk-ese with a heaping dollop of f-bombs.
In 2015, she helped found the Songwriters of North America (SONA) and a year later orchestrated the filing of a lawsuit against the Dept. of Justice on SONA’s behalf in connection with the DOJ’s mandate requiring 100% licensing by ASCAP and BMI. Last year the Recording Industry honored her with its service award; she was the youngest attorney to receive it and only the second woman to do so. That came on the heels of MIDEM naming her Music Lawyer of the Year in 2018.
Yet her path has not been a smooth one. She struggled with substance abuse for years; her take-charge nature has rankled some. She also encountered harassment and many prejudices as a female musician and, over the past 20-plus years, as a lesbian in the boys’ clubs of the music industry and Washington D.C. But she overcame those hurdles, charting an unconventional path from upstate New York to music power broker, starting out as an assistant to the late Kiss drummer Eric Carr before realizing her future really was in the legal profession.
She made another key connection after law school, when she met Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, bonding with her, and later Aerosmith’s Tyler, over recovery. LaPolt is a vocal advocate for gay rights — she has two children with her wife, Wendy Goodman — and for the 12 Step Program, having been clean and sober herself for 22 years.
During a TEDx talk in 2016, she admitted the word “no” has been the biggest motivator in her life, quoting those who told her she couldn’t get a job as a musician, then get into law school as a woman and even sue the Dept. of Justice. But she’s done all of those things and more — and continues to fight through the challenges that 2020 has brought.
“The music industry is a resilient bunch,” she says. “We are scrappy, we know how to move through a crisis, protect our clients and get sh– done.”
Below, in her own inimitable words, she tells Variety‘s Jem Aswad how she accomplished all that she has so far.
I grew up in New Paltz in upstate New York, a very artsy-fartsy, hippie-type community. My mother was a painter and an activist, my father was a prison guard who transitioned into running education programs in prisons for 30 years. I got into music as a kid and went to Concordia College with a music scholarship but got kicked out in a year — I had a terrible alcohol problem that stalked me until I was 32. I ended up going to SUNY New Paltz; I played in bands and graduated with a degree in classical guitar. I was also the president of the college concert board and got in trouble because the shows were making money — it was a student union, which wasn’t supposed to make money. So I realized two things in college: that everybody was a better musician than me, and that I was good with the business side of music. They didn’t have a music business program at the time, so I petitioned the music department to let me develop my own minor in arts administration — not one music professor would sponsor me, so I had to get a theater professor.
My ex-girlfriend’s sister, Carrie Stevens, was dating the drummer in Kiss at the time, Eric Carr, and I started working for him as a part-time assistant and tour manager for all-female thrash bands that he managed on the side. Kiss moved to L.A. at around the time I was graduating, so I decided to, as well, and took three weeks to drive cross-country and stay with relatives in the Bay Area. While I was driving, Eric was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and within nine months he died. It was awful.
I didn’t make it to L.A. and decided to stay in the Bay Area. One of my bands had a showcase at a music business conference in San Francisco, and I went to a panel with three music lawyers: one looked like a linebacker, the other had long hair and the other had two earrings. I had an epiphany, because the only lawyer I’d ever met was Kiss’ attorney, this old guy in a bowtie. So I talked to one of the lawyers, Tony Berman, after the panel and said, “I wanna go to law school!”
Within two weeks I took the LSAT and failed miserably because I’m dyslexic, but I met this African American woman who said I should call the dean of the law school at John F. Kennedy University in the East Bay. I told him, “You’ve gotta let me in! How are gay people going to change the laws if we can’t get into law school?” He agreed to let me in for a year and stay if I passed the “baby bar” exam, and that’s what happened. I loved law school: There are no standardized tests, only reading cases and running your mouth.
My band, Irresistible Impulse, was doing well — we worked a lot in the San Francisco area playing with bands like 4 Non Blondes, and in the summer we played all these gay pride parades. I was sexually harassed by men all the time in those days — and I’m a big old lesbian! I played so many shows where promoters rubbed my t–s or my ass… I remember playing a club in Salt Lake City and the owner was a Mormon, and he was the nastiest, dirtiest guy, and we would just deal with it — “Just give us our money” and move on. Those days are over — people can’t take those liberties anymore.
In my last year of law school I interned for a lawyer named Deena Zacharin who’d always tell me that I needed to move to L.A. I didn’t want to, but one day she said, “You’re fired — and you’re moving to L.A.” I had just passed the bar — God knows how — and got a call from Carrie, “Hey, are you an entertainment lawyer yet?” “Yes, as of two days ago.” “I’m Playboy’s Miss June, come to L.A. and live with me,” and in matter of days I was living in Sherman Oaks with Miss June 1997. I was at the Playboy Mansion every night — you could get anything you wanted there, so my drinking and drugging really took off. By now, I’m 32 years old and I’m a lawyer but I’m unhireable — I’m a woman, I don’t have any experience, I didn’t go to the right law school, but mostly because it’s because I’m out all night drinking, so I’m waiting tables in West Hollywood to support myself. One night I met a stylist named Michael Holdaway — he was amazing, he looked like Freddie Mercury, and I said, “Hey, let’s do a shot!” He said, “Get away from me! I’m an alcoholic — I haven’t had a drink for eight years.” I’d known I had a problem for a long time, and I’d never heard anyone admit it like that, so free and easy. By the end of the night I was crying in his lap, but I still didn’t get sober.
“In my last year of law school I interned for a lawyer named Deena Zacharin who’d always tell me that I needed to move to L.A. I didn’t want to, but one day she said, ‘You’re fired — and you’re moving to L.A.’”
Through Miss June, I’d met an attorney who I ended up interning for. One night I was at a restaurant with him and people kept bringing me drinks; I got a little carried away and he was very embarrassed. He walked me to my car and said, “The fact that you don’t know better jeopardizes my relationship with you.” They have a saying in 12 Step that you have a spiritual awakening, and that was the one: April 18, 1998. I called Michael, drunk off my ass, and said “I’m ready.” I haven’t had a drink since.
I kept interning for that lawyer, and one of the firm’s clients was Afeni Shakur — mother of Tupac, who had died just two years before. The estate was in probate because Tupac died without a will and everybody was suing because he had no contracts with producers and songwriters. I was excited to work with her — Afeni was a hero to my activist mother for her teachings about the Black Panther Party — and as I was telling her this, she started dropping all these slogans we use in the 12 Step Program. I said, “Are you in recovery?” “Yes honey, 13 years!” She became my work sponsor, and I buried myself in working on Tupac’s estate. I didn’t plan to open my own practice, but one day David Cohen, head of business affairs at Interscope, called me and said, “Afeni says you’re opening your own law firm and I have to help you!”
So LaPolt Law was founded in 2001, and the clients who came with me were the Tupac Estate, Wild Orchid — Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas was in that group — [singer] Andy Vargas and [comedian] Ed McMahon. Afeni owned the rights to all of Tupac’s unreleased material, but $13 million was being held by Interscope because all these producers were suing. Afeni couldn’t understand it, so I explained that the royalties were being split incorrectly. “Is that why everybody’s mad?” So we started settling things one by one. I set up a joint venture with Interscope — Amaru Entertainment, after his middle name — and over the years we put out nine [posthumous] albums, three books, Afeni’s biography and a documentary called “Resurrection” that was nominated for an Academy Award.
Late in 2009 I met Steven Tyler and became his lawyer. He was in rehab, and for the first part of 2010 I’d drive to Betty Ford every Sunday and spend the day with him. We negotiated his “American Idol” deal from rehab, and the day he got out, he drove straight here to my law office. We’ve been together ever since.
My work on the Music Modernization Act began when Michelle Lewis and Kay Hanley and I started SONA in 2015 — the first thing we did was orchestrate filing a lawsuit against the DOJ in opposition to their 100% licensing rule. I’d been involved in advocacy before that: I testified before the House Judiciary Committee for the Songwriter Equity Act, which I realized wasn’t going to pass, and it became crystal clear that the streaming services needed a compulsory license. In April of 2017 I got a deadly infection in my neck and almost died, and when I got out of rehab I had to be quarantined because I was highly prone to infection — kind of like now. Anyway, I was sitting in my backyard and Congressman Doug Collins called — “I’m gonna let you in on a little secret.” He, [National Music Publishers Association CEO] David Israelite and [Nashville Songwriters Association International executive director] Bart Herbison had begun to sketch out the MMA. So that whole summer, from my backyard, I worked with those guys on what turned out to be the early stages of the MMA. That September, I was speaking at a conference in Washington and looked at my phone and I had six missed calls and all these text messages: “Doug’s pulling the plug on the bill, the [Digital Media Association] is f—ed up.” We had been waiting for comments from DiMA on the draft of the bill, and while I was speaking on the panel, they had changed everything on the bill that had been agreed on. I called Doug and said, “Before we pull the plug, let’s just get everybody in a room.” He said, “How are we gonna do that?” “You’re a Congressman, compel them to come!” And sure enough, the next morning, people had flown in from New York and Nashville, and we all got into a room — David, Bart, ASCAP, BMI, people from Spotify and Amazon and their lobbyists — and put everything back together again. Sometimes you just need to get people in the same place instead of all these emails and phone calls.
The week before the 2019 Grammy Awards, I got tipped off that 21 Savage was going to be taken into custody by ICE — a very highly placed person in D.C. called and said “They’re looking at your guy.” It was Super Bowl weekend, he had a show at the Pepsi Arena in Atlanta the night before the game, but I literally flew a lawyer who worked for me to Atlanta on Friday to bring him to L.A., because California is a sanctuary state. I got a call from her at 11 p.m. on Saturday night — never a good sign — saying Savage had been taken by ICE. I worked all through Grammy Week and did not sleep, orchestrating getting him out of there. It took nine days — there were people five times richer than Savage who had been there for months — but a lot of influential senators and members of Congress helped. I can’t mention some of their names — some of them are Trump Republicans and I have to compartmentalize that element. But that’s part of politics, being able to work with people.
How do I stay moral in such a sleazy business? It all comes from the principles of my 12 Step Program: You cannot lie, so if I have an artist who’s in the middle of a bidding war and one label gives me an advance and another label wants to know how much, I’m not gonna lie. And also, no conflicts of interest — I either represent you or I don’t, because when the shit hits the fan, I have to know which side I’m on.
I might not be the richest lawyer in the music business, but I sleep well at night.