Power of Law: Top Music Attorneys of 2020

Doug Davis
Rob Latour/Shutterstock

As any music-business attorney will tell you, it’s not a job for the faint of heart — especially in 2020. These legal eagles made massive deals, litigated thorny disputes and helped their clients navigate fine deal points, all during a pandemic. Head here to read an interview with Dina LaPolt, our Power of Law honoree, and for profiles on more entertainment attorneys — many of whom also work in music — check out Variety‘s full Legal Impact list.

Doug Davis
The Davis Firm
Having a hand in key career decisions for DJ Snake, who has the rare distinction of 3 billion streamed songs, was a big deal for Doug Davis (pictured). So is his work with quarantine-perfect platform Verzuz, launched by long-time client Swizz Beatz with Timbaland. “Bringing a million eyeballs to their weekly battles, it’s been a thrilling unwrapping of rights in real time.” Davis is truly inspired by “the global social and civil- rights movement that is Black Lives Matter” and recently joined the Black Music Action Coalition. In that spirit, he’s especially proud to represent a diverse client list that includes Mike Will Made It, Savan Kotecha, LL Cool J and such executives as Larry Jackson, Ryan Press, Ezekiel “Zeke” Lewis and Jeannette Perez.

Clara Kim
Executive vice president & general counsel
New York-based Kim oversees transactions involving $1.2 billion in annual music royalties for songwriters, composers and music publishers. She worked licensing deals involving Apple, Discovery Communications, Fox Cable Networks, NBCUniversal, Spotify and trade group Television Music License Committee. She also completed agreements with new ASCAP members Mariah Carey, Diplo, Billie Eilish and the Tom Petty estate. Further, Kim interfaces with the U.S. Department of Justice reviewing ASCAP’s regulatory consent decree. Kim advises music creators to resist buyout deals from producers giving up music public performance rights. “It’s an important aspect of their compensation” as music creators, Kim says.

Howard King, Leslie Frank, Marjorie Garcia, Peter Paterno, Laurie Soriano
King, managing partner 
Frank, Garcia, Paterno, Soriano, partners
King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano
King is the managing partner of the firm, which has been in the middle of some of music’s biggest legal disputes in recent years, including Lil Wayne’s 2018 multimillion- dollar settlement with Cash Money, the warehouse fire class-action suit filed on behalf of artists against Universal Music Group and the December settlement on behalf of Tom Petty’s daughters in a dispute with their stepmother. Its clients include Metallica, Sia, Frank Ocean, Calvin Harris, Tyler the Creator, 21 Pilots, Skrillex, Steve Aoki, Pink Martini, Juanes, J Balvin, Zedd, Bon Iver and Dr. Dre. Balvin kept Garcia busy, negotiating deals for the reggaeton star’s March release “Colores.” The firm is helping clients find other revenue channels to make up for touring income lost to the pandemic while working to eliminate systemic racism. “My colleagues and I, as a kickoff, donated a day’s pay to various nonprofit organizations undertaking that fight and aiming toward advancement in communities of color,” says Frank. “We have a wishlist of related initiatives that are in development.” Additional clients include Linda Ronstadt, Alice in Chains, Van Morrison and Lauryn Hill.

Kenny Meiselas
Partner, head of music
Grubman Shire Meiselas & Sacks
With a roster that includes Sean “Diddy” Combs, Lady Gaga, the Weeknd and Usher, Meiselas is one of the most powerful and established attorneys in the music industry. A former musician himself, he famously got Combs, then a young executive, fired from a project; rather than getting angry, Diddy hired Meiselas himself. Meiselas helms big deals for his clients — not least Gaga’s Las Vegas residency — and also many philanthropic efforts. “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,” he says. “But you never know where that first opportunity could come from.”

Donald Passman
Gang, Tyre, Ramer, Brown & Passman
Even with a client list that includes Taylor Swift, Adele, Pink and Green Day, Beverly Hills-based Passman says his side job represents his biggest recent feat: prepping the 10th edition of his 1991 book “All You Need to Know About the Music Business,” released in October. “It was the most extensive update I’ve ever done in the history of the book because streaming has so radically changed the music business’ ecosystem. For the first time in history, music is monetized by not selling something but listening and consumption. It literally took a year longer than normal to update the book.” Upside: While COVID obviously sank touring income this year, “I’ve found that the rest of the business is pretty robust. People are still making record deals, publishing deals; people are buying and selling catalogs.”

Berkeley Reinhold
Business and Law Office of Berkeley Reinhold
Tours including Lollapalooza
Reinhold began representing the Lollapalooza music festival in 2003 while she was at the William Morris Agency, and now reps more than 15 festivals and tours worldwide; she recently negotiated more than 100 artists performance deals on behalf of producer clients in music and television. “COVID19 is a tectonic event that has completely frozen the global live-event business,” Reinhold says. “The most complex issue isn’t the shut-down itself, but the unnerving uncertainty on a time line for reopening,” which has left so many in an indefinite holding pattern. But she expresses optimism the music industry will prevail, as it has before. “We have proven to be resilient and strong.” she says.

Aaron Rosenberg
Myman Greenspan Fox Rosenberg Mobasser Younger & Light
The man who represents Ariana Grande, Jennifer Lopez and Justin Bieber considers the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19’s impact top issues; John Legend was his first client, and Rosenberg’s support of BLM is longstanding. “John and the rest of our team have really been focused on issues of social justice, first with the Show Me Foundation and now through his initiatives in criminal justice reform,” he says “It’s amazing to see the issue amplified.” He reps the Keep Cool label, launched through RCA by Tunji Balogun; and LVRN, the Interscope label founded by Justice Baiden, Sean Famoso McNichol, Carlon Ramong, Junia Abaidoo and Tunde Balogun.

Theo Sedlmayr
Founding partner
Sedlmayr & Associates
“Providing legal counsel and negotiation expertise that helped enable several of my clients to secure ownership of their master recordings” are among Sedlmayr’s more satisfying feats. The man that reps Eminem, Drake, Post Malone and DJ Khaled also feels strongly about music copyright infringement claims. “Since the ‘Blurred Lines’ decision five years ago, the number of baseless ‘evocation’ infringement claim letters and lawsuits against new hit songs has risen precipitously,” says Sedlmayr, who expresses hope that the recent appeals ruling on “Stairway to Heaven” will curb copyright claims that he describes as specious.

Howard Weitzman
Founding Partner
Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert
Movie producer Ivan Reitman and TV king Chuck Lorre remain loyal clients, but the estate of Michael Jackson figured into Weitzman’s biggest recent triumph. In May, an appeals court reversed an unpaid royalties verdict for producer Quincy Jones, reducing the Jackson estate’s liability to around $2.5 million from $9.4 million. Projects since Jackson’s 2009 death, including concert film “This Is It” and two Cirque du Soleil shows, were at issue. The Jackson estate figures into Weitzman’s next big quest. Asked the top issue facing his practice, he responded: “Can you enforce a 27-year-old non-disparagement clause from a 1992 agreement between Michael Jackson and HBO?” Stay tuned.

Debbie White
Partner and vice chair, music industry
Loeb & Loeb
White, who handles Christina Aguilera, BTS and Big Hit Entertainment, Duran Duran and Chinese media giant Tencent, hasn’t seen her dealmaking drop off in recent months. For new client Diane Warren, “We were able to close a large ex-U.S. publishing administration deal and features album agreement, both with BMG, as the pandemic hit a tipping point,” says White, noting that “artist deals on the recording side and publishing side have not slowed down, and we are having daily talks with record labels and distributors, major and independent, on behalf of both developing and established artists and writers. Catalog sales on the master and publishing side haven’t slowed down either and we are involved in several large transactions

Jeff Harleston
General counsel, EVP of business & legal affairs
Universal Music Group
Harleston also serves as interim CEO of Def Jam and co-chair of UMG’s new Task Force for Meaningful Change, the latter contributing $25 million to causes promoting social justice and racial equality. His legal team labored mightily on Tencent’s $3.4 billion investment, which bolstered UMG’s valuation. “It was an exhaustive process, starting around a year ago, motoring all the way until we had the final close at the end of March,” Harleston says. “The deal structure is a little different, but we’re very excited to have them as a shareholder and what that can mean for our business overall.”

Paul Robinson
EVP and general counsel
Warner Music Group
Last September, Robinson and a handful of others from the company began collaborating with owner Access Industries on a proposed IPO, which launched in June after a COVID-19 delay. “Luckily, Trent Tappe, deputy general counsel on our corporate legal team, is a securities attorney by training,” says Robinson. Warner Music’s general counsel since 2006, he’s mindful of the staffing on his team and the legal firms WMG engages. “We all need to do a better job on diversity and inclusion, not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it’s undeniably good for business.”

Julie Swidler
EVP, business affairs & general counsel
Sony Music Entertainment
Swidler, whose global legal purview includes labels Columbia, Epic, RCA and Arista Records, says the pandemic has been an added challenge for her team, which has worked to ensure the health and safety of Sony Music’s staff while continuing to protect artists’ works, “especially reflected in the music industry’s successful $1 billion lawsuit over an ISP that failed to meet its obligation to address piracy on its network.” Swidler, in her 12th year as general counsel, also enabled new revenue through its strategic investment in podcasting; SME has closed several joint ventures in the podcasting sector.