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Staying afloat in the music industry is all about keeping up with the pace of change, according to Jeffrey Harleston — who would know. For the past year he has been serving double duty as both
Staying afloat in the music industry is all about keeping up with the pace of change, according to Jeffrey Harleston — who would know. For the past year he has been serving double duty as both general counsel and executive VP of business and legal affairs for the Universal Music Group, and the interim chairman and CEO of UMG’s Def Jam Records. Harleston sat down with deputy music editor Jem Aswad for Variety’s Power of Law keynote conversation on Friday. The event recognized 2021 Power of Law nominee Gordon M. Bobb, a partner at Del Shaw Moonves.
In his main job, Harleston oversees a team of lawyers and the legal affairs of a sprawling company that includes the Capitol, Interscope, Republic, Motown, Island, Def Jam, Decca and Verve labels, as well as a leading global music publishing company and the industry’s top merchandising company, Bravado. He oversees all business transactions, contracts, and litigation for UMG’s operations worldwide as well as its government relations, trade and anti-piracy activities. In recent years he’s also handled UMG’s sale of a 20% stake to Chinese media giant Tencent, and is looking ahead to UMG’s IPO later this year. He has also developed strong relationships with many of the company’s artists or their estates over his decades at UMG, and tends to work directly with the James Brown and Bob Marley estates himself.
At Def Jam, he’s overseen major releases by Justin Bieber, Jhene Aiko, Big Sean and even hip-hop legends Public Enemy (whose return to the label after more than 25 years Harleston helped orchestrate)‚ and made several major staff promotions while the company seeks a full-time chief. He also co-chairs UMG’s Task Force for Meaningful Change, which was created in response to last summer’s social upheaval. Its mission is to address and promote tolerance and equality and eliminate bias within the company, music community and world at-large.
“It’s odd to have a side hustle that’s running a major label,” he said Friday of his dual role. Yet one thing that’s affected him in both jobs has been the globalization of the marketplace. He pointed out acts like Lorde, a world-famous pop star from New Zealand, and Lewis Capaldi, a Scottish artist who initially signed to the company’s German division.
“The ability to develop local repertoire is significant,” Harleston said. “Music is readily available. Release a record in one territory, and it is global immediately.”
In addition to being flexible to change, Harleston advised that attorneys working in music today must prioritize taking care of one’s self and be ready for hard work.
“I don’t know a lawyer that’s working less now than they were before the pandemic. Everyone’s working harder and longer, and frankly, it is something that we all need to take care of ourselves,” he said. “Make sure you have time to think. You’ve got to think through this stuff and you need to step away from the Zooms. You need to get out, take a walk around the block and spend time with your family.”
Watch the full conversation above.