Recently, veteran music business attorney Donald S. Passman released the eighth edition of his seminal book, All You Need To Know About The Music Business, a standard text for law schools and music business programs. First released in 1991 and considered the "industry bible" by the Los Angeles Times, the new edition offers artists and professionals advice for creating, selling, sharing, and protecting music in the digital age.
A member of the prestigious Beverly Hills, Calif., entertainment law firm of Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown Inc., Passman has seen plenty of changes in the music business in his three decade-plus career. During the industry's zenith in the '80s and '90s, he helped engineer the multi-million dollar deals that landed R.E.M. at Warner Bros. Records and Janet Jackson at Virgin Records. In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Passman discusses the role of record labels in today's industry, the changing nature of recording contracts and why he feels streaming music services are a big part of the future.
What are some of the new areas addressed in the latest edition of All You Need To Know About The Music Business?
The massive changes in the digital area, the growth of subscription services, [and] the monetization of YouTube [and] locker services. All of these new digital menus need covering in depth, as well as how artists, record companies and songwriters are getting paid. The other new section covers artists doing things for themselves, [such as] how to use social media to build a fan base.
Can a paid streaming subscription model support the music business?
The physical model is certainly going away. I personally feel streaming is a big part of the future. If I can hear any song by any artist — and hear it anywhere I want, which is the next step — then I don't need to own something. When you get that ubiquity, it will be a game changer.
What is the role of the major record company in a world where gatekeepers such as traditional radio, MTV and retailers have been marginalized?
Mainstream Top 40 radio is still not accessible without a major label partner. The record company's role comes in when differentiating an artist from the millions of others out there. The major labels continue [to spend] money promoting and marketing albums, which becomes the engine moving the train through that tour and merchandising cycle. Anybody can put out a song; getting an audience is not so simple.
How would you counsel an artist about whether to sign with a record label?
That depends very much on what your ambitions are. If you're a niche artist who appeals to a small, devoted cult base, you're probably better off without a label, because you're going to make more money [on your own] even if you sell fewer copies. If you want to be a mainstream, worldwide success, you still need a label. If you're in between, the question becomes a balancing act. Are you going to get that much more from a label to make up for what you have to relinquish?
How much have recording contracts changed in the 21 years since the first edition of your book?
Things have, bizarrely, gotten simpler over the last number of years. The royalty calculation has become clearer. The companies are more involved in the artists' [lives] than they ever were, because they take broader and broader rights. Anything an artist records during [a] term with the label now becomes subject to their exclusivity, so you have to include them in all your deals. Sorting out rights in the digital age is enormously complicated. Everything moves so quickly; it's like the Wild West. But we're catching up. Uncertainty makes work for lawyers, so at the moment, everything is fine.
How does copyright law fare in a world of unlimited duplicating capabilities?
The concept of intellectual property remains. The copyright owner has the right to get paid and the right to control, to some degree, what happens with their work. The answer is not so much in the legal ability to "whack-a-mole," rather in providing a service that is so compelling that it's not worth the trouble to pirate. I believe that, potentially, the industry can be bigger than it's ever been. But that doesn't mean any individual artist will make as much as they did in the past. We've gone through massive upheaval. It'll take time before the new monetization comes close to the old one, but it's going in that direction as we speak.
(Roy Trakin has been senior editor at HITS magazine since he still had hair, and has written for every defunct rock publication that did and didn't matter. His weekly online blog, Trakin Care of Business, counts his mother as its biggest fan. He is also the author of biographies on Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks and Sting.)