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Don Passman Lays Down the Law
The veteran attorney offers tips for the aspiring musician.

by RW Deutsch
December 20, 2000

Entertainment attorney Don Passman's list of clients reads like a who's who of the music business -- R.E.M., Quincy Jones, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson, just to name a few. But, in addition to his high-profile roster, Passman has long been an advocate of demystifying the twists, turns and pitfalls of the industry for up-and-coming musicians.

Now in its fourth edition, Passman's book, "All You Need To Know About The Music Business," offers a wealth of information to educate, protect and prepare musicians as they climb the ladder of success.

"The reason I wrote [the book] is because I had a lot of people come to me who wanted to get started in the music business and just didn't know how to do it," Passman explains. "I wanted to have a sort of simple easy-to-read overview for people who don't like to read -- as most musicians don't."

The most common pitfall young artists make, according to Passman, is getting into bad long-term agreements that giveaway rights they shouldn't. Agreements that seem like the answer to a dream for a struggling musician too often turn into a nightmare down the road.

"Billy Joel had problems with that. Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson -- they all had problems with contracts they signed earlier in their careers," Passman says. "If you know enough to ask for it, you can get something in a management deal that says you can be my manager for a while, but if I don't have certain success levels, I can get out of the deal. For example, in a year and half or two years, if you haven't made "x" dollars or sold "x" albums, you can terminate the deal."

Some musicians feel intimidated, but Passman says it never hurts to ask. "You can ask nicely and if they tell you no, then you can make a decision if you want to do the deal or not," he says. "But at least you know what you're doing and then you can't later come back and say you've been taken advantage of.

"Bruce Springsteen talks openly about how he was playing clubs, starving, and finally someone came along and said they want to put money behind him. And he really didn't care much what he was signing," Passman notes. "He just wanted to get out there. It isn't ideal, but sometimes it may be the only choice and the greatest alternative to flipping Big Macs. I just think people should do it knowing what they're doing and not wake up surprised one day."

Passman also relates how George Harrison got stuck in a bad publishing deal and basically gave up his copyrights forever. "If he had been a little more educated [about the business end], he may still have ended up doing [the deal], but he might not have or have made a different deal," he says.

One thing Passman makes clear is that musicians don't necessarily need to have sound business knowledge, but they should develop skills in finding the right people to trust. "I think you really have to be careful about turning your life over to someone, and I think people don't pay attention to their business in the beginning," he says. "It may not be pleasant or something you like to do, but no one will take as good of care of business as you will, so you've really got to make the effort in the beginning to make it happen."

If you've spent any time learning about how the music business operates, you'll know that entertainment attorneys do a lot more than review contracts and paperwork. Finding a good attorney may be a good first step, and an attorney can also be a reliable partner.

"Lawyers in the music business are surprisingly fairly powerful players," Passman notes. "The reason is that we can have more clients than say managers or agents because it takes less of our time commitment. Because of that, we know what all the deals are. We see so many deals and know who's doing what around town and what kind of things we can get out of the marketplace."

So how do you shop for an attorney? "Basically, you want to get references from the lawyer of other people they've handled," Passman says, "and the trick is to get references at your level. The fact that somebody takes good care of a superstar doesn't mean they're going to take good care of you. They may not have the time."

Passman suggests getting several references, so you're not just getting the one or two success stories. "Then you have to ask questions like, are they prompt about returning phone calls? Do they explain things? Are they available to you? Do they get the work done on time?"

In addition to the traditional music business machinations, this latest edition of "All You Need To Know About The Music Business" also covers Internet topics, including digital downloading issues and copyright law changes.

Passman says he's skeptical that the Internet is making it any easier for a new musician to break into the industry. "As far as the Internet goes, yes, it's much easier to get the music to your fans, but the problem is that it's easier for everybody to get music to their fans. How do you break through the noise?" he asks.

"But that's what the record company's main function is. Their goal is to market and promote and get you out to the public. [However], we're going through a period where the major [labels] are contracting so there's less labels out there. What that means in the long term is that more little labels will grow up between the cracks, which I think is healthy and does create more opportunity."

Passman equates what's going on in the Internet with the way motion picture companies confronted the videocassette market when it first emerged. "If you remember, the film companies tried to stop video cassettes and now see it as one of their major sources of revenue," he says. "I think the same thing will happen with the Internet."

But, in a larger sense, the Internet brings into question the value that we as a society place on music. "I think we're getting a generation of people who believe that music should be free," Passman says. "But the reality is that if you make music free, then it's going to be very difficult for someone to make a living and eat while they're being a musician, which means you'll get a lot of people who will simply not make music because they can't afford to do it. And I don't think that ultimately is good for society as a whole."

In addition to his music writing, Passman has written two works of fiction, "The Visionary" and his latest, "Mirage." "It's my hobby," laughs Passman, who has his own Web site (www.donpassman.com). "It keeps me in the house."