BY ROY STROM
Law Bulletin staff writer
Thomas R. Leavens spent a career tuning his ear to the intri- cacies of music law. Now he is hoping to flatten the learning curve for others.
Leavens — who started prac- ticing in music at a public record company in 1992 — wrote “Music Law for the General Practitioner,” published in August by the American Bar Association, as sort of a starter kit for small- practice lawyers looking to sync up with musician clients.
He brings a veteran’s perspec- tive — the 241-page book includes chapters on the music industry’s post-1990s changing business models — for entry- level music lawyers who want to provide services ranging from tax and estate advice to negoti- ating with music labels.
“We have something unique in this book,” said Leavens, a partner at Leavens, Strand, Glover & Adler LLC. “And that is ... a pretty full range of issues someone might encounter if you’re representing someone involved in music.”
Like the music industry itself, those issues remain in constant flux since digital music usurped the CD with the 1999 introduction
of Internet file-sharer Napster. While music is not as freely —
and illegally — accessible as Napster made it, revenue from digital sales and Internet- streaming fees have failed to match hard-copy sales, Leavens said.
The book says revenue from pre-recorded music sales has fallen almost 40 percent and the number of musicians for lawyers to represent has dropped 41 percent since Napster’s introduc- tion.
“I remember the first time that I logged in to Napster just to see what it was like, and I was appalled,” Leavens said.
“I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. All this music was there for everybody to take for free. And I just thought, ‘This is really dangerous.’”
Platinum Entertainment, the record label where Leavens worked at the time, tried to adapt. It made contracts to have its music made available for purchase online, but it eventually failed.
He then went to MusicNow, a digital music startup service that launched in 2002. There, he negotiated contracts for digital purchases, Internet-streaming fees and other subscription- based models. But the company
struggled to transfer music onto a portable device, Leavens said. That problem, of course, was
largely solved by Apple Inc.’s iPod.
“We were very early in the space, so I guess that was the story of a couple things I got involved in,” Leavens said. “It was very, very exciting. So I’ve really been immersed in this for maybe now about 15 years.”
He has taught a music law class at Northwestern University School of Law for about five years, which he said was instru- mental in arranging the material for the book. Writing and researching it was a two-year process, during which he was helped by his co-author and associate at his firm, Heather R. Liberman.
“It was amazing to see the information he was able to express just from his experience, let alone when you lay our research on top of that,” Liberman said.
“It’s pretty remarkable what a person that’s so focused in one area of law can learn over a lifetime and this is an expression of that.”
While it may be difficult to capture the changing state of the industry in a non-digital book, Leavens said general practi-
tioners will always need the type of advice available in his printed work.
The book includes chapters on how musicians interact with publishing, record companies, distribution of their music, forming bands and dealing with tax and estate laws. Leavens said the book also provides practical advice.
“The whole music industry is based on intermediaries,” Leavens said.
“You find yourself not always dealing with your client. You’re dealing with people representing the client. And you have to be mindful of what that means in terms of confidentiality.”
Then there’s the issue of the almost-inevitable band breakup.
“When you’re representing a group you have to be mindful about not taking sides,” Leavens said. “You can’t say, ‘Who’s the most likely to be successful? That’s the person I’m going to provide my services to.’”
Despite all the changes he has seen in the music industry, Leavens said one thing remains constant: Musicians need lawyers.
“There is so much confusion and doubt and ambiguity,” he said, “and that’s fertile grounds for all attorneys whenever that’s the case.”