Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca & FischerBorn:
Bronxville, N.Y., 1950Education:
L.A. City College, UCLA Law SchoolCareer Turning Point:
Giving up the dream of being a philosopher-musician and taking up lawHobbies:
Collecting vintage baseball cards and 18th century Italian antiquesMost Admired Person:
Martin Luther King Jr.Personal:
Married, one daughterRepresenting an all-star lineup of musical talent, attorney John Branca is committed to protecting artists' rights in an era of growing consolidation. He also happens to be a fan
With his wavy, shoulder-length hair and office attire of boots, T-shirt and blue jeans, John Branca more closely resembles some of the rock musicians he represents.
As a partner in the Century City law firm Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca & Fischer, his client list includes the Beach Boys, the Doors, Aerosmith. Michael Jackson, the Backstreet Boys and Limp Bizkit. With so many clients selling millions of records each, it's no wonder that Branca is one of L.A.'s highest paid attorneys. Forbes magazine estimates that he pulled in $6.5 million from the practice last year.
Branca, who left high school to pursue a music career before picking up his education again at L.A. City College, gets a 5 percent cut from all record contracts. Besides musicians, Branca has been busy defending fledgling Internet companies like MP3.com, which are simultaneously battling and courting major record labels.Question:
What were some of the steps you took to go from a high school dropout to a leading L.A. music attorney?
Answer: I was always a music fan. I dropped out of high school for a while because I had a band and we got a record deal when I was 16. That's why I went to L.A. City College because I didn't actually graduate from high school. I started out thinking I would want to write about and teach philosophy. But I ended up going to law school and started as a corporate lawyer at a (now defunct) downtown firm. I went in as a general lawyer. I started setting up a corporate structure for Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond, which involved setting up tour agreements and doing tax planning. Then I read an article about Elton John in Time magazine with some quotes from his lawyers and I realized that my heart was in the music business. So after a year at (the firm), I came back into the music business as a lawyer in January 1977. I became the Beach Boys lawyer in 1978. That was my first big client. Then Michael Jackson in January 1980.
Q: What's your daily routine?
A: I'm on the phone a lot. I travel a lot. Thirty five trips last year.
Q: You've mentioned only artists as clients. Do you ever represent the major record labels?
A: I used to consult with the majors, but I stopped that several years ago because of the consolidation in the industry. The companies have gotten so big. The labels tend to be a subsidiary of some distant multinational, multimedia conglomerate. So I felt that the origins of their decision making were getting farther and farther from the music business. I felt that the artists, the producers and the entrepreneurs who had to do business with the majors were the ones that needed aggressive representation and protection.
Q: How have your clients reacted to the consolidation?
A: There's definitely a frustration level. There was a time in the music business when the companies that recorded, marketed and sold the music were fairly close to the roots of the music, and now that's just not that case. No one's going to tell me that Steve Case and Bob Pittman (chairman and co-chief operating officer, respectively, of AOL Time Warner Inc.), who is a friend, have at the forefront of their minds the development of the next Warner artist. It's just not the case.
Q: How are the record companies being run differently?
A: The product is not a detergent. It's not a widget. It's music. So you have to nurture the artist. I think there are a lot of conscientious people running record companies. But it used to be that the record company (alone) was the business for the people running it. Now the people who are running the record companies are merely part of some much bigger enterprise.
Q: And with that, there is even more of a focus on the bottom line.
A: That's absolutely true. Most of the record companies are held by publicly owned companies that have quarterly reporting requirements and annual budgetary requirements. The delivery or non-delivery of an album can have a big impact on the bottom line. So sometimes there's pressure to rush the completion of an album.
Q: Is this a fair business for musicians?
A: I don't know if fair is an operative world in the business world. You have artists like Courtney Love who are filing claims against labels for what she considers to be oppressive practices. Napster gave the artistic community a sense of empowerment in that they realized they did not need to utilize major label distribution in order to get to the fans and the consumers. There are all sorts of currents in terms of getting more power and say to the artists. On the other hand, for the record label, Napster is an anarchist trend that is going to make it more difficult to price music. It cuts into the bottom line.
Q: How do you feel about Napster and its copycats?
A: As a consumer, I love Napster. It's a form of technology that allows consumers greater access to music and it allows an ease of the delivery of music to the consumers by the artist. The problem is that the content is owned by the major labels and is subject to copyright protection. So Napster as a form of technology is a tool, but it is not an end in itself.
Q: Will it be as revolutionary as so many people have claimed?
A: The technology already is revolutionary. Access to music is higher than it has ever been. There was a time when the artist that sold 10 million or 15 million albums worldwide was a very rare artist indeed. Now, there are a legion of artists that are capable of selling 10, 15 or even 20 million albums on each release. Part of that has to do with the fact that technology has made the world more accessible. Consider the fact that Carlos Santana can sell 25 million copies of "Supernatural," or that the Backstreet Boys can sell 20 million albums worldwide every time. That's something that at one time only Michael Jackson could do.
Q: Lately, the major labels have been actively acquiring digital media companies. What are they after?
A: The majors have spent a lot of money if not wasted a lot of money trying to figure out what their role is going to be with new technology and distribution of music. The technological change has not come from the record companies at all. It has come from outside the record companies. Their efforts to purchase companies like MP3.com is an effort to get the brainpower and the innovation that has come from small technology companies and to capture that service and distribution of music content. The only thing that we know for sure is that music is going to be around, consumers want to hear music and they want to hear it as conveniently and as cheaply as possible.
Q: What specifically are clients like Michael Jackson, Limp Bizkit and Carlos Santana seeking from you?
A: Artists want protection. A typical artist signs his first contract and gives the label options for up to eight albums. The normal artist doesn't deliver more often than every two or three years, so that's a potentially 20- to 25-year contract, which is absurd. In what other business in the world do you know that a person has to give away the rights to their personal services for 20 to 25 years? The artists are looking for someone to help them even things up.
Q: What aspect of your practice keeps you busiest?
A: One of the biggest things we do is renegotiate contracts. When an artist like Carlos Santana has a breakthrough in their career, we're there to help capitalize on that.
Q: Are you a fan of the music that your artists make?
A: People don't hire me to be a fan of music. They hire me to be their advocate and their adviser. As it turns out I'm also a fan of all kinds of music.
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