HITS Daily Double


The Latest in a Series of Conversations
With the Top Entertainment Attorneys

When New York native Joel Katz accepted a scholarship from the University of Tennessee law school 40-some-odd years ago, he had no way of knowing he’d just made a life-changing decision that would ultimately lead to a singular and wildly successful career as an entertainment attorney. Three years later, sporting a law degree and a full head of hair, Katz headed to Atlanta, simultaneously taking jobs at HUD, then brand new Georgia State University and a small law firm, before starting a firm of his own. He’s never looked back, leading to his present stature as one of the most influential figures in his profession, his adopted hometown and the Southeast as a whole. In this exclusive HITS interview, Katz takes Bud Scoppa on a trip through his colorful past and provides details about his relationships with the numerous heavyweights who have chosen him to make their deals and help guide their careers. And he didn’t even bill Scoppa for his time.
You chose to live and work in Atlanta. What are the plusses and minuses of not being in New York or L.A.?
The minuses are that you have to travel to New York and L.A. 35 or 40 times a year, so my travel schedule is awful. It’s a tough existence as you get older. But I’ve got it down to a pretty scientific place. I have an airplane, and that makes it a little bit easier. On the plus side, living in Atlanta was a great place to bring up my two daughters. I now have four grandchildren.

Once you opened your own firm, who was your first showbiz client?
Strangely enough, my first client in my whole career as a lawyer was James Brown, who I represented off-and-on for about 40 years until he died. Securing him as a client was a story of insanity and silliness, but he and I became very close friends. He always used to tell people, "I started Joel Katz off. I was his first client."

And that led you to entertainment law?
After I got James Brown, I secured another fellow who was already making country records, but had not yet achieved true stardom, and that was Willie Nelson. He introduced me to Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, and they became clients as well—which meant I was representing the heads of the Outlaw Movement. Then I met George Strait through his manager. So my roots are pretty deep in Nashville; they’re very deep in pop music too, because we’ve worked with Jimmy Buffett for probably 40 years, and had a very interesting run with him.

In 1998, I merged my firm with a reasonably small, Miami-based law firm of about 220 lawyers called Greenberg Traurig, which was based in Miami. That firm grew, as well as our entertainment practice. We now have entertainment lawyers all over the world in nine offices. But this is not a boutique firm; we do everything. The Atlanta office alone now has almost 100 lawyers.

You wear several different hats at Greenberg Traurig and in your philanthropic activities. Can you describe the various roles that you play in terms of specific clients and undertakings?
I started out at Greenberg Traurig as the Founding Managing Shareholder of the Atlanta office. From the beginning, I’ve been Chairman of the Entertainment and Media Group, which is made up of knowledgeable and competent lawyers who specialize in those areas. I’m very interested in philanthropy. The law school library at the University of Tennessee Law School is named after me. We also endowed a school at the University of Georgia at the Kennesaw State University campus, which is devoted to commercial music and is called the Joel Katz School. I’m pretty proud of that. We’ve created an event for T.J. Martell in Atlanta, a wine dinner we do every fall, which is a sellout. We also raise quite a bit of money for T.J. Martell every fall at a wine dinner. By the third course, everyone there is in a great mood. You can imagine what’s going on.

Word is that you’re a consultant to all the major music groups. How hard is it to balance their competitive interests when they all want what you’re representing or selling?
I do consult Lucian and Doug, and they both know that I do consult both of them, because I do it very openly. I like them and I respect both of them very much, and we do a lot of business with them. I think both of them are super-intelligent, super-sophisticated guys, and they understand the position that one is in when you work for both of them. All you can do is be honest and tell the truth and move through it. We also have a very nice relationship with Len Blavatnik at WMG, but I don’t consult him.

How tricky is it to satisfy the needs of clients who are sometimes in competition with one another, specifically Dick Clark Productions with the American Music Awards and the Recording Academy with the Grammys?
I’m the General Counsel of the Grammys and for the Recording Academy, and Special Counsel of the CMAs for television. I also work for Guggenheim Media, which owns a variety of different assets, including Dick Clark Productions. I really enjoy working with Neil Portnow, and with Allen Shapiro, who are both visionaries. They’re really building their organizations, and my hope is someday they’ll be able to do things together in different areas.

What big deals are you most proud of?
Well, I’ve very proud of the Grammy television deal with CBS, and the CMA deal with ABC, both of which are 10-year contracts. Those deals give both of them enormous stability and the ability to really grow their businesses without having to worry about renegotiating every three or four years. It’s difficult to run a nonprofit organization, which is very much dependent on profit-making record and publishing companies, so it’s important for the management of those institutions to have the the time to develop their visions and make them a reality.

What’s your involvement with the Michael Jackson Estate? How do you and John Branca interact?
I’ve been counsel to the estate since it began, working side-by-side with John and with Howard Weitzman from the Kinsela Weitzman firm. The three of us are like the Three Amigos—we’re good friends, and we try to do the best we can for the estate. We take it very seriously, and we really trust each other. And John McClain, the co-executor, is a brilliant guy.

Do you understand what Scooter Braun is trying to do with the managers and artists he’s rolling up? No one seems to get what the end game is here.
I’ve represented Scooter for about two years. He has a great vision and understanding about who he is, and he realized that in the personal-service business, he can only grow so much unless he affiliates with other people in the same business who are comprehensively very good at what they do, and not necessarily in the same genre of music that he’s in, or if they are, having different skill sets. He’s just begun building his business, and it’s gonna take a while to understand what that business is ultimately going to do, which probably involves getting into a variety of other businesses besides management. But I think that will come about organically. Right now, the managers who are involved are getting to know each other and keep their companies rolling and adding managers. As you know, they just added Jason Owens’ company, Sandbox Management from Nashville, and I’m sure they’ll grow the company both geographically and genre-specifically in the next year.
Why does Warner Music seem to be out of the mainstream of the music business? What is the key missing element of Len Blavatnik’s team, and why has Warner/Chappell been able to flourish in that environment?
Cameron Strang
and Big Jon Platt have been really effective as publishers. Cameron has been a publisher for many years, and he has publishing in his blood, even though he’s doing other things as well. Jon Platt is one of the best publishers in America and has done a wonderful job for that company, and will continue to do a great job. We represent Jon Platt, and we’re very proud of the work that he’s done. They’re both great publishers, and that’s why they’ve done well. It’s like Marty Bandier: Why has Sony/ATV done well? It’s because they have a great team and a great leader, which is the same in all businesses. I think that WMG will become a better company than it is, and the addition of Rob Wiesenthal is a good one. From a corporate perspective, Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald are very good executives; it’s just that time is needed for them to grow their business. Remember, they’re the only major company that’s not publicly traded, so they can react quicker than the other two. And eventually, I think they’ll figure out how to do it and will really become a force. We like doing business with them. They’re good people, and I think they will grow.

The Irving Azoff-MSG partnership has gotten off to a blistering start. What should we expect to see from them over the next few years?
I have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Irving for about 40 years. He’s dynamic, strategic and extremely smart, and combining with the people who own Madison Square Garden and own Cablevision was certainly something that he did with great thought. Irving will definitely be in the facilities business in a very big way. My bet is he will soon be in a variety of other businesses as well. Irving Azoff is a total winner, and he will always be a total winner. And he will build the business like he has always done. He has taken the management business to a new level. His definition of what a management company could be has now been successfully emulated by several others. But Irving created that definition. He’s very special, and when you really get to know him, he’s a very good-hearted person. I like him very much.

What impact has Tim Leiweke and Randy Phillips’ departure from AEG had on that company?
AEG is a very strong company in the real estate and facilities areas. They have good corporate management with Dan Beckerman, Jay Marciano and Teddy Fikre, and Phil Anschutz is obviously a very smart person. I’ve watched how they’ve worked with us with the Grammy organization, and they have conducted themselves very well and really really been an asset to work with. But the departures of Tim Leiweke and Randy Phillips… I mean, both of them are gonna do just fine, but they’re very colorful, enigmatic people who go out and get things done, and they’re not what you would call typical corporate operators. These are guys who move about and make things happen. And Jay Marciano is gonna need a little time to fill that role, but hopefully, he’ll develop into someone who can do what Tim and Randy did. And Tim is in Canada helping to run [Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment]. I spoke to him this morning. And Randy, who we represent, is getting ready to start a whole new business and enter into one of the most exciting times, I think, in his life.

Throughout the down years and the "new normal," the Nashville labels have been consistent in terms of performance relative to the industry as a whole. From your vantage point, with some of country’s biggest artists as your clients, do you agree with that assessment, and if so, why would you say that’s the case?
Country music is very different than pop music in a lot of ways. First of all, the average country artist will put out a record in about every 18 to 24 months, and they tour every year, which means they have a different source of income than most artists who are on the road every three or four years. They’re promoting and marketing while they’re touring, which is a whole different economic model than pop or rock. It’s also a very close community. Most of country music is made and delivered and promoted and marketed out of Nashville today, so it’s a very different type—a closed type—of community for the building of artistry, and it’s been very successful. The CMA and the ACM have done a great job, and you can see it. Country music is here to stay; it has become pretty much America’s popular music. The key is how to export it overseas, and how that is done—if it can be done—will obviously lead to further growth.

Anything you want to add?
Yes. I’m very proud that we’ve been able to build a business that started in Atlanta, not in the mainstream of the entertainment business. Which really goes to point out that if you work hard at something and just keep at it, no matter where you’re from, you can be a participant in an industry. I know from my discussions with the American Bar Association and some of the organizations that I work with, that it’s really important to have young lawyers all over the country. If they’re really interested in this kind of work, they should just go out and do it, no matter where they live. They may ultimately wind up in L.A., Nashville or New York, but they can certainly get started in their communities. There’s lots to do, and talent grows everywhere.

TAGS: nograybox