When a client list reads like the Billboard Hot 100 — Justin Bieber, Jason Derulo, Meghan Trainor, Future, John Legend and Jennifer Lopez, to name a few — one has to wonder: What came first, the attorney or the hit act? In the case of 38-year-old Aaron Rosenberg, the youngest partner in the history of entertainment firm Myman Greenspan Fineman Fox Rosenberg & Light, the question is often moot, especially with regard to two long-standing clients: Rosenberg had just graduated college when he began representing Legend and took on Bieber when the would-be pop star was 13.
To hear Rosenberg tell it, the Kansas City, Mo., native’s music business roots were planted back at Harvard Law School, where a clinical program called the Recording Artists Project paired law students with aspiring musicians around Boston “to provide legal advice under the supervision of a faculty member,” he explains. “It was literally hands-on training. And being a music lawyer is really about learning by doing.”
He had a similar experience as an intern at Arista Records, where he witnessed a changing of the guard from Clive Davis to Antonio “L.A.” Reid in 2000. Rosenberg’s task during the transition: “to summarize all of the existing record deals for the incoming staff — whether it was Toni Braxton or Whitney Houston or Carlos Santana,” he says. “It was an amazing learning exercise for a young, aspiring music attorney.”
A clerkship at Greenberg Traurig followed, along with a move out west in 2004. That was when veteran entertainment attorneys Eric Greenspan (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Seal) and Jeffrey Light (Disturbed, Deftones) recruited Rosenberg, promising to put his name on the door. High-profile clients came along and today Rosenberg finds himself poised for another wild ride with Bieber, whose fourth studio album, Purpose, arrives Nov. 13.
In 2012 Rosenberg married Danny Rose, a TV producer whose projects include CBS drama Scorpion and MTV’s Todrick, and the two recently welcomed their first child, Gabriel, now 10 months old. His birth also fast-tracked the design of a home office for Rosenberg inside their Hancock Park estate, a move meant to maximize family time. Says Rosenberg of the vibe he was going for when he commissioned Mark Schomisch of MSD Design: “Ivy League reading room meets Hollywood.”
In the 13 years that you have been practicing law, what has been the biggest change to the artist-attorney-label relationship?
The movement toward a streaming economy and, God willing, a primarily paid streaming economy. For artist representatives, the most important thing is knowing where the money is coming from and how to preserve as much of that as possible for your client. That’s not to say artists have to keep it all for themselves. They understand the label is their partner. They’re after two things: transparency and equity — making sure they get their fair share of the pie.
What’s the position of the labels?
The rhetoric we hear is, “This is an intense transition; yes, streaming is increasing but not as quickly as we’d like.” Meanwhile, the decrease in physical sales and downloads is accelerating so they’re crying poverty.
Is there a solution in sight?
The more artists and labels can work together to say streaming and the subscription model is a good thing, fantastic. Valuing music correctly is a good thing. When Taylor Swift put Apple on blast for not understanding how Apple Music is paying the artist for a three-month free trial period, that was an example of saying, “Wait a second — we need transparency and appropriate valuation of music” … [The labels] are figuring out how to divide the pie. Some things still require tweaking and I know that my friends like [Universal Music Group general counsel] Jeff Harleston are taking a proactive role in trying to ensure new agreements and new ways of accounting put artists’ fears at ease. We’re headed in the right direction.
You’re hands-on with clients, recently attending a daylong planning meeting for Lopez’s new Las Vegas show, All I Have. Are music lawyers generally so involved in the creative process?
The good ones are. Some are all about the money and even upfront about it. My first music business experience was with John Legend, somebody I grew up with and was personally invested in, so it can’t be just about the money. Because what happens when it dries up or slows down, you’re not there for your clients? Any number of lawyers would have run for the hills when Justin started getting bad press, and brands questioned what was going on with him, but here’s someone I’m so deeply committed to that you ride along.
How did Bieber not turn into Aaron Carter? What went right?
I have a speech that I give to clients called the five F’s to staying grounded in this business: family, faith, friends, fans and the formula. I think for Justin, connecting with all five F’s, especially with faith, helped him through some confusing times. Because nothing prepares you for that much fame — that much everything — so early in life.
I credit Justin himself. People gave him crap for being some sort of prefabricated pop star with no credibility. Never mind that he could play five instruments and write songs on his own. Justin led a creative team — including [manager] Scooter Braun, producers Josh Gudwin and Poo Bear and Skrillex — that made him comfortable to explore different musical directions.
You represent music executives as well — Republic Records executive vp Wendy Goldstein, Columbia Records GM Joel Klaiman and manager Brandon Creed, among them. How do they compare to music stars?
They’re no different. Creative executives have the soul of an artist — that’s what makes them great at their jobs. Some [executives] are model clients. Others can be difficult and tend to have unrealistic expectations. Your job is to educate about what’s reasonable and what’s not.
A complaint of music’s legal community is the lack of young talent. What does the future of music law look like?
For a young lawyer to break through, you need a bit of luck in finding clients that [have success]. Then, you need a strong relationship so the [talent] stays with you, because while it would be wonderful to think that poaching clients doesn’t happen, it does. And young lawyers are easy targets. Their clients think, “Gosh, now that I’m more successful, aren’t the deals more complicated and wouldn’t I benefit from someone with years of experience?” I’d say 99.9 percent of the time, the client will buy into that and leave the lawyer.
So they trade up?
They trade older. And here’s what I say to clients like that: I get it. You want to walk into a doctor’s office and see someone who looks like your father or your grandfather. I call it the “gray-haired effect.” And these guys, like Allen Grubman, Joel Katz, Don Passman and Eric Greenspan, are in their mid- to late 60s but haven’t lost a step. It’s not like a professional athlete where a knee gives out. But they’re not me. If artists are looking for a smart attorney they can grow with and have for the rest of their careers, that’s why they hire me. They don’t want to search for another lawyer in five years.
Your clients are often at the center of scandal — Zendaya’s Oscar-night dreadlocks, which E!’s Giuliana Rancic mocked (and later apologized for) on Fashion Police; Bieber’s nude vacation photos. How do you handle it?
You get the full information before rushing to a response. At this point with Justin, you learn how to maintain a calm disposition. And to be honest, with the witch hunt surrounding him, I’m surprised photos like that hadn’t come out sooner. But as with anything, we’re investigating a dispute. I have a great partner in Howard Weitzman on the litigation side. Of course, it just reminds you that there’s never a dull moment.