Sindee Levin is a veteran entertainment attorney whose credentials include business affairs at major film studios, music publishing and mechanical collection and extensive private practice. A noted expert who speaks at conferences, panels and seminars nationwide, she is a well-versed authority on international as well as domestic business models. Levin, a 30+ year Hollywood veteran, has invaluable contacts, education and expertise; she is a powerful advocate for songwriters, composers, recording artists, music publishers and record labels.
Interview with Sindee Levin
How did you get started in the music/entertainment industry?
I grew up in Beverly Hills. My father was in the film business, so I’ve spent my entire life around the entertainment industry. My undergraduate degree is in television production, I worked on small productions. I went to law school with the notion of being in the film and television business. When I started practicing, I was at a major law firm in Los Angeles where we were outside counsel to MGM/UA and various mini-major studios. I was assigned to two partners. One of them was co-producer of the film La Bamba and the other was a publishing lawyer. La Bamba was the first real music-driven film I worked on.
I left with one of the partners to work for a company called New Visions where Taylor Hackford was one of the principals. Then one day it went out of business and I did not have a job. I started to pitch film and TV companies to exploit their music publishing. I was more interested in music publishing and I had less competition than being a theatrical lawyer. I was told I was crazy and that I’d never make a dime. So that’s how I got into the music side of the entertainment industry.
How has the business changed since you first started a career in it?
That’s a tough question. My focus has changed. I think that the bad situation with the world economy has made everything tougher. I used to speak in the early 90’s around the U.S. about licensing music in film. When I first started practicing in the mid-80s big artists were not interested in licensing their music in films or television. It was considered a cheap thing to do with your music. As people got into economic problems, all of a sudden big artists were more willing to license. A good example is the Beatles. When I started, you never saw Beatles repertoire. Lennon and McCartney had approval rights, (this is my understanding) and Yoko didn’t want it. Now you see Beatles songs around the world heavily exploited. They made a deal with Sony for American Idol last year and every week it seems they’re doing Beatles songs. This was never done. But it also used to be easier to license new music when everybody wasn’t trying to put their music in film or television. Because the record business has taken a nose-dive, everybody wants to be licensing on film and television, it’s driven the prices of licensing down for newer artists.
One phenomena that personally and professionally I’m against is licensing for free, with the belief that you’ll pick up royalties on the backside. Unfortunate as it is, there’s always somebody who will do it. It’s the basic economic “supply and demand”, now there’s so much supply and not as much demand.
The entertainment business has always been difficult; it’s not run like a business. For example, I’m a lawyer by profession, I wouldn’t wake up one morning and decide I want to be a tax lawyer and just hold out my shingle and start practicing. Whether you’re in Canada or whether you’re in the States or whether you’re in Europe, people decide “I want to be in the entertainment business” and they’re in the entertainment business. I am fortunate when I started, because the economy was better, I was trained. I never talked to a client for a year. I must have reviewed hundreds of sync licenses before I could do a deal. That is a problem today that people aren’t really trained. I think that the bad global economy has made everything tougher.
The flip-side, and the positive side, because of the Internet artists have a lot more opportunities and aren’t forced to go to record labels. I do believe there is a do-it yourself market where you can really get a buzz. Whether it’s Facebook, MySpace or one of numerous other sites, you can immediately start building yourself a fan-base, and collect emails and make yourself have potentially a million subscribers.
With your knowledge of different areas of the business, where do you think bands/musicians should put their attention if they want to make a living in music?
In terms of getting exposure, certainly the Internet. From what I’ve been told, touring is still a big deal and there’s a lot to be said for having exposure on film and TV. It’s promotion and that’s why companies like MTV license for free, for a promotion. It might be a good idea but there’s a certain point where one has to stop and remember this is a business and you need to be running it like a business. I feel so strongly about how artists think they don’t need to understand anything about this business. There are plenty of books that are geared for artists that explain basic copyright law and the music business.
Should bands/musicians start their own publishing companies and then find sub-publishers or should they pursue a publishing deal with an established company?
Well, there are two different models: there is the Anglo-American model (North American model) where artists join a PRO, a performing rights society, and they also set up a publishing company. This is not done throughout Europe or through most the World.
I really think people should register their songs, get it done properly. I believe, because I see the problems it creates in North America not to have a publishing company, one should set up a publishing company. Looking for a publishing deal, the question is what people’s expectations are. With very rare exceptions, nobody is going to give you advance money. If they’re going to give you advance money, they’re going to take your copyrights or its money that’s already in the pipeline -they already know they can collect it. That’s certainly true for the majors. It’s really about what one wants and what one’s expectations are. It’s in the breakdown, in either the multinationals – there are three and a half of them in my mind. And the next tier down would probably fall into Bug/Windswept, Kobalt maybe Ole up in Canada. Though I have comments on all of them, I think a lot of it has to do with relationships, and finding someone one likes, feels they can work with. I think the expectations that these companies, even getting into the smaller tiers, they’re going to be doing exploitation. Again, it needs to be clear. Assuming these people are new artists, it’s really to try and see what these companies are going to do and realize how much they’re going to really plug your music. I think it’s questionable. Most people are going to say “we’re going to promote your music.” If I’m a publisher with a million titles, even if I have a ½ million titles, what’s going to make me go pitch this new artist. I don’t believe in the concept that songwriters and artists have of “well, they gave us some money; they want to recoup their money.” It depends how big they are… I’m very cynical about believing people really are going to promote. Some small publishers will. I know it is something that Ole pitches, Kobalt pitches, Bug pitches – I’m most familiar right now with multinationals. They say yes we do. Perhaps, it’s only so much. It’s just a reality.
If I’m here in the United States, and I want my stuff exploited in Europe. And I want to go through sub-publishers; you probably need to go to a MIDEM or some kind of international market. MIDEM is the international music market where you get the bulk of people, but otherwise there are various markets where you can get some international people to represent you. Often sometimes, one will be contacted by sub-publishers, and generally the reason they’ll contact you is they know there’s money.
MIDEM is one avenue. MIDEM is expensive– going to the south of France… and it’s very hard because you have to be able to get people to meet with you. And that’s sometimes very difficult. One has to be pretty aggressive. It’s hard to set up meetings in advance… I know that when I go to MIDEMs I’m pretty much booked for fourteen meetings a day, and to try and jam 58 meetings and dinners in…I’m not there for new artists. Others are looking for new artists.
I think the problem the Internet gives is it’s a little hard to know “is this person legitimate?”, “are they a legitimate company?” A lot of it is asking around and finding people. I am a believer in using lawyers. Unfortunately most lawyers… I should say many lawyers, are looking at what’s best for them – it’s better for me to go make a deal that’s front-ended, because I get paid that way. This is not what I ascribe to but what many lawyers do. Nonetheless it does help to have one, especially if you’re someone who’s shy going to MIDEM.
I know when I speak at these things, I’m always approached. And I always tell people I’m not interested in new artists, yet certain people seem to slip through because they’re charming or they’re funny. I don’t think I’m that different from other people. One really needs to wants it more than anything. I think with something like American Idol, the best thing it shows is the bullshit they run these people through and the long hours, Simon Cowell, the rudeness and everything that goes with it. I’ve spent almost 40 years in this business and I’ve grown up around it, you need to want this more than anything else in the world. You have to be willing to take shit and to put up with all sorts of things. Everybody’s has a side of them that says “I’m just not going to cut it”. I’ve had a young artist who was very talented but had attitude “I don’t want to play here; I don’t want to do that”. I mean someone has to want it, be willing bust their chops, and to work hard and to hustle and if it means having two jobs, just doing that. There are too many people who are good or even great but it’s working hard and getting exposure. That’s what the reality is. Also, it is knowing your market. For example Japan is a pop market… other parts of the world have different markets. Make contacts, and this is where the Internet is key. I don’t know what other lawyers, managers, publishers, are willing to say… how open they are. I try to always answer people and be polite, because I don’t know where they’ll end up and also I don’t want the reputation of being the biggest bitch alive.
What makes a song or catalog appealing to a publisher?
Money. I’m not a publisher that works with songwriters, I never have, and I don’t have that knowledge, talent or interest. But I would say for the most – money. This is a business, frankly, it’s all about money.
How do you find out about new music?
I don’t work that market. I don’t work new artists. I do read and respond to emails. Sometimes, I’m asked “will I listen to something” and that’s probably the type of thing that would get my attention.
What are some of the mistakes you see people making nowadays when giving value to their music?
Licensing for free. Waiving rights to certain types of royalties, for an example, a foreign band, I’ll skip who it is, they came into the States. I’m not sure how this small label found them, but it’s part of their deal, they have waived all their mechanical rights throughout the world. First of all, it’s not really enforceable outside North America….but they’ve waived all these rights. There’s a point when promoting oneself, one need to start making money.
I think not having a basic understanding of this business is a big mistake. If that means taking a music business class, reading some books… I don’t necessarily endorse any of them but there are countless books about the music business, and it gives some kind of idea.
The other one is – I don’t see it so much but I’ve heard it quite a bit from supervisors, just being rude and arrogant. My general feeling about this is, life is tough enough, when you’re asking someone to help you then you need to be nice — “please,” “thank you.” I think it’s common courtesy.
Also, on your CD, be sure you have your name there, the title of the songs, songwriter, if you have a publisher then that name, your address, phone number, email address. Every time I say that people laugh but someone will hand me a CD with handwriting I can’t read and no phone number or address. If it’s not the Beatles or the Stones, how am I supposed to know who this is? That goes right in the trashcan. Some of these things seem so obvious to me.
How can a writer find out about artists looking for music, or labels looking for music?
There are various tip sheets, most of which have to be paid for. I am not sure how reliable they are. I think it’s always best through connections. Different cities work differently, I understand Nashville is much friendlier to that, it historically has been. I can speak about Los Angeles and New York, sending stuff to Madonna is probably a non- starter unless you have a connection. I guess that’s what publishers traditionally did and supposedly do. If people came to me and said “Can you pitch my stuff to …whomever”, it’s generally no, because that was never my focus. Hopefully the music will sell itself. But I can it get to other people that may have stronger connections and that’s where a smaller publisher needs to be at. If you’re with the bigger publishers, arguably they should be able to get it to people.
A lot of it is just time and hours in the day, networking and being out there and trying to meet people. Ultimately in my mind the music will sell itself.
Is there a standard way or, more appealing way, of presenting your work to publishers?
For my purposes, preferably something that’s typed or computer-labeled so that it can be read, unless you write in calligraphy. Some publishers want MP3s, MPPs, or YouSendIt, there’s no standard way. You have to ask people. But whatever it is, make it neat, make it readable and have basic information. Most people want to deal with emails, but I still would like to have a phone number.
Be sure with whatever it is, it’s the best technology. I’m not a musician but I know enough to know that sounds like you are in your garage. If you’re doing it yourself, ProTools or whatever software can make it sound professional, putting the best foot forward. But it is amazing how many things come with no information. No titles. Assume that everybody is overworked and too busy. Even if it’s fabulous, I mean how much time is there to sit and look for it?
In regards to music licensing how can an artist find out about projects in need of music and their relevant supervisors?
I don’t know how many people will honestly take unsolicited material, and I only know from being an in-house lawyer / business affairs, the reason traditionally used to be because of copyright infringement. The best thing to do is to befriend somebody.
Tell us a little about your company AMRA?
AMRA is a mechanical rights society. AMRA is typically not known because Harry Fox is the larger society, the main mechanical rights society in the United States. AMRA is a mechanical rights society and it has all the abilities that Harry Fox does. It was set up in the 60s as more writer-oriented like the European societies. It’s actually very parallel to what goes on in Canada. You have CMRRA, which is where Anglo-American repertoire goes and SODRAC which is set up in the European Model and the entire foreign repertoire is represented. The difference in North America is that one can do a mechanical license without a society, but most North Americans don’t realize that outside North America you cannot directly collect. For example in the UK, MCPS, which is their mechanical rights society, will not pay an individual directly, that’s why you need a society. I regularly encounter, “Well I have an album out, or I have songs out in France – I got to get a license.” The only way to collect is through a mechanical rights society.
AMRA is purposefully small, it’s not looking to be Harry Fox, and it’s more service-oriented.
Many of my artists are jazz artists and classical artists. We do collect in terms of whether one does or doesn’t have a publisher, whether you’re an American or Canadian. CMRRA doesn’t collect outside Canada and Harry Fox does not collect in Canada. AMRA does both. AMRA can provide most types of licensing there is, whether it’s sync licensing or digital licensing. On occasion we’ll do some promotion.
Harry Fox, over the years, dropped which licenses they did. They don’t do synchronization licenses and haven’t since, I believe, ’02. AMRA does hands-down a better job than Harry Fox in terms of foreign collection. And if there are pirates, there are pirates. That’s an international problem. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.
(Why jazz as the main repertoire?)
When I bought it that was the client base. The main clients were high-end jazz artists. The jazz market is an evergreen market. It maybe never go platinum but it sells consistently. When AMRA was set up in the 60s it had Pop and R&B artists, some of these R&B artists have since been sampled by Lil Wayne, Alicia Keys and Kanye West. AMRA was able to negotiate and license these new sampled songs.
Can Canadians join AMRA?
To learn more about AMRA please visit: www.amermechrights.com