MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfil. Inspiring Women is supported by INgrooves Music Group, which provides impressive distribution, marketing and rights management tools and services to content creators and owners.
Dina LaPolt has spent the last 20 years fighting for the rights of songwriters and musicians. And she’s had to fight hard.
She’s tussled with the notoriously brutal Suge Knight of Death Row Records, and even sued the behemoth that is the United States Department of Justice.
Yet perhaps her biggest battles have been her personal ones: she’s overcome a drug and alcohol addiction, and recently survived a near-death experience after contracting an infection in her spine that led to septic shock.
LaPolt started out as a singer and guitarist in multiple rock bands in the ’80s and ’90s. As such, she spent the best part of her twenties on the road, with evening meals often consisting of macaroni cheese warmed by a cigarette lighter under a hot plate.
After realising she had little chance of making it big on the stage, an alternative calling beckoned.
Aged 27, LaPolt — who had always considered herself the ‘business person’ in the band – went to law school, at John F Kennedy University in California.
“I became a music lawyer so I could help music creators, because when I help them, it helps me more.”
“I grew up feeling like I was never good enough. I was overweight and gay and gay was not good in the ‘70s,” revealed LaPolt in a recent Ted Talk.
“Music was there for me and drugs and alcohol became a diversion. [Using and drinking] made me feel better about myself, I could fit in. But then when I got clean and sober I had to fight to feel all right about myself… I became a music lawyer so I could help music creators, because when I help them, it helps me more.”
When LaPolt graduated, not yet sober, she initially struggled to find a job in LA’s corporate law firms.
She took a gig as an unpaid intern for a music lawyer, “buying lunch and blowing up his kid’s basketball”, until she met an unsatisfied client who needed help: Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur.
“When I met Afeni she was upset because Death Row Records were claiming they owned all the unreleased recordings of Tupac when he died,” LaPolt tells MBW. “His estate was overweighted by lots of lawsuits because he died without a will and a lot of his music agreements were not in writing.
“it’s never about the money – it’s about the truth and it’s about the justice.”
“I told my boss and he said, ‘Let it go, we’ll do a good deal for her and she’ll get paid.’ But it’s never about the money – it’s about the truth and it’s about the justice.”
LaPolt studied the contract between Tupac and Death Row, which was handwritten and missing many integral points, before burying herself in the details of the US Copyright Act for five years.
The upshot: LaPolt helped Afeni Shukar settle the suits, wrestle back the recordings from Death Row, and tidy up the estate.
It was with encouragement from Afeni – who LaPolt describes as her biggest influence besides her own mother – that in October 2001, Los Angeles-based LaPolt Law was born.
The firm was founded on three guiding principles: always get the contract signed, be available 24/7 and have no conflicts of interest.
Afeni was LaPolt’s first client alongside a few Playboy playmates.
Other early sign-ups included all-female group Wild Orchid (which included Fergie at the time), plus Ed McMahon – who was hosting the early iteration of American Idol – and Santana singer Andy Vargas.
Today, 17 years on, LaPolt is one of the most respected music lawyers on the planet, with clients including Steven Tyler, Deadmau5, Britney Spears, Fifth Harmony, Galantis, Tinashe and Eddie Money, amongst many more.
In 2015, she co-founded Songwriters of North America (SONA) alongside Kay Hanley and Michelle Lewis, which has since grown to become the second largest songwriter advocacy group in North America with 540 members.
Little under three years ago, led by LaPolt, the group sued the US Department of Justice, challenging a ruling that prescribed ‘100% licensing’ at BMI and ASCAP in the United States.
Here, we chat to LaPolt to get her straight-talking views on the biggest subjects facing today’s music business…
What in your view are the biggest challenges facing songwriters and musicians today?
Equal treatment under the law, namely for songwriters. If you have $10 that comes in, right off the bat $3.05 goes to the service providers, 30%, then $1.20 goes out the door for the PROs, the publishers and songwriters.
That leaves $5.75 for the record companies – and that is because they can negotiate in a free market.
For the first time since Napster ate our lunch, record companies are now in a position where they are earning income, and they are doing very well, which is great because they can invest more in developing artists, marketing and promotion — those are good things.
But the business does have to be fixed to where music creators are compensated adequately for their contributions.
How high do you think the songwriter share of the streaming pie should rise?
A lot of people are advocating for 50% but I think that’s lofty.
In defence of record companies, they do put up a lot of risk money. They are the only companies that really invest in marketing and promotion and that money is a complete loss if the artist is not successful.
Right now [the difference between recorded music and songs/publishing] is almost 13/1, so if songwriters and publishers made at least a third of what record companies are making, that would increase the equality exponentially. It’s not even near that right now.
The Music Modernization Act does a lot to modify the Copyright Act in a way that allows the songwriter to flourish in a better market.
Why are you backing the Music Modernization Act in the US?
There are a lot of loopholes in the Copyright Act in America and one of them allows services like Spotify to stream music without a compulsory licence for songwriters’ mechanical rights.
That means there’s $1.6bn in unmatched mechanical income that is being held from interactive streaming.
The MMA creates a collective that is being paid for by all the DSPs and governed by songwriters and publishers. All the unmatched mechanical income moves to the collective where they will be able to match that money to the songwriters.
So it moves the money from the DSPs to our own community. The other thing it does is creates an audit right so music publishers can audit the DSPs for any missing income.
Some people are concerned about the fact that the MMA removes the right to enact historical lawsuits against streaming services…
True, because these lawsuits benefit the few and this legislation is for the masses. For years we’ve been trying to put up legislation [that protects the rights of creators] and it keeps failing.
One thing that Congress has been very clear with us is saying that if we don’t have consensus as an industry, there is no way they are going to go ahead and pass bills.
“We had to find something to give us some leverage with the DSPs. they said we will work with you if you get rid of the ability for historical lawsuits to be filed against us.”
We’ve worked tirelessly to get consensus, and this is the way we got it. We had to find something to give us some leverage with the DSPs. They said we will work with you if you get rid of the ability for these lawsuits to be filed against us.
The only thing the DSPs got is the ability to claim relief on the lawsuits – everything else about the MMA helps songwriters.
I’ve heard a few managers talking about how heavily involved they are in the A&R process recently, and how their deals should reflect that to compensate the early investment. Do you agree?
I’m not at all an advocate of managers signing up clients where they own and control their IP.
If a manager wants to help develop a client on a traditional management/artist relationship, which is 10-15% of gross income, for a specific period of time with an adequate continuing compensation clause, I’m all for that.
“I’m not at all an advocate of managers signing up clients where they own and control their IP.”
But when managers want to go ahead and be in business with their artist where the artist is giving them exclusive rights to master recordings and musical compositions, and the manager puts up their own money to do that, that’s not a manager/artist relationship, that’s a record company/artist relationship.
I’m not so sure that is good for the artist.
When an artist is being asked to sign [their] IP to an entity, that entity has to be fiscal enough to move the needle. Management companies traditionally don’t have sizeable radio promotion and marketing departments.
A manager that wants to control and own an artists’ IP precludes the artist from signing directly to third parties. The artist team wants to make sure our clients can sign directly to management, merchandise and publishing companies because that way the artist has privity of contracts with those parties and can sue if something goes awry.
“I’m generally opposed to ‘360’ deals.”
A manager who is furnishing the artist’s services to record, publishing and merchandise companies may be a short term fix for a developing artist who may not have a lot going on, but for a long term situation, it’s not good for their career.
I’m generally opposed to ‘360’ deals because you develop your expertise in the music industry – record companies are good at marketing and promoting records, publishing companies are good at publishing songs, managers are good at overseeing the artist career and making sure the record companies and publishers are doing what their contract says they are going to do.
The creators, certainly with how streaming has taken off. Here in the US, streaming constitutes 62% of the recorded music business. That is huge and it’s a formidable market trigger.
Terrestrial radio still has the biggest marketshare with 271 million people listening every day, but it doesn’t pay everybody. We are the only civilised country in the world that doesn’t recognise performance income for sound recordings. North Korea, Rwanda and Iran are the other countries that don’t. But interactive digital streaming pays great, especially when there is no free tier like Apple Music and Tidal.
“Terrestrial radio is going to run its course, especially when interactive digital streaming is available in the dashboard of cars.”
Terrestrial radio is going to run its course, especially when interactive digital streaming is available in cars. It’s available now through the bluetooth function on our smartphone but it’s not actually in the dashboard, once it gets in there, it’s going to be all over [for radio] and that will level the playing field.
Do you see deals with record companies and publishers becoming fairer in favour of the artist?
They are naturally starting to do that because record companies are making money, so they are less focused on obtaining all of the other rights from the artist.
Five years ago when the recorded music business was still losing money, and hadn’t recovered from Napster, the only way record companies were able to exist is from 360 deals.
Touring, marketing, sponsorship, endorsements, and sometimes publishing, were something that they had to acquire just to keep the lights on. Now they are making boatloads of money with interactive digital streaming, so they are not so focused on obtaining all those other rights anymore.
My firm is in the middle of negotiating many different record deals right now with a lot of the major labels and independents, and it’s very easy for us to get some of these 360 provisions kicked out of the agreement. Especially for clients with a lot of leverage because they are making money on interactive digital streaming.
What are your predictions for Spotify’s IPO and how will it affect the music industry?
I think that generally the IPO will be great especially if the MMA passes because it will bar all lawsuits from being filed against them after January 1st 2018. It’s been so hard for Spotify to get their IPO up of the ground because they’ve been under fire and sued by a lot of music creators, in my opinion. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have been, when you use people’s music and you don’t have a licence you’re going to have to answer to that.
I think a lot of things are going to level out for the good now we are getting this legislation out the way. The market is going to fix itself. These DSPs have learned a lesson and realised that they can’t just open a service, take people’s copyrights and use them without permission or attribution.
“There are a lot of free people using Spotify so all the music royalty money that’s paid to music creators is diluted by virtue of having to make up for the free tier. If we can do away with the free tier, it’s going to be such a healthy music business.”
Spotify’s debut of offering songwriter and producer credits is very well received and a lot of the other DSPs are also working on that, thank God.
The other thing we’ve got to get rid of is this free tier because it’s a nightmare. Apple Music is to be admired — they are offering in 115 countries worldwide, they have 31m subscribers who all pay by the month, that is amazing.
Spotify has 140m users right now and only 70m of them pay.
There are a lot of free people using Spotify so all the music royalty money that’s paid to music creators is diluted by virtue of having to make up for the free tier. If we can do away with the free tier, it’s going to be such a healthy music business.
What do you make of the argument that doing that would drive users back to piracy?
Piracy will always be an issue, it’s about whether or not you’re going to open your chequebook and let the pirates come in and write all your cheques, or if you’re going to keep your chequebook locked in your desk and make it hard for them.
“YouTube has to be straightened out because no matter what Lyor Cohen says, it’s still a train wreck. He claims that they are paying upwards of $3 per thousand streams to the record companies — he’s off his rocker! It’s not happening.”
YouTube has to be straightened out because no matter what Lyor Cohen says, it’s still a train wreck.
He claims that they are paying upwards of $3 per thousand streams to the record companies — he’s off his rocker! It’s not happening. Outside of America, where YouTube probably pays the best, it’s even worse in countries like eastern Europe and South America. That’s an issue that has to be fixed.
I really don’t know where Lyor Cohen is getting his facts from. Then again, we have a trend in America started by the Donald Trump campaign called ‘alternative facts’.
Do you think YouTube’s upcoming music subscription service will be a success?
Ultimately subscription services are what is going to save the music industry so long as everything is a subscription service. When we have one service that offers a free tier and has all the copyrights it makes it very hard for everybody else.
Until they are really serious about policing our copyrights we are really not going to see a major difference in YouTube. They claim ‘dumb pipes’ which falls on deaf ears because you don’t find any instance on YouTube where you can find child pornography, but you can find a gazillion illegal music files every day, even though they have been sent cease and desist letters showing them these files are illegal. They just pop up again under a different title and URL, it’s like whack a mole.
I hope their subscription service takes off but I can’t imagine that it will compete with such classy services like Apple, Tidal or Spotify.
There’s ongoing discussion about gender equality in the world at large right now — what’s your take on issues within the music business?
There are a lot of qualified women out there but I think a lot of men don’t really like having women seated at the table. Sony Music is run out of Japan and it’s a very patriarchal environment over there. So when people [in the US] who work for Sony Music are screaming gender equality, I have to remind everybody, ‘Excuse me do you know where the HQ of this company is?’
If you don’t want to have a glass ceiling, open your own business because if you want to work in corporate there is a glass ceiling and it is going to smack you in the head. I would like to see the needle move to the point where it’s completely changed in my lifetime but I don’t know if that’s going to be possible, it’s going to take a lot.
” I really credit Julie Greenwald, she is amazing. She walks the walk and talks the talk — 50% of Atlantic Records’ [employees are] women. That’s what I’m talking about!”
If more women hired each other and more women artists hired other women, that’s going to move the needle. I really credit Julie Greenwald [pictured inset], she is amazing. She walks the walk and talks the talk — 50% of Atlantic Records’ [employees are] women. That’s what I’m talking about!
You have all these women and artists who come out and say, ‘We need gender equality, me too, me too’ but then everybody on their business team is a man. It makes you wonder.
What can music business companies do to help further change?
It’s going to take a concerted effort to hire women, empower them and put them in charge of companies and operations. Any company that says it’s going to focus on creating diversity can’t just do that and continue to hire the best person for the job through normal course of business because a man will come in.
You might have to search and focus for two months to find a woman, it might take you a little longer, but you will find the right person.
What would you change about the music business and why?
The Copyright Act for sure, it’s an outdated bag of laws that has not kept up with technology.
In addition, we need to create more positions for women hands down. If you look at all these power lists, whether it’s in the music business, the legal profession, or corporate world, you’ve got 100 people and there is like 10 women. That is not enough.
“Women have impeccable instinct and great judgement. If you put a woman in charge of anything, shit gets done. It gets done quicker, better and with a lot more collaborative effort.”
And you know what? Women have impeccable instinct and great judgement. If you put a woman in charge of anything, shit gets done. It gets done quicker, better and with a lot more collaborative effort.
Final question, what are your future ambitions?
I saw a psychic three years ago and she told me I was going to be a US Senator. I never really thought of that before, so who knows what’s in the future!
I can’t ever imagine retiring from what I do because I absolutely love it, I feel like I don’t even have a job. If I won the lottery today I’d still get up and continue doing what I do.
I’m so blessed to still be in the music business doing what I love all these years later. So my future ambition is to keep doing more of what I’m doing and helping as many people as I can.
If you want to hear more about Dina and her life, this incredible and highly entertaining podcast is well worth a listen.
Music Business Worldwide