For the last three years, Nancy McCullough '92 has pulled up to work each weekday morning at what she calls a budding media row in Santa Monica, California-an enclave that so far includes Sony Music, MGM, MTV, and a cluster of other facilities that service the music industry. As a member of Sony Music West Coast's legal staff, McCullough spends her days on a host of legal matters that attest to the industry's vitality: drafting recording contracts and film soundtrack agreements; supervising and litigating trademark infringements and contract disputes; reviewing album releases for infringing photos, logos, or lyrics; and drawing up employment contracts for executives whose insider knowledge increasingly calls for legally binding loyalty oaths.
McCullough's ability to speak in detail about what she does is itself governed by the confidentiality clauses she writes into contracts, like the one she drew up for actor/singer Will Smith last year. In one of the company's biggest deals of 1997, Smith signed on with Sony, contributing music to the soundtrack for Sony Pictures' Men in Black; the album was a top seller for Sony, and Smith's single on it won him a Grammy in February for Best Rap Solo Performance. But negotiations for Smith's contract involved sensitive matters; McCullough can say only that others credit her with being instrumental in driving the deal home. "That one kept me up around the clock for several days of several weeks, doing coast-to-coast conference calls at all hours, drafting agreements in the middle of the night, and faxing them to the parties involved," she says. "It was exhausting but satisfying."
McCullough has sorted out more than a few problems at the intersection of business and popular culture. One such problem presented itself when a popular group named Korn came up with a winning idea for their "Life Is Peachy" album cover. Playing off the title of the album, the proposed cover pictured a replica of a Pee-Chee folder-a distinctive school supply marketed to students by the Mead Corporation. McCullough approached the company to negotiate a license to use its folder design for the album. The folks at Mead were intrigued, but after they heard Korn's lyrics, they regretfully declined. McCullough remembers that "the last thing they said was, 'If Mariah Carey or Bruce Springsteen wants to use Pee-Chee folders, you call us back.'"
McCullough describes her own musical tastes as eclectic, including everything from the artist formerly known as Prince to disco and heavy metal. When she started at Sony Music, she made a point of listening to every band whose contract-an average of 60 to 80 pages-she drafted, but she finds it harder now to attend concerts and also wake up for work. "In some ways this is a glamorous business," she says, "but at the end of the day, you're negotiating with other attorneys the way you would in just about any other transactional context. I still do try to go to concerts, because otherwise I might as well be any other kind of lawyer."
McCullough now occupies a seat on the board of the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association, a position she earned in part by getting BESLA-certified as an official provider of continuing legal education for California attorneys. This year she will serve as one of two program chairs for the annual BESLA conference to be held in the Bahamas in November. "BESLA is a wonderful tool," McCullough says. "It provides mentoring for law students interested in the industry and serves as an information-sharing resource for practitioners." That's helpful, because McCullough figures she's in the business for the long haul. Although many in entertainment law are themselves creative types waiting for the break that will carry them to the "better" side of the industry, McCullough says: "I don't sing or dance, so I expect to be drafting contracts for a long time to come." - Nancy Waring