He squeezed a mean "Lady of Spain" on the accordion back in grade school. He played lead guitar for a band called Oedipus and the Mothers at the University of Texas, hoping for a record deal. Then a family friend, record producer Snuff Garrett, listened to a demo and urged him to go to law school instead. He continued to rock and roll, with a band called The Rhythm Method, at HLS, but music had become a sideline.
Today Donald Passman '70 is a famous name in the music business, as the lawyer who knows the industry inside and out, with a platinum client list that includes Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, R.E.M., Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, and Green Day, as well as record companies, songwriters, producers, industry executives, music publishers, film music composers-just about every industry player.
"I didn't even know there was such a thing as entertainment law till my second year at the Law School," Passman recalls. After graduation he headed to the West Coast to work in tax law representing entertainers, many of them musicians. "When I realized that there was such a thing as music law, I knew I'd found my niche," he says. He soon left tax practice to join Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown, a small L.A. firm where he is now partner, along with his classmate Gregg Harrison '70 in the music area, and Bruce Ramer '58, who works on the movie industry side.
Much of Passman's time is devoted to negotiating and writing contracts for just about every facet of the music industry. "I like the natural tension between the worlds of art and commerce, and I move easily between them," he says. He is comfortable dealing with both industry executives and music talent, and particularly enjoys discussing and dissecting complex business concepts with musicians-from royalty calculations to copyrights.
New media rights and terms "take up a lot of space" in contracts, which ran 15 to 20 pages when Passman started practice and regularly top 100 pages today, thanks to CD-ROMs, home videos, and other recent formats. Electronic delivery of records, an anticipated industry advance, will eventually add more bulk to legal documents.
Over the last 20 years musicians have become far more sophisticated about their rights, Passman notes. And because musicians in general have shorter careers even than movie actors, the terms of their contracts are of enormous consequence. In the last few years he has negotiated huge, innovative "mega deals" for Janet Jackson and R.E.M. "The leverage and bargaining power of these artists led to deals so unique that we got to rewrite the rules." The terms, he says, are confidential. Music lawyers are often major industry players, in part because agents have "abandoned the business," Passman says. And because lawyers generally have many clients and know more about music deals than any of the other players, "they have enormous influence on the artists."
His enthusiasm for sharing insider knowledge and protecting vulnerable performers in a risky industry inspired Passman to write All You Need to Know About the Music Business (Simon & Schuster, 1997), a lively legal tour now in its third edition and twenty-second printing. He also teaches a course on the music business at the University of Southern California Law School's continuing education program, and lectures extensively, including at Harvard Law School.
Passman still picks up his guitar from time to time, and also plays piano and five-string banjo. But music isn't his only passion; he enjoys chess, weight-lifting, magic, and karate, holds the highest-level amateur radio license, and is an expert dog obedience trainer (he is very fond of Shelties and Jack Russell Terriers). He is also completing the manuscript for a novel, a psychological thriller that will be published by Warner Books. -- Julia Collins