A Magician for Musicians

March 12, 2016   •   By Corey Field

DONALD PASSMAN is a magician. Literally.

Like Passman himself, those sentences may have deeper meaning than they first suggest. Read one way, they say that he practices the art of magic in the traditional theatrical sense, onstage — which he does. Read another way, and allowing for a Joycean turn of phrase, they suggest that Passman has literary skills worthy of a magician. That is true — Passman is a successful mystery novelist, including the recent The Amazing Harvey, which features both a magician and a lawyer and a little-known scientific fact about DNA. Read yet another way, they could refer to Passman’s status as one of the world’s leading entertainment lawyers, specializing in the music industry, adept at the “tricks of the trade.”

And finally, yet another meaning is possible, for a search for books by Donald S. Passman on Amazon reveals a doppelganger, a professor in Wisconsin who has published multiple tomes on the arcane, magical subject of advanced mathematical theory, with suspiciously magical titles such as The Algebraic Structure of Group Rings, Permutation Groups, and Infinite Crossed Products. A mere coincidence? Or an epic illusion? A magician never reveals his tricks.

Passman’s book All You Need to Know About the Music Business, an iconic work first published in 1991 and now in its ninth edition, reveals yet another persona (thank you Ingmar Bergman, whose movies also include The Magician). This side of Passman is the expert, albeit one who writes for his audience: aspiring musicians, the kind of dreamers he has seen conquer the music industry for years, often as his clients. He likes to address his readers directly with disarming phrases such as “Well, kiddies,” or “Well, my friend,” and invitations to the reader that encapsulate the combination of law and magic that is Passman’s unique brand: “So step right up. All these secrets and more are revealed just inside the tent.”

Ever-conscious of the reader’s expectations, and well aware that his self-described prime audience of aspiring rockers may not have a scholarly bent, Passman offers the reader shortcuts, suggests what to skip, and provides disclaimers noting that the book offers an overview but not every possible angle. The way Passman writes these disclaimers serves as an enjoyable literary exercise, almost hidden between the pages of the book, while offering brief glimpses of a world of hidden tricks “behind the curtain”:

There is no way one book (even one filling several volumes) could poke into every nook and cranny of a business as complicated as the music business. So the purpose here is to give you the big picture, not all the details. (Besides, for some of those details, I charge serious money).

As part of this congenial approach, the writing makes use of intriguing metaphors where Passman the “explainer” briefly steps aside for Passman the gifted writer, as in this passage:

So the goal is to give you a broad overview (which doesn’t change nearly as quickly). That way you’ll have a bare tree on which to hang the leaves of your own experience. Oddly, it’s easier to pick up details (from trade publications, gossip at cocktail parties, etc.) than it is to learn the structural overview, because few people have the time or patience to sit down and give it to you. In fact, giving you the overall view turned out to be a much bigger job than I thought when I started. But you’re worth it.

Passman’s writing deftly moves between poetic metaphor, practical advice, self-confessional, and personal support, a combination that no doubt helped him through years of dealing with highly creative and highly insecure creative artists.

Passman’s gradually unfolding story of the music industry is like a world-class educational museum, populated by intricate scientific exhibits and beautiful sculptures. While strolling from the beginning to the end, our guide explains the monuments succinctly, with style and humor, short personal anecdotes, on-point cultural references, and great historical insight and knowledge. To our delight, and astonishment, by the end of the tour we have deep expertise, acquired effortlessly and enjoyably.

The museum metaphor is appropriate, since much of the complexity of the music industry can only be understood by an examination of its history, its roots. Those roots include copyright law and the way contracts have evolved in the music world. Custom and practice in music industry contracts is a devilish and arcane area where decades of one-upmanship, subtle advantage, out-of-date accommodations (10 percent deduction for broken discs?), and “gotchas” have, unfortunately, sometimes become “industry standard,” which can often be puzzling to newcomers.

Passman's book is noted for its superb detail, lavishing pages (and some engaging cartoon illustrations) on terms like “cross-collateralization,” presented as an unavoidable evil you need to understand, and at least try to avoid in negotiations. Without the occasional use of candid reactions such as “you won’t believe this but it’s true, no kidding kiddies,” some music industry contractual terms would, in fact, be hard to believe — Passman’s style helps him break the bad news to his readers gently and with humor. Throughout the book, we approach details only after learning the fundamental structure. Trees and leaves.

When writers turn their attention to an entire industry, there are many choices to be made regarding structure, content, presentation, and organization. Passman’s journey through the industry is organized in a logical sequence for any aspiring rock star, beginning with the team of advisors employed by successful artists (agent, manager, lawyer, business manager, publicist), recording agreements, publishing agreements, group issues (a band is a partnership that requires agreements), touring, merchandising, and film music. The perspective is that of an “ultimate” success story, a high-level international artist, for whom all of these areas come into play, but it provides helpful context even if, realistically, most artists and lawyers will be dealing with only parts of this landscape.

Especially enjoyable are the nonstop cultural references. In a passage about traditional record sales (a business quickly being superseded by streaming, as the book notes), we get classic Passman when he describes an oppressive world that sometimes seems to go about things in its own illogical way: “So how does all this affect your royalties? To paraphrase George Orwell in Animal Farm, some record sales are more equal than others.” And again when he offers a realistic, even fatalistic assessment of deals that must, for better or for worse, give in to and accommodate greed: “In that case, you might allow the subpublisher to get as much as 50%, on the theory that your 50% is better than zero or a machete.”

Virtually every page has “dry humor,” mild sarcasm, knowing irony, and pop culture references — “When we get to single-song sheet music, we really enter the Twilight Zone” — which helps explain why the book has been so successful over the years and is in its ninth edition (updated with “new business models” such as online streaming). It creates a safe fairy tale (or more accurately “Fractured Fairy Tale”) atmosphere for learning challenging and detailed content that might otherwise appear to be for lawyers only.

There are other wonderful books about the music industry (Music, Money, and Success by Jeffrey and Todd Brabec comes to mind), and in the world of independent film law, a similar informal writing style is used with great success by Michael Donaldson and Lisa Callif in Clearance and Copyright (which I reviewed for LARB last year). But in the world of the music industry, Passman’s writing style and approach is unique because it presents so much depth of content and detail in such an engaging way. For that reason, it has become an industry classic, read not only by musicians but by executives and lawyers as well, educating a generation.

And that, kiddies, is real magic.


Corey Field is founder of Corey Field Law Group, P.C., where he practices copyright, trademark, and entertainment law.