Walter Yetnikoff was involved with all the top players in the ’80s, but Allen Grubman and John Branca got the lion’s share of the work; in return, the CBS Records ruler introduced them to the company’s top artists. Grubman and Branca also became tight with Howard Stringer and Bob Morgado, who headed the two biggest companies in the ’90s in Sony and WMG. Not only that, but Grubman got a major foothold on the West Coast via his relationships with Irving Azoff, David Geffen and Jimmy Iovine. At one point, it appeared that Grubman and Branca were representing practically everyone on both sides of the table, but each got his artists the biggest deals—and the bigger the deal, the bigger the fee. A two-way street? Definitely. Conflict of interest? Maybe, maybe not—but as Azoff once famously stated, “If there ain’t conflict, there’s no interest.” In any case, reciprocity became the name of the game.

After graduating from Brooklyn College Law School, Grubman got a job with Walter Hofer before building his own massive practice. Under his own shingle he cultivated a reputation as lawyer to the stars, counting among his clients Dylan, Springsteen, Streisand, Billy Joel, Madonna, U2, John Mellencamp and Elton John. But he was also crucial to the careers of biz-leading execs like Clive Davis, Tommy Mottola, Clive Calder, Chris Wright, Doug Morris, Bob Krasnow, Jimmy Iovine, Michele Anthony, Polly Anthony, Dave Glew, Donnie Ienner, L.A. Reid, Danny Goldberg, Russell Simmons and Def Jam, Chris Blackwell and Alain Levy. Grubman also represented Def Jam, Chrysalis, Island, Interscope and Calder’s Jive/Zomba in their respective acquisitions by UMG, EMI, PolyGram and BMG. Branca was to the West Coast what Grubman was to the East Coast. He toiled at Hardee, Barovick, primarily for David Braun, before starting a music practice for Ziffren, Brittenham in the early ’80s and taking Michael Jackson—the artist with whom he has long been famously and lucratively associated—with him.

Working at the powerful Ziffren Brittenham firm gave Branca an advantage over his chief competitors—with clients including Hollywood’s elite: A-list actors, directors, producers, writers and athletes including Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Harrison Ford, Ridley Scott and Haim Saban. The clients of the music department, which also includes capable veterans David Lande and David Byrnes, are similarly star-studded. Among them have been Aerosmith, The Beach Boys, Beyoncé, Fleetwood Mac, John Fogerty, Elton John, Alicia Keys, The Rolling Stones and Justin Timberlake, as well as industry figures including Simon Cowell and Rick Rubin.

Branca has also piloted astronomical deals on the publishing side, masterminding the sales of Jobete Music, the Leiber-Stoller catalog, the Rogers & Hammerstein catalog and Michael Jackson’s half of Sony/ATV. Back in 1984, Branca had engineered the $46m purchase of ATV (with its trove of Lennon/McCartney classics, among other pop and rock essentials) for Jackson, and the price paid helped transform the pubco into Sony/ATV. Branca has spent the decade since MJ’s death as the high-profile co-executor of the Jackson Estate, and his savvy dealmaking has created billions of dollars in value. Sony’s 2016 acquisition of EMI Music Publishing was followed two years later by the buyout of Mubadala, bringing the value of Sony/ATV to a staggering $4.75b, and giving the estate the final bite of the ATV apple.

In the late ’80s and ’90s, Grubman and Branca engaged in the legal equivalent of the era’s East Coast vs. West Coast rap wars—minus the bloodshed, of course. Each was able to straddle the line between advocating for artists on their deals and servicing the major labels (consulting and/or racking up billable hours drafting legal docs). Yetnikoff’s system involved paying these megabarristers enormous fees and bringing them into massive deals, as part of an all-out effort to tip the scales in his favor. Other top CEOs adopted similar strategies, but Walter had taken it to a new level, and Mottola continued this aggressive approach when he took over CBS/Sony Music after co-engineering the coup that saw him replace Walter.

In the post-Napster business, as music flattened out and the giant fees disappeared, Grubman’s firm began to diversify in earnest, procuring a marquee client list of stars, filmmakers, athletes and entertainment companies rivaling that of Ziffren Brittenham’s. Among his firm’s many non-music clients are Robert DeNiro, Spike Lee, David Letterman, LeBron James, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Bob Iger, Les Moonves, Jim Dolan, Calvin Klein, HBO, iHeartMedia, Samsung and SoulCycle. Kenny Meiselas, who has emerged as a major player in his own right, now leads his music practice, working alongside David Jacobs with clients including Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, P. Diddy and Lil Wayne. Grubman continues to represent several of his longtime clients.

NAMES IN THE RUMOR MILL: Ina Meibeck, Jill Berliner, Susan Genco, Jamie Young, Julie Swidler, Gillian Bar, Monika Tashman, Debbie White and Christina LaPerla.

An in-depth look at the firms from our print issue:

Gang, Tyre, Ramer, Brown & Passman

Myman, Greenspan, Fox, Rosenberg, Mobasser, Younger & Light LLP

King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano, LLP

The Davis Firm

LaPolt Law

Carroll, Guido, Groffman, Cohen, Bar & Karalian LLP

Greenberg Traurig

Grubman Shire Meiselas & Sacks, P.C.

Ziffren Brittenham LLP

"Dangerous" nudges "SOUR." (11/30a)
Big numbers for 30. (11/29a)
good 4 him (11/30a)
Viva, Ms. Adkins (11/30a)
Putting the audio into audio-visual. (11/30a)

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