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RAINMAKERS: DAMIEN GRANDERSON

Damien Granderson, founding partner of the boutique entertainment law firm Granderson Des Rochers, has carved out a singular career as an industry maverick known for forming brain trusts that prepare his varied clients for stellar success. Representing a rich clientele including J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, Quality Control Music, Queen Naija and Wizkid, Granderson draws on decades of experience (as in-house counsel at Koch Entertainment, Davis Shapiro Lewit & Hayes and elsewhere) to craft innovative solutions. A cadre of today’s most prolific songwriters, producers and recording artists as well as indie labels, record execs and production/distribution companies all rely on Granderson’s wealth of knowledge as a foundation of their blueprints for success.

The Brooklyn-born attorney—named to the Top Music Lawyers lists of both Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter as well as Variety’s Dealmakers Impact Report and Legal Impact Report—spoke with us about the continuing significance of record labels, the importance of creative diversification, the shape of deals in today’s marketplace and more.

How did you become a lawyer, set up your firm, and launch into entertainment law?

I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island. I went to Albany Law School in Upstate New York. I knew I had an interest in music when I graduated undergrad with a B.S. in business management in Stony Brook, out on Long Island. I took the year off between law school and undergrad and had the opportunity to become a legal assistant in the litigation department at a large law firm called Thelen Reid & Priest. I had some exposure to litigation and soon realized that I did not want to be a litigator. It wasn’t something that really interested me.

I had the opportunity to meet three transactional entertainment lawyers who practiced in music, TV and film. I had no idea that area of law existed. When I saw there were actually lawyers who were able to negotiate contracts to protect the rights of content creators like recording artists and songwriters, it became really interesting to me.

Were there other aspects of that segment of the law you found interesting?

I also became fascinated with intellectual property and how that works. From then on, I knew I wanted to work in music, because music has always been something I’ve had an appreciation for; it’s been part of my family and culture. It was really interesting to be able to work with artists, represent them, protect their rights and help add value to what they were building. This is the right career opportunity.

When I went to law school, it was really focused on practicing music law. I applied to every single law firm, every single record company. I was rejected by every single one except Koch Entertainment, which at the time was the leading independent record company and distributor. They offered me an internship that
I accepted during my second year of law school.

Because it was unpaid, I had to balance it with a law clerk position at this other firm in Upstate New York called Hiscock & Barclay. What I would do was, I’d work three days out of the week at Hiscock & Barclay, getting exposure to real estate law, litigation, corporate. I would travel down to New York three hours from Albany to the city and intern at Koch. That was the absolute best experience.

This reminds me of Sean Combs interning at Uptown Records while trying to stay enrolled at Howard University. How’d you manage this?

It was like organized chaos! [laughs] But I was able to obtain some mentorship from Mark Robinson, the head of the business affairs department, who allowed me to summarize the agreements they were doing at the time—hybrid distribution deals, license deals, record deals—and get an understanding of those deals. It was such a small group and department that I got to really observe him negotiating with the various outside lawyers who were representing talent.

It was a really good opportunity for me to learn, grow, understand those deals and have that type of exposure. That label at the time was distributing some of the rappers I grew up idolizing, like KRS-One and Public Enemy. They had a label deal for Snoop Dogg and also licensed the Death Row catalog. I figured it was the only independent label that had a robust hip-hop roster, in addition to also licensing music for The Wiggles and Bob the Builder.

I was fortunate enough to be there at the time when they did DJ Khaled’s first record deal. They also had The Diplomats and Jim Jones. It was just a spontaneous, exciting dynamic for me to learn in, even though I always had a desire to represent artists. Understanding the business that the contracts essentially support was something that was very helpful in my growth as a lawyer.

When I graduated law school, I then went on to work at Koch some years later and did a lot of deals there as an in-house lawyer. Then had the opportunity to enter into private practice at Davis Shapiro.

This was what year?

I entered private practice in 2007. It was Davis Shapiro Lewit & Hayes. Fred Davis, Clive Davis’ first son, founded the firm. It was a prominent boutique-music/new-media firm. I had the opportunity to work really closely with the partners and start building my own practice when I was there.

Then I decided to get married and start a family. I relocated from New York to L.A. There were some changes in the senior partnership at the time; I was promoted to partner. I started really building a practice, bringing in A$AP Rocky, J. Cole, Shaggy, Ne-Yo. Started building Quality Control Music. And I really started trying to find a way to work with these clients to help to build upon what they were doing for long-term success.

Is an entrepreneurial spirit absolutely necessary for artists today, considering the music industry business model has changed how lucrative that space is for singers and rappers?

When we look at artists like A$AP Rocky and J. Cole, they have such strong cultural impact that it’s incumbent upon us to really provide them with the information so they can make the decision as to what they’re passionate about. And then to explore their passions, not just in an artistic sense but also as a business opportunity.

For example, J. Cole has a Dreamville festival that just did really well a little while ago. That was an idea that he and his other creative partners came up with and we were able to help him execute. The festival is something he had a desire to do, and it’s been extremely successful for him, along with his Dreamville clothing line and record label. He wanted to be a conduit for the artists that were on his roster and network of friends so that they, too, could share their stories creatively.

Rocky had the same reach, whether that was for him to look at his A$AP Worldwide label and create the label for A$AP Ferg and A$AP Mob or for him to do his AWGE venture and provide Playboi Carti with an opportunity to spread his wings and become a successful artist.

For us, it’s a matter of finding the areas of interest for our clients, providing them with the information so they can make the decisions creatively and also from a business standpoint. I think it’s important because most artists won’t have careers that will last decades. But if they’re able to find businesses they’re passionate about, brands they can breathe life into while they’re having that moment of commercial success, then they can continue with their artistry. And their artistry may serve as a marketing tool for businesses that are more lucrative for them in the long run.

What’s a typical day like for you managing affairs at Granderson Des Rochers?

I’m an early riser, even though I love sleep. I normally do a workout if I’m by myself and not dealing with any business at all early in the morning. After I take my kids to school, from the moment I drop them off I’ll start rolling calls—returning calls from the night before or touching base with my team, whether it’s lawyers that I work with here or clients that need issues or questions addressed. Once I get into the office, I’ll look at my calendar, see how my day is laid out and if there’s any changes that need to be made. My assistant will normally help me change up.

Then we’ll have a number of team meetings throughout the day. Because what we do that’s pretty different from most other firms is really collaborate as a firm. We’ll work collectively on client accounts. You’ll have not just one lawyer servicing an account; you’ll have several lawyers that have various areas of expertise helping to service an account. My partner, Guy Blake, for example, is an expert on music publishing. He’s been in private practice for over 20 years. Prior to being in private practice, he was the head of Warner Chappell Music Publishing for 10 years. For the majority of clients we work with, Guy Blake is our resident publishing expert. He’s regarded as such in the industry as well, because he’s done some of the most lucrative, creative publishing transactions in the business. Guy and I work lockstep on a lot of matters.

Then throughout the day, we’ll have team meetings. We’ll interface with clients and, more often than not, halfway through the day whatever I thought my calendar would look like changes, ’cause it’s always emergencies that need tending to that will pop up. We also have such a close relationship with our clients that there are issues that come out sometimes that need our attention right away and don’t necessarily fall into music law or entertainment law, but they are issues or questions that they would rely on us to help to provide guidance on.

We’ll have a business lunch, then we’ll come back and get back into it. I try to get home for dinner most nights so I can eat with my wife and kids. Sometimes I’m later than I’d like to be. [laughs] But more times than not, I’m there. I put my kids to bed. And I’ll either spend the rest of the evening with my wife or go back out for another meeting later at night.

Who was your greatest mentor?

His name was Kevin Davis. He represented Venus and Serena Williams and Gary Payton. I remember when I was in law school, I met him at a BESLA [Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association] conference. He was just a really solid brother. I just always checked in with him. He was one of the guys who would always find the time, like every fourth time I left a message [laughs], to call in and make sure if I was all right.

When I was at Koch, he was representing Wynton Marsalis and we actually started having a real relationship. He was someone I really admired because he always took the time to respond and provide me with a few nuggets in life for encouragement. Because it’s not an easy road, especially for its challenges as a Black lawyer. It’s not many people in the business that have success. When I’d speak about frustrations and not having any opportunities, he would stress to me that it would be worth it. He also stressed to me that you’d have to work harder and be better to have success [as a Black attorney].

Even though he wasn’t by trade a music lawyer, he was a great lawyer; he was smart. He always told me to make sure your paperwork is tight. “That’s the first shot that they’ll take at you: Your paperwork isn’t as good as the other types of lawyers out here. So make sure that you know the work so that your paper is tight. Make sure that you ask the questions.”

He always told me “make sure your balance in life is right so you’re doing things for the right reasons, and your family remains a priority.” He just gave me really good nuggets. Unfortunately, he passed away from brain cancer, right when I moved here. He encouraged me to dream big and continue on the path.

What are your observations about the shape of deals in the present marketplace?

I see the deals shifting more in favor of artists that have creative leverage by starting their careers out independently. For instance, before, an artist would wait to get a deal and then do whatever deal they can. By virtue of that, they don’t have leverage. They’re giving up rights to the IP, to the copyrights. They’re also giving up the majority share of the proceeds. Now, artists are able to use social media platforms; they’re able to contract—in some instances, directly—with DSPs and aggregators so they can get the music out. They can put a song out that, if it’s good enough, can go viral. Or they can go into a community like SoundCloud where they can create some momentum on their own. Once they create some awareness for their music, if the music actually happens to be good, they now have a different leverage to partner with a major.

Some people ask, “Do we need majors or not?” I think it depends on the level of success that artists are looking for. Like, to this day you still haven’t had an unknown go from unknown to star without major resources behind them. And you haven’t had a star go to superstar without major resources behind them.

However, what’s true is that the business and the structure of these deals have changed. So instead of doing royalty deals that are works for hire, these artists can create some leverage on their own if they’re doing it independently and reinvesting the income back into their business. They can now come to the table and say, “Hey, I’d like to do a distribution deal. I’d like to do a profit-share deal. I’d like to do a hybrid distribution deal and I’d like the term of the deal to be a license.”

I think the marketplace has now grown conducive to artists with leverage that have had some success independently. They can now negotiate from a more favorable position of leverage and explore other alternatives instead of doing a 360 deal where they’re not getting paid right.

I think of the independent success of Tobe Nwigwe or Chance the Rapper being able to leverage their position with the industry a certain way be-cause of what they’ve done on their own.

I think that’s the thing. I do hear sometimes from potential clients who say, “Hey, why do I even need a record company?” But at the same time, they’re not willing to take that leap and make the investment in themselves to put the music out themselves and start their own tour, their own fanbase, by touring and marketing. So it’s a bargain, right? It’s a give and take. If you’re willing to really believe in your art and you wanna put your art out there and create some leverage, well, the way to do it is to start out independently. That could be starting with a single, two singles, an EP, a mixtape, an album. But I think at some point, in the current setup, if you want massive commercial success, you will still need the resources of a partner.

What are your macro thoughts about how the industry has changed in the wake of Black Lives Matter?

I think that moment in time was something we’ll always remember. There was a heightened awareness as to the lack of diversity and equity among minorities in the business, and even venture opportunities for talent and executives of color. It’s unfortunate, but I just haven’t seen that change.

I think at that moment, there was a desire to create change and opportunities. But I haven’t seen the commitment in the long term. When I look at the majors, I don’t see the commitment there, and it’s unfortunate. But I do see within our community the willingness to support one another more.

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