|Charles B. Ortner|
Pay a visit to Charles B. Ortner, the charismatic co-head of the Entertainment Industry Group at Proskauer Rose, and you can’t help but notice the guitar. It’s partially crushed, it’s scribbled on, and it’s hanging on the wall beside his desk. Naturally, the guitar has a story. It once belonged to Ortner’s client Trent Reznor, the legendary Nine Inch Nails leading man who just won an Oscar for his delicate and haunting musical score to The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s nail-biting account of the genesis of Facebook.
Five years ago, Reznor was sued in a copyright case, and Ortner, one of the country’s leading entertainment lawyers, set out to defend him. To get inside the artist’s process and better serve his client, Ortner spent a week with Reznor at his New Orleans music studio while he composed.
“It was a fascinating time,” recalled Ortner, who won the case on appeal, vindicating Reznor’s name. Reznor learned of the victory as he was about to perform. “He was so thrilled,” said Ortner, “that he took his guitar, smashed it and autographed it to me. The inscription reads: “Thank you for everything, Chuck! Trent Reznor.”
Reznor is but one of the many celebrity musicians who have benefitted from Ortner’s skill as a litigator and an advocate. Madonna, U2, Green Day, Sting, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga, also count on him to tackle their legal woes.
Ortner, who is also the national legal counsel to the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Inc. (the GRAMMY® Award organization), has influenced nearly every corner of the entertainment and media legal and business landscapes. Chambers USA, a leading independent lawyer rating service, has described Ortner as a "legendary music expert [and] one of the premier lawyers in the copyright world." He is also listed in Best Lawyers in America, Expert Guides to the World’s Leading Lawyers for Technology, Media and Telecommunications Law, New York Super Lawyers and Lawdragon.
His talent has not gone unnoticed. In December, President Obama named Ortner to the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “These impressive men and women will bring a wealth of experience to their new roles,” said President Obama in announcing the appointment of Ortner and the three other trustees.
LawNotes Managing Editor Andrea Strong caught up with Ortner early this spring to learn more about his role at the Kennedy Center, his early days with Carly Simon, and why copyright law needs to change.
BLS: You were recently appointed to the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees by President Obama and charged with a very specific mission. Tell me more about it.
CO: I am very proud to be on the Board. I’ve been asked to help encourage younger artists to appear in various contexts at the Center and to attract the interest and attention of people in their 20s and 30s to supplement the current programming, which is by and large geared to a somewhat older demographic. It’s important to use this platform to encourage younger people to focus on the arts. I think that with the trend toward cutbacks in funding for the arts, it’s more challenging to support young people in this field. So we are looking at how we can expand our sphere of influence and get attention from people who haven’t been as involved in the past.
We are developing a series of programs to appeal to younger audiences and we have already curated a number of very cool artists from different genres who are very enthusiastic about this project. The concept is to offer free concerts and the kind of engaging programming you might find at the 92nd Street Y: unplugged performances, intimate interviews so you can get into the artists’ head.
BLS: When did you realize you wanted to be a lawyer?
CO: It took a while. At first, I was very interested in science and biology, but when I went to college at Washington University of St. Louis I was forced to take all these humanities classes in addition to my science classes. As it turned out, I became very interested in history, and as the civil rights movement grew in the 1960s, and issues of poverty were on the forefront, and the Vietnam War protests were heating up, I developed an interest in being an advocate. Going to law school seemed like a natural fit.
BLS: How did you become interested in entertainment law?
CO: I was working at my second firm out of law school, a small litigation boutique called Gold Farrell & Marks, and I was assigned to defend Carly Simon. She was with James Taylor at the time and they were very popular. I began to represent Carly and work with her, and I found it just fascinating to be with creative people. Although my father was a business man, he was also a classically trained pianist and I grew up with music. I played three instruments—clarinet, bass violin, and piano. Practicing entertainment law was an opportunity to be with music people and do interesting legal work.
BLS: Tell me about your first meeting with Madonna.
CO: It was quite unexpected. I was representing a number of artists at the time. A young woman with blonde hair and a lot of crosses came into my office and insisted that I represent her in a matter. She was an unknown and the firm did not encourage me the representation of unknowns. But I decided to take her case, and I have been representing her since 1984. Since then, I’ve been told the decision was genius.
BLS: Take us through typical day.
CO: I hit the snooze button a lot! I travel back and forth to LA and Washington DC quite often. I am usually reviewing litigation, helping to develop strategy, working on legal papers, drafting and revising, preparing for depositions. I also spend a fair amount of time on the phone with the GRAMMY people. All sorts of issues present themselves, whether it’s business strategy, employment law, or by-laws issues. We are currently working on a deal to bring the GRAMMYs to China. I am also very active with cancer research charities, in particular the Myeloma Research Foundation, so I spend a fair amount of time on that. I also devote a lot of time to the Kennedy Center and democratic politics.
BLS: You work with the GRAMMY awards, which sounds very glamorous. Tell me more.
CO: I do attend the GRAMMYs every year and all the parties, too, which are a lot of fun, but there are a lot of challenges that the GRAMMY Awards face. I am involved with advocacy and public policy. We do “GRAMMYs on the Hill,” where I meet with members of the House and Senate to talk about legislative support, particularly for copyright issues and the impact of reduction of funding to non-for-profit art organizations. I have also assisted with corporate restructuring of the GRAMMY organization itself, and was involved in the negotiation and creation of the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles.
BLS: What are the challenges facing the music industry at the moment?
CO: The first is the continuing problem of massive of copyright infringement because of free downloads, music sharing, and piracy, which obviously affect the artist tremendously. Their earnings are being hit hard. The second issue is the way copyright law is structured. At the moment, when a song is played on the radio, the recording artist gets nothing and the record company gets nothing. Only the songwriter and the music publisher receive a royalty. We have been trying, with tremendous opposition from radio stations, to change the law, which applies only to terrestrial broadcasts not to satellite radio. We are trying to overturn the legislation from the beginning of time. It’s a very big deal.
BLS: What about the future of music?
CO: The future is obviously very digital. In some ways Jon Bon Jovi was right when he said that Steve Jobs ruined the music industry. It’s not the way it used to be where artists recorded a whole album, and got multimillion dollar advances. It’s more about singles, which means less revenue. Artists are more dependent on touring and on finding new outlets and product endorsements. But ultimately, music is about hits. It’s about Lady Gaga. Look what she has done! If you have great artists, there is still a way to sell records.
BLS: If you were speaking to a classroom full of law students aspiring to work in entertainment law, what advice would you give them?
CO: I know this makes me sound like an old fuddy duddy, but I’d tell them to get training in general legal practice. I would advise against immediately going into a boutique firm. I would suggest that they work at a large firm where they would be assigned to big deals and where they would become sensitive to sophisticated issues. Bottom line: seek depth of knowledge.
My reputation was enhanced by my training at Rosenman and Colin, the first firm I joined out of law school. Later on, when I was handed a file with a record company trying to sue the band The GoGos, knowing what I knew from litigating at Rosenman, I was able to get an injunction, and the case settled. The success of that case was based on my experience as a litigator, not an entertainment lawyer. I’d also recommend digging into intellectual property courses. These classes are critically important.
BLS: You are working what would be a dream job for many. What would you do if you weren’t doing this?
CO: [Long pause.] It’s hard for me to envision me doing anything other than what I do now.