BENG A GOOD MUSIC LAWYER IS ABOUT MORE THAN JUST CONTRACTS, CLAUSES AND PROVISIONS
When Sonia Diwan left her role as a partner in law firm Lee & Thompson a decade ago, Daniel Ek was just getting Spotify off the ground. Diwan made that bold move to establish a new kind of music industry law practice in the UK -Sound Advice -alongside Robert Horsfall. Sound Advice, with Diwan and Horsfall at its helm, is currently celebrating its tenth year of successful operation in the music business. Largely thanks to that little startup kicked off by Mr Ek and his friends, it’s been 10 years of fresh challenges, fresh horizons and – in the past couple of years, at least – fresh optimism for Diwan. A Cambridge graduate, she started her legal career working in film and TV at Marriot Harrison, before making the move to big city firm, Herbert Smith, where her priority client was Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB. In 1998, she jumped to Lee & Thompson, working closely with Horsfall, where she stayed for the following 10 years – being named a partner in 2000.
Over the past two decades, Diwan has worked very closely with standout clients such as songwriting/production powerhouse Stargate, British pop supremo Naughty Boy and floor-filling royalty Paul Oakenfold, plus Jonas Blue, Chase & Status and Netsky. These days, Diwan is also having great success in the world of UK hip-hop and grime, representing up-and-comers such as Drake producer Nana Rogues, Ill Blu and ZieZie, to name a few. Her clients – and her non-clients, for that matter – obviously think a lot of her. Naughty Boy says that Diwan’s “exceptional” approach to law and business affairs has enabled him to focus on “being the best that I can be” as a musician. Daniel Lloyd-Jones, Head of A&R at Downtown Music Publishing UK, considers Diwan “one of the most respected figures .we have in the UK music industry” – while Chase & Status’s Saul Milton simply says she’s “the best in the business”. Diwan’s certainly come a long way from the young girl growing up in a mining village in South Glamorgan, as part of “the only Asian family in 100 miles” …
Why did you want to be a lawyer?
Asian! There were only three professions I was allowed to pursue: be a doctor, an accountant or a lawyer. I did my first degree in medicine at Cambridge. But I hated it, so I had two choices left. Hang on. You completed a medical degree at Cambridge then went back and trained as a lawyer?
Yes – I only did [the medical degree] to annoy my dad, who’s a doctor. He said, Darling, as an Asian female you’re going to struggle· to become a consultant in a hospital; it’s a really hard slog. So I thought: I’ll prove you wrong! I finished the degree and had to make a decision, so I started again. I was lucky that I was at Cambridge – I could make the switch relatively simply and complete another degree. Medicine and law aren’t so dissimilar skillsets, both involve the assimilation of a lot of information, factfinding and problem-solving.
It’s been 20 years since you got your first job as a music lawyer at Lee & Thompson. You previously worked in film and TY. How did that change come about?
Before Lee & Thompson, I worked in the commercial film and TV departments at Marriot Harrison and then went to work at Herbert Smith, a big city firm which I thought would be a great experience, on the first floor of an exciting new entertainment practice. But in reality, it meant doing licensing work for BSkyB. It was an impressive company, one of the Top 5 firms, but there was very little action; I was rocking in at 1 0am and leaving at 5pm. I thought, if I don’t make a big change now, I’m going to have to leave law; this isn’t the challenge I thought it would be. I thought I’d go inhouse somewhere – but, just to be safe, I applied for one private practice job as well. I made it through three interviews at Lee & Thompson, and they took me on, even though they had already filled the position. I never looked back; I’d found my calling. I went in as a music lawyer, and although I had no experience, Robert was extremely encouraging and made me believe I could be good at this.
What was your first big challenge in that role?
For a while, I was on the periphery, observing what Robert was doing. For example, when I first joined, he was handling a major record and publishing deal for a solo act he was representing at the time. I thought all deals were going to be like that – half a million here, quarter of a million there. It was an eye-opener; it was so much more immediate [than film], with a personal relationship with a client in a way I’d never seen before. I was used to dealing with corporations or TV/film production companies. I could see Robert had a real say in what was going on, guiding the client through the process. I now realise that, for an artist, the process, whilst exciting, is also very scary; they don’t know what’s a great deal or not, they just see what they’re being offered. Then they talk to their friends – who may exaggerate their own deals – so it’s hard to have a clear idea of what’s the norm and what isn’t. It also made me appreciate the importance of a good manager. Robert looked after Jonathan Shalit at the time, who famously managed Charlotte Church. Watching that entire process unfold was fascinating- I was in every single meeting Jonathan had at Sony with
[then-Sony Music boss] Paul Burger and his legal / business affairs team. I
was taking notes through every single meeting, relying on some shorthand
I’d learnt when I was 17. I would literally go home and transcribe every single word. Jonathan, bless him, has said that those notes helped him get the settlement. [Shalit settled for a reported £2m in 2000 after suing Church when the singer dropped him as her manager.] That case went to the wire and was an incredibly instructive experience for me.
Do you feel quite protective of your artist and manager clients?
Yes, it’s natural. The more experienced I’ve got, the more you take that on board. You forget how much information you’ve absorbed over time, and you have to remember there’s no reason it will come naturally to artists. I couldn’t do what they do; I constantly remind myself of that. Given the way the industry has changed so much – and maybe a byproduct of me getting older! – artist managers have got younger and younger, representing even younger artists, in an ever more fastmoving industry. There doesn’t seem to be that sense of mentorship in the same 62 way [that a young artist might get from an experienced manager], so they often look to us, as lawyers, to guide them through the process and the industry. More so, I think, than ever before. When an artist first comes to a lawyer, how would they know whether that lawyer is brilliant or not? Of course your legal skills are key but it’s that in combination with the knowledge you have of the industry that matters; your ability to deal with the other side, the ability to make the process as smooth as possible, and to inspire trust in your clients. I think we’re part therapist, part lawyer! If you’re good at your job, the artist will be left to get on with what they do best. A big part of it is explaining things; if I haven’t got an artist to fully understand what they’re about to sign, then I’ve failed.
How did your decision to leave Lee & Thompson come about?
When I got to L&T I’d discovered something I really enjoyed doing. I thought, Okay I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can to progress. I knew ] wanted to become a Partner, and fast. When ] made the decision to leave, ] was 10 years in at L&T, I’d been offered equity partnership, so it was not an easy decision to make. But I also thought, I either make this decision now or ] may not have the courage in the future to leave a familiar environment that was working for me. I’m not saying that staying wasn’t appealing; two of my contemporaries there stayed and have both got a great work life. But the whole idea of helping to set something up that was different to a traditional law firm, being involved in client careers in a more holistic way, was hugely appealing. Thankfully, I haven’t regretted that decision.
You left to team up with Robert to launch Sound Advice. Why do you have such faith in him?
I will always credit him with helping to instill the passion I have for what ] do today. We’re quite similar people – we both work really hard, enjoy what we do and we both really care about the clients we look after. I am always aware of the fine line between the client/lawyer relationship and the friendships that can develop – there is a danger of losing objectivity. But] genuinely look at all of our clients as being part of the Sound Advice family, and you look after your own, don’t you?
What was the big cultural change you wanted to make in artist law at Sound Advice?
Traditionally, lawyers have just been seen as lawyers: you get a contract in, you mark it up, you go through various forms of negotiation and you end up with an agreement. But for me, being a good music lawyer is about more than just looking at contracts, clauses and provisions, it’s about offering commercial advice – working hand-inhand with a manager and saying, ‘I know we can push it this far.’ Or, ‘We need to close this now.’ We see ourselves as there to advise across the entirety of an artist’s career, helping them choose the right team and hopefully helping them achieve the best possible outcome.
What makes a good manager?
Fundamentally, they need to believe in the artist. They need to be able to go around town and ‘sell’ them in the way the artist deserves. Experience helps, of course, but that comes with time and, in the mean time, they may need to lean on the lawyer more. I have a manager we’re working with now who is 16 years-old. I get emails from him late at night because he’s finished his homework and is headed out to the studio. For the young, urban artists I work with, it’s definitely not uncommon to see [teenagers] pulling the strings. Managers have to do so much more than they ever did; they have to be across so many things. Ever-changing technology has had an impact, especially on the way music is consumed, but also because major labels – I feel – don’t have the manpower to develop or A&R the early stages of the artists’ career anymore. The managers – and producers – have taken up that slack, so the manager’s job is more all-encompassing than ever before.
What needs to change about the music business today from a legal standpoint?
Thar’s a big question – there’s a whole variety of things! What’s clear to me is that there’s certainly more money in the system now, with streaming revenues, at least on the master side, beginning to trickle down. Personally I am seeing more deals being done; there’s an excitement and enthusiasm about signing new talent which I haven’t felt for some time. But there still needs to be some sort of readjustment in revenue share with the publishers and the songwriters. The last decade has probably been the most challenging and testing time for all of the various businesses within the music industry. But I still love what I do and I am still full of optimism.
In the period since you’ve started this company, have you seen more power shift towards the artists?
Yes, but again that might be because so many of the clients I look after are in that ‘urban’ space. What’s been going on with Skepta and Stormzy has almost sanctified the validity of urban music in the UK from a mainstream point of view; it’s pop, popular, music as far as I’m concerned. Labelling it ‘urban’ music now is a complete misnomer; why is it ‘urban’ music, exactly? Because it’s non-white?
Why are British executives now running the global label system?
Maybe they look at things in a slightly different way. Maybe they will be able to bring a more global perspective to the US market – the US has always been a market in itself that hasn’t really needed the rest of the world to validate what they do.
You’ve been quite involved in Women In Music initiatives. Have you encountered obstacles in your career based on the fact you’re not a white male?
Not being a white male hasn’t held me back, I don’t think, but being an Asian female has probably meant I’ve felt I have had to work harder to prove myself. Any obstacles I may have encountered have been overcome by that hard work. It’s in my DNA. It’s what my parents did and still do.
Are you optimistic that female executives will land more prominent positions in the industry?
Of course – I’ve got to be positive about it! Attitudes are changing. I would like to think there is less prejudice towards females. There are so many amazing women working in chis industry today. But I still find it a little bit exasperating that we only have one female President of a major frontline pop label in the UK – Jo Charrington, who is Co-President at Capitol. It’s so well deserved for her, but probably as a result of the recession in the industry a lot of talented women were ‘allowed’ to leave the business. But things are changing, slowly; the younger generation are way more astute and focused on – as well as vocal about – what’s acceptable and what’s not for women.
Were you shocked by the gender pay gap stats that came out of the major labels and Live Nation earlier this year?
Not really. It’s saddening- there’s no reason for it. Although those statistics are open to manipulation – e.g. they don’t differentiate between departments – there is a gender pay gap, for which there is no excuse.
Who inspires you?
Robert, for sure. But I’m also inspired by what managers like Jho Oakley have built, or Tim Blacksmith and Danny D, who manage Stargate – the empire they’ve created is so inspiring. It is a privilege to be treated as part of their family. And Riki Bleau, in looking after Naughty Boy, Kyla and a host of other young urban acts. These days I’m also working with some fantastic young managers, like Aaron Ross, Aaron Mensah and Dani Stephenson, to name a few – a new generation of managers who have this fresh enthusiasm, energy and passion about what they do. That’s inspiring to me on a daily basis. Then there’s my girl friends – people like [Concord’s] Kim Frankiewicz, [CAA’s] Emma Banks and [Hart Media’s] Jo Hart, who have all achieved incredible things and are all still so enthusiastic about and inclusive in what they do and the creatives they work with. Nothing has held them back. What were your memories of school and growing up in South Glamorgan? Growing up in Wales was idyllic. We had fields and horses next door. It was the ’70s so mum and dad didn’t worry about my brother and I being out by ourselves in the Brecons, picking blackberries. But the one thing I’ve since realised, which didn’t occur to me then, was that we were the only Asian family within at least a 100-mile radius, so we stood out. I guess we ‘got away with it’ because my dad was the local doctor; everyone had to come and see him. When I was 10, we moved to Birmingham. Yes, there was a strong Indian community, but during my entire time at secondary school I was one of only a handful of non-white girls there for the entire seven years. I did notice that.
What ambitions do you have left personally and for Sound Advice?
We’re both very proud of what we’ve done with Sound Advice over the last 10 years – we’re a relatively small practice that is only music and talent-based. We feel chat we punch above our weight, and we’re growing; we’ve taken on three new lawyers this year. We aspire to be in the magic circle of music law firms: Russell’s, Lee & Thompson and Clinton’s. But, as a musiconly practice, to some extent – at least from the outside – we’re only as good as the talent we look after. We have been very blessed with our clients, who are all very loyal to us, and who all talk about us to their friends and people in the industry. So much of this business is based on word of mouth, and we’re the lucky beneficiaries of that.