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Donald S. Passman practices law in Los Angeles, California, and has specialized in the music business for over 40 years. The Harvard Law grad is the author of All You Need to Know About the Music Business. The book’s latest edition (the 11th!) is out tomorrow.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I got into the music business on purpose. I’ve always loved music, both listening and playing, ever since I was a little kid. Also, I was around the music business in my teens because my stepfather was a disc jockey. But I didn’t know there was such a thing as entertainment law until I got to law school, planning to be a tax lawyer. Then I saw a job posting for an entertainment law firm and got truly excited. However, I started with a tax firm that said they wanted to go into entertainment, thinking I could do both. But when I got there, they put me in mergers and acquisitions and I was less than thrilled.
About that time, I took a class on the music business at USC Law School and realized I could be doing what I really love full-time. So I changed firms and have been in the entertainment business ever since. I still love what I do and get excited every day because things keep changing so rapidly, and also because I love figuring out creative new ways to get things done.
How did you come to this subject for a book originally?
After a number of years in practice, I taught the music business class at USC that I previously mentioned. After doing that a number of semesters, I realized that my class notes could be the outline of a book. I felt like there was a need in the marketplace for an easy to read overview of the music business, and a lifelong ambition of mine was to write a book. So I sat down and did it.
What makes the topic so interesting to you that you continually update the book?
The music business is always changing. When I wrote the first edition, cassettes were all the rage and vinyl was still a force (which ironically it’s becoming again today). Streaming completely upended the whole music ecosystem, and the current edition of my book not only covers that but also AI, the sales of mega catalogs, and why artists have more power than they’ve ever had in history.
What did the research process look like?
The research process for every edition of the book consists of reading as many articles as I can find, plus calling people in the business who very kindly share their knowledge. I love the process because it forces me to stay current on issues that I don’t deal with on a day-to-day basis.
What was the easiest thing about the whole project?
The easiest thing about the project for me is the writing. That comes easily to me. Once I understand a complicated subject, I’ve always been able to explain it in simple terms. Breaking complex topics into bite-sized chunks, and making things accessible to everyone (especially musicians, who often don’t like to read) is really fulfilling for me.
What was the hardest thing about the whole project?
The hardest thing is doing the research. It really takes a lot of time and digging.
What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?
I’m not really familiar with other resources, so I don’t have anything to recommend. However, I do recommend Amy Thomson’s book “Artist Management & Marketing: A Beginners Guide”, which she kindly made available online for free.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
I was blessed with a number of mentors along the way, but the two most significant are my partner Bruce Ramer and my partner Payson Wolff. They showed me both the craft of being a lawyer, taught me the music business, and more importantly showed me that you can be ethical and act with dignity while still protecting your client.
What’s next for you?
I love what I do. I love bringing people together and I have no plans to retire…ever. So next for me is continuing what I do, and assuring that the other people in my firm will carry on in the future.