Assistants vs Agents –

Credit: Shore Fire Media

This week, we sit down with Donald S. Passman. Although you may not know him by name, you most certainly have heard of his book All You Need To Know About The Music Business. It is required reading at many of the agencies, and has been a launchpad for thousands of music industry careers (including mine) over the last 30 years & 10 editions of publishing. The 11th edition dropped on 10/24 and addresses the most pressing issues in today’s music industry, including AI, TikTok, mega-million dollar catalog sales, and streaming.

Our conversation is below:

AvA: When did your interest in the intersection of law and music begin?

Passman: I always loved music. I grew up playing music, listening to music, and was around the business side because my stepfather was a disc jockey. But it became clear in my college band that I wasn’t going to make it on talent, so I went to law school. I planned on being a tax lawyer, then saw a summer clerkship posting (on a physical bulletin board in those days) for a firm that did “Entertainment Law.” That really lit me up; I didn’t know there was such a thing, and I felt immediately that it would combine all the things I loved: being involved with creative people and handling business.

I think I can speak both the creative and business languages, and I really enjoy the challenge of bridging the gap between the two. Here’s the reality: You can’t have a business without creative people, and creative people can’t make a living without business people. But there’s always tension. Business people need to control costs to make a profit, and creatives don’t want their vision constrained. For me, the greatest pleasure is finding a sweet spot where everyone is (mostly) happy.

AvA: What continues to drive that passion today both professionally and personally?

Passman: I love what I do. Apart from the reasons I just described, I get a true rush from making a complicated deal happen. I’ve also been blessed to work with clients who have the clout to rewrite the rules and that’s the most exciting. I love doing something creative that’s never been done before.

AvA: Your book All You Need To Know About The Music Business continues to be the guide for the Music Industry. What drove you to first publish it back in 1991?

Passman: I started writing my first book when I was seven years old, by dictating it to my Grandmother. She thought it was wonderful, but perhaps she wasn’t the harshest critic….

I later took creative writing in high school and college, and I started a few books that went nowhere, but it was always an itch.

After I’d been practicing law for a number of years, I taught a class at USC Law School on the music business (the same class I took when I was a year out of law school, which really excited me about being a music lawyer). After a few semesters, I realized my class notes were the outline of a book. I felt there was a need for an easy-to-read overview of the business, and I think I have the ability to explain complicated topics in simple terms. I’m aware that musicians are oriented to their ears, and reading isn’t their favorite pastime, so I kept it light with humor and small, bite-sized chunks of information. Today, there’s also an audio version of All You Need to Know About the Music Business as well.

One of my favorite comments that I got over the years was that someone told me it was the first book they’d ever finished in their life.

AvA: The 11th edition came out on October 24th. Can you give us a little preview of some of the new content?

Passman: I explain why artists have more clout today than ever in history. I talk about AI, both the legal and copyright aspects and how it will affect the business. There’s also a section on the mega-million dollar sales of catalogs, music in the Metaverse, and NFTs, plus an extensive update of the overall business and numbers, including a new section on how international streaming pays songwriters. And I expanded the section on how to build a buzz for yourself, which is crucial these days, whether you’re going indie or mainstream.

AvA: It feels like the conversation around AI and music is just beginning, and one that has so many gray areas. How do you foresee laws around AI developing?

Passman: It is indeed just beginning, and it’s a dilemma. The Genie is out of the bottle, so there’s no going back, and it may be hard to put guardrails around it, particularly when other countries don’t see it the way we do. So it’s too soon to tell how this will play out, but it’s a problem far beyond the music business.

AvA: Although hard to predict, what will we be reading about in the 12th edition?

Passman: I don’t think there will be a change away from streaming, which was a massive shift in the 10th edition of the book, but I suspect there will be a lot of action around AI as it works into the system. There is also a question of whether the streamers will continue to pay based solely on the number of plays divided equally for all content providers. There’s a complex issue I describe in the 11th edition, about whether it should be based on per user as opposed to per stream, but there’s an even bigger issue that’s already started: whether the major artists deserve more of the pie than the folks who only have a few hundred streams per year.