Dr. E. Michael Harrington is one of the preeminent figures in the world on music law and intellectual property matters. Famously, he worked as a consultant and expert witness to return “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” to the public domain. These are just two of hundreds of music copyright cases he’s been a part of for figures such as Steve Perry, Busta Rhymes, Keith Urban, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, and more.
In this Q&A, Harrington talks about falling into the music business accidentally, his extensive background in music, and the lessons he’s learned along the way in his career where music law and business intersect.
What attracted you to the business side of the music industry?
Nothing. I fell into the business side of the music industry by accidentally becoming an expert witness and consultant in music copyright infringement matters. My experiences in the business side of music have been when I have been asked to perform, write music, lecture, teach, etc. I never viewed it as business but as a project or cool new thing to do. I was in business without knowing it, and have been an entrepreneur without knowing it for my entire life. Funny enough, I realized I was in business when I was asked for my opinions on business, and asked to lecture to Rotary groups in different cities, and join a business school faculty. (My law career is as unplanned and accidental as my business career.)
What was your first job on the business side of the industry?
My first experiences on this business side of music came when I was 12 when I was paid to perform music in public. I later was paid by BMI when my original music was performed in public.
Do you think having an understanding of music helps with how you do in the music business?
My understanding of music, especially as a music theorist, composer, and ethnomusicologist, has been central to my entrance into and continuance in the music and entertainment business. I would not have had a career in the music and entertainment business without my musical knowledge and ability.
Please describe your own musical background.
I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan on a Sunday night. The next day, I begged my Dad for a guitar. He rented one for me for a month and then bought me my first. I was only without my guitar when I had to sleep or be in school. Two years later (at age 12), I was a professional musician and teacher; giving guitar, piano, and organ lessons. I earned music degrees (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate), and I have been teaching at the college/university level since I was 21.
I create music from one of two starting points:
1. What if X, Y and Z met M? Or if S and T opposed V?
2. How come X, Y, and Z have never happened? I also try to imagine what is normal for cultures outside of our planet.
Are you still able to make time for music that has nothing to do with your participation on the business side?
Yes. I listen closely and analyze music of many styles every day in almost every physical space. Also, I write about music of many styles and copyright and artificial intelligence. I am still composing but I describe it more as “composing a life” as my friend Frank Zappa once told me. (I was in a period in which I was not composing enough music and to comfort me, Frank said that I was “busy composing a life.”) For me, I almost always do music aside from the music business BUT what I do usually happily and accidentally falls into and complements my work in the music, legal, and entertainment industry.
I had no idea you and Frank Zappa were friends!
I had the great fortune to spend the first week of April 1984 with Frank and we stayed in touch. We exchanged scores and recordings and his great stories and insight! The last thing he said to me was, “keep your sense of humor, boy!” Awesome advice.
Who is someone in the music industry who you admire for making the most of their brand, from a business perspective? What can we learn from them?
- Richard Branson: Innovative and risk-taker.
- Stevie Wonder: Writes and creates as often as possible, control your copyrights and business, adaptable, socially-minded, and active. Innovative and risk-taker.
- Paul McCartney: Adaptable, creates in many styles of music, manages business and law very well. Innovative and risk-taker.
- Frank Black: Formerly known as Black Francis, founder of the Pixies. Innovative as hell and a risk-taker.
- They Might Be Giants: Adaptable, early adopters of many technologies, stealers of many styles of music, manage business and law very well. Innovative and risk-takers.
- Elvis Costello: Adaptable, creates in many styles of music, manages business and law very well. Innovative and risk-taker.
- Sting: Adaptable, creates in many styles of music, manages business and law very well. Innovative and risk-taker.
- Neil Young: Experimental, adaptable, dabbles in many styles of music, manages business and law very well, socially-minded and active. Innovative and risk-taker. (You see a pattern here? They are all innovative and risk-takers!)
If you were starting out now and you had to choose one area of the music business to start learning about, which area would you start with?
Copyright law, as this is the most important and only federal means by which music is respected and protected. Anything that can be seen or heard is in part protected and controlled by copyright."Copyright law is the most important and only federal means by which music is respected and protected. Anything that can be seen or heard is in part protected and controlled by copyright." —E. Michael Harrington, @emh2625 Click To Tweet
What is the biggest lesson you learned the hard way in the music business?
Say yes to almost every ethical opportunity that comes your way. If you think you can’t do it, do it anyway as it will force you to work much harder and learn new facts and skills. If some person, group, or organization thinks you are good or great, don’t disappoint them. Thank them and act accordingly, especially if that means working hard to learn the new skills and complete the new tasks.
- Follow-through: Send thank you emails. When it is a REPLY ALL situation, REPLY ALL. When asked to contribute an article, or your commentary, do it!
- The only dumb question is the question not asked.
- Get legal advice as needed. The “ask for forgiveness later” thought is wonderful EXCEPT in legal situations.
What advice would you offer a musician who is trying to become more business savvy?
- You’ll have plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead. Don’t be lazy, work hard and when you need to take a break, work on something else instead.
- Always hang around, i.e., read, listen to, watch, view, etc. with the smartest people. Then, see where they hang and hang there too.
- Twitter: Follow the best, retweet them, interact with them if you can.
- Surprise yourself: If you hate country music, study it. If you hate hip-hop, study it. If you hate classical music, study it.