John Branca, Attorney to the Super Stars

John Branca got his first taste of the entertainment business as a teenager when he joined a relatively unknown band in Los Angeles. Ultimately, that same young man became one of the entertainment’s biggest names.

But not as a performer.

Instead, John Branca became one of the most successful and accomplished attorneys in the entertainment industry. In his career, he has either represented or negotiated with the most famous artists and bands in history. Michael Jackson called him “the greatest lawyer of our time,” and client Carlos Santana simply called him “the Shaman.”

As a partner at the entertainment firm of Ziffren Brittenham LLP, John Branca’s impressive list of clients includes more than 30 members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since 2009, he’s served as custodian of the Michael Jackson Estate. Among his favorite deals: the $2.2 billion acquisition by Sony of EMI Music Publishing, a deal that created the biggest music publishing conglomerate in history.

Not bad for a former teenage guitar player in a long-forgotten rock band.

We sat down with John recently to discuss his sterling career as an entertainment attorney to the musical elite, and what he has learned about dealing with superstars.

Q. How would you describe what you do for your clients, and how is it different from the way attorneys outside the entertainment industry work?

John Branca: Well, let me start with what’s the same: you need to have an very good understanding of the law. That’s a given. What’s different is applying that to the entertainment industry. I find myself wearing many different hats. Sometimes I’m deeply involved in contract negotiations. Sometimes I find myself working as a client manager or promoter in that I am offering advice in those areas. At other times, a client may ask me to sell their music publishing catalogs.

I remember once when Barry Gordy asked me to get involved with the sale of the entire Motown song catalog. In that case I worked almost as an investment banker. I had to take a deep dive into where the money was coming from, the trends, the numbers, everything. We identified every nickel, money from record sales, streaming, sheet sales, public performances, everywhere it made money. Then we had to project forward: how would future revenues look? What did similar deals look like? More than once I’ve been on both sides of the deal, representing the buyer or the seller.

Q. It takes a tenacious, curious mind, a drive to identify exactly how these deals are structured and how they can best serve your clients, and it seems you have that kind of mind. Is it part of your role to get involved in your client’s public image?

John Branca: Yes, but not in the sense that we personally knock out press releases and magazine articles. Instead, we work so closely with professional PR firms like The Sitrick Firm, one of the top PR agencies in the world. When called for, we bring in skilled pros like Sitrick’s Jim Bates who know how to shape public opinion. Our role is to ensure that the artist is fairly portrayed, conveying who they really are as opposed to who the press or media think they are. When necessary, we defend the artist who’s being maligned or attacked unfairly. It used to be that the media was simply interested in the facts. Now, however, there seems to be a massive rush for eyeballs among the legacy media. Competition from blogs seems to have knocked them back on their heels. As a result, it’s rare now to see the in-depth research by media, the vetting, that used to be the norm. Sometimes the reporter is just too lazy and what he puts out ends up hurting the artist. That’s when we step in to insist on truth and honesty.

Q. You’re well known for your work with major artists, everyone from the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan to Fleetwood Mac and Elton John. But you’re perhaps best known for your close association with Michael Jackson. What’s your favorite memory of working with him?

John Branca: Oh, that’s a tough one–I have so many great memories of Michael. One that comes to mind is the time some songs that Michael owned rights to came up for renewal, but somehow Warner Publishing Company failed to renew the copyrights. The songs were “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” by Dion and the Belmonts. If you didn’t renew, you lost the copyright.

Q. So this was a huge financial loss and no way to recover?

Not so fast. So the publisher calls and says, “Hey, we messed up.” For compensation, they offered money. I said “No way, Michael doesn’t need cash. But he might be interested in copyrights you might own.”

Amazingly, the publisher accepted that—didn’t really have much choice. So we went through his entire list of copywrited songs and Michael ended up owning the rights to 25 outstanding songs like “When a Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge, “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield, a couple of Ray Charles songs, and so on, songs with incredible earning potential down the road.

Why I remember this episode in particular is not just that it turned out so well for my client, Michael, but because of the absolute pleasure it was working so closely with him on the deal. He had such an all-consuming love of music, music of all kinds, and combined with my own love of music, it turned into a project that we both looked back at over the years with great fondness. It’s a perfect example of how I’ve been so fortunate being able to combine both my musical and legal interests.