Michelle Wahl is an IP/entertainment attorney at the Chicago law firm, Swanson, Martin, & Bell. I spoke with her about her path to music law and her thoughts on the music industry in Chicago and beyond.
I’d love to hear a little bit about your background. Where are you from and when did you realize that music law was what you wanted to do?
I was born and raised in Illinois. Even though I like to say I’m a Chicago gal, I’m a suburbanite–I didn’t actually move here until I did undergrad at DePaul and then Law School at John Marshall.
As far as music law, I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I knew that even from a very young age–probably even before I was old enough to explain what that meant. Back then my understanding was, you’re going to pay me to argue? And I’m fairly good at it? Awesome. And then I fell in love with the idea of the profession from that point as I grew up and got a better understanding of what it meant.
The music side has always been my passion. I come from a musically inclined family. My dad was a professional singer and my brother is a drummer out in LA. So I was exposed to music and the business from a very early age. And that’s actually how I got my start–through my brother’s band.
So is that how you became involved in music management? Through your brother’s band?
Right. We always sort of knew that at some point I was going to graduate law school, pass the bar and represent them as a lawyer. But in the interim I acted as their management. Which was awesome because as a manager you can wear so many hats. Including the hat that allows you to do a lot of the things that lawyers do–reviewing contracts, negotiating contracts, drafting contracts. And that’s also where my network really started to build because I was doing everything from the press kit to negotiating with A&R reps at labels and everything in between.
What kind of music was it?
Rock originally and then they added some pop elements to it. The band started out named Mindsight 20/20 and then later dropped the 20/20. They were a decent sized local and regional band and we took a DIY approach to as much as we could (e.g., – we booked tours ourselves, etc.). They also had sponsorships from Jager and had various licensing deals for their instruments. After I passed the Bar Exam, I naturally transitioned to being their lawyer and started representing people I had met during the time I was managing Mindsight. So it worked out well for me!
So when you first became a lawyer–you weren’t working with a firm, you were on your own working with different bands?
Well, sort of. I did an internship my third year of law school at a small boutique firm and thought I had a gig set up after I graduated. And I did, but they didn’t have full time work available by the time I arrived.
I was familiar with Swanson, Martin, & Bell. I had done my research and I knew they had a very good track record. I also knew they had an intellectual property practice and had handled some entertainment law matters even though they didn’t have an official Entertainment and Media Law practice group. Long story short, I got involved with a temp agency who placed me at Swanson Martin and Bell as a legal secretary. I took it because I just needed a way to get in the door. I worked for two amazing attorneys for about a year and a half and at the same time I was just pitching myself to anyone and everyone at the firm who would hear me out. Soon after, I was hired as an attorney to handle asbestos defense work but slowly and steadily began building my entertainment and IP practice at the firm! However, I always knew that someday this firm would have an Entertainment and Media practice group and I wanted to be a part of making that happen.
How exactly did you get there? How did you make the transition from asbestos litigation to an entertainment practice?
I still do–and love–asbestos litigation and ironically, much of what I learned from practicing in that space still rings true in my IP/entertainment work!
When I started the asbestos work, I was also bringing in clients to the firm–bands really. I was also bringing in clients for intellectual property work, which helped me establish a relationship with our intellectual property team. I kept pushing the fact that I had a background in the entertainment space and how I wanted to grow my entertainment and IP practices. Then Jeff Becker came to our firm, who also had a background in entertainment. Not just in music, but in other arts as well, so we really complemented one another. Jeff, a few other colleagues and I have since worked together to build up the practice to the point where the firm was primed for creating an Entertainment and Media practice group and advertising it as such. It just continued (and continues) to grow from there. Now I’m Vice Chair of our firm’s Entertainment & Media practice group!
What’s your day to day like? What kind of things do you do for your clients in the Entertainment and Media group?
I do a lot of transactional work – A lot of work for hire agreements for session players, sound engineers, and producers, and cover just about any entertainment-related contract you can think of, particularly in the music space. I also do a lot of copyright and trademark prosecution, which is essentially the application process. I do a lot of research on the availability of trademarks and opine on the likelihood that our clients’ mark will in fact proceed to registration. I also do maintenance on those trademarks because once the registration is issued, the owner is required to file certain documentation over the course of the trademark’s life. A lot of my day is just calls with clients or opposing counsel. A lot of emails, a lot of calls, and a lot of writing, but I certainly love it!
I saw that you’re involved in a group called 2112. Can you talk about what that is and what you do for them?
Sure. 2112 is one of the most badass places on the planet and it just so happens to be right here in the greatest city–Chicago. It’s an incubator–a film, music, and tech incubator. It’s a part of Fort Knox. Fort Knox is the recording side, while 2112 is the incubator side so it’s got all types of entrepreneurs in the arts and entertainment realms. It has offices, cubicles, and community space for entrepreneurs to use. There are lunch and learns and mentoring hours. Lots of different organizations like Women in Music, Lawyers for the Creative Arts, etc., have all had events there. Just a wicked space with great people and even better energy. It just brings our arts community together in a collaborative sort of way.
How would you say the music industry has changed since you started in it?
A lot has changed. The biggest, most obvious change is the DIY era. I feel like a decade or so ago, artists were so reliant on the recording contract, and a lot of them still are for good reason. The recording companies still provide the finances that aren’t typically available to a musician who’s paying for everything out of pocket–because it’s a very expensive profession. But, people having the ability to create this livelihood themselves through social media, through merchandising, and through retaining the right team members allows them to somewhat remove a few people from the equation that a decade ago they felt were a complete necessity for success.
Obviously, with the advent of streaming another huge change is that people don’t care as much today as they did a decade ago about having a physical, tangible piece of music in their hand. It’s the instant gratification where I can just hear whatever song I want and the ability to hear one song and purchase one song as opposed to an entire album, which most of us enjoy. But it really cut the artist’s revenue tremendously. It’s also a huge issue to make sure that you make sure the parties that you’re retaining to monitor, track, collect and pay the artist are doing so fairly, timely, and appropriately. In light of the Music Modernization Act, everyone is hopeful that some of these issues are going to be properly addressed and reflect the way people create and obtain music.
What’s the common mistake that you see young artists make and what is the most important issue for young artists to know about?
Oh my gosh that’s a loaded question. I don’t know if I can narrow it down to one. As an intellectual property attorney, something I come across a lot is that when you’re talking about a music piece of work, there are two copyrights. There’s an underlying musical composition and there is the actual sound recording–meaning a particular rendition of the composition. And you need to secure your rights in both. Additionally, the way in which you treat each of those copyrights is different. Artists don’t always realize that.
I think that young artists need to not just be talented, they need to be as business savvy as they can get. And in this day and age there are so many resources available-whether it’s on the copyright office website or by relying on reputable sources, they need to get educated. Because the unfortunate thing is that if you don’t, you risk giving away rights you shouldn’t, and giving away revenue and royalty streams you shouldn’t or didn’t need to. In other words, if you’re more than a garage band–you want this to be a livelihood, and the burden is on you to either educate yourself and do it yourself the right way or surround yourself with an effective team that is educated about the industry and the business side so that you get all your ducks in a row right from the jump.
BIOGRAPHY: Michelle is a Partner at Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP and is licensed in Illinois and Indiana state and federal courts. With a Masters of Law in Intellectual Property, Michelle is the Vice Chair of the firm’s Entertainment and Media Practice Group and a member of the firm’s Intellectual Property Litigation and Transactional Services Practice Group. Her copyright and trademark practice focuses on intellectual property prosecution and related transactions, including performing trademark availability searches and providing advisory opinions, as well as preparing and filing trademark applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and copyright registrations with the United States Copyright Office. Michelle also assists with the oversight of the firm’s extensive trademark docket and conducts required monitoring and maintenance of clients’ trademark portfolios, as well as provides clients with corporate counseling and innovative corporate solutions to address their respective needs.
Michelle further provides comprehensive representation in the drafting, negotiating and executing of various entertainment-related contracts and licenses, including but not limited to band member agreements, artist management agreements, session player agreements, performance agreements, sound engineer agreements, recording and personal services agreements, publishing agreements and licensing agreements. As a former artist manager, she has implemented many facets of national and regional tours, assembled benefit and charity concerts, communicated with various industry personnel, facilitated radio and internet publicity campaigns, arranged radio, print and internet interviews, and assisted in the development of press kits and websites promoting local talent. Michelle has also guest lectured on entertainment and intellectual property-related topics at The John Marshall Law School, DePaul University College of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law and Azusa Pacific University (CA), as well as served as a panelist on various other entertainment-related continuing legal education courses. Michelle is an author and editor of the Litigation and Industry Updates Column of the ABA’s Entertainment & Sports Lawyers Journal and has also had numerous articles published by the Chicago Music Guide.
In addition, Michelle serves as Chair of Swanson Martin & Bell, LLP’s Community Service/Pro Bono Committee and proudly volunteers her time as President of the Associate Board and as a pro bono attorney to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to eligible clients in all areas of the arts. She also currently serves as Events Chair for the Chicago Chapter of Women in Music, a non-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering equality in the music industry through the support and advancement of women. She recently served as Chair of the Young Lawyers Division for the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel, where she was recognized as the Rising Star recipient and received a Meritorious Service Award and President’s Commendation.