BR Interview. Neeta Ragoowansi (NPREX): If you want to create and sustain a career in music, treat yourself as a small business owner, as a young start-up

Newsroom 22/04/2019 | 15:51

Neeta Ragoowansi helps women in music, technology and law use their power to create lives, businesses, and careers they love, and to protect and monetize their creative projects and intellectual property. Neeta has been an entertainment attorney and music business professional for over 25 years and is Co-Founder and Senior Vice-President, Business Development & Legal Affairs for USA based company, NPREX (National Performing Rights Exchange) – the first-ever online platform for direct licensing of performance, mechanical and sync rights between music copyright owners and music users (e.g. radio, TV, streaming services, etc).

Neeta was a speaker at Mastering the Music Business 2019 and we took the opportunity and talked with her about the legal side of the musical business, gender equality and pieces of advice for artists.

What made you choose to practice law in the entertainment business?

I was a musician first and foremost — since childhood – and a theatre major in college (in a double major actually with international studies/political science).  A career in law was also of great interest to me, along with music and performing. While I was in law school I was also simultaneously in a hard working rock band. It made sense to combine my interests and I understood that early in law school – so much so that I even served as President of our school’s entertainment law society. It always made sense to combine my two loves in pursuit of “doing what you love” with my career. My passion for the underlying subject matter made it easier for me to get into the business.  Those hiring could see my passion and I had created an area of expertise for myself just from a natural curiosity to comprehend the industry I loved.

How different is it from other types of business law and why?

As in all areas of law it is crucial to have a comprehensive understanding of the underlying transactional subject matter in order to effectively advise/counsel your clients and be a creative problem solver for them. Entertainment (and, for me, specifically music) law requires a deep understanding of the industry.  In that sense it differs greatly from other areas of business law because one needs to know the difference between an agent and a manager, the difference between a record producer and a film or TV producer, and the list goes on and on. But on the other hand, it’s not too far different in terms of requiring a sharp mind that can issue-spot for your clients and a good sense of understanding worse case scenarios to draft contracts wisely. The core legal skills required to be a strong transactional attorney are the same no matter in which industry one is practicing law.  But it is imperative that one understand the definitions, nuances and distinctive characteristics of the entertainment/music industry to properly counsel.  The contracts and terminology are unique to the industry and it’s not something that can be learned quickly.

When do you believe that an artist should have a specialized lawyer by his / her side and why?

If one can afford it, it’s important for an artist to consult an entertainment attorney (lawyer) from the beginning of one’s career and business. A skilled music lawyer can advise the artist on how to best detail splits amongst any fellow creative collaborators (whether it be on the songwriting side or the recording side, etc.), protect copyrights and trademarks, identify, collect and maximize various income streams available, etc. Doing one’s business and legal “housekeeping” early allows the artist to prevent problems later, and provides a framework and roadmap for creators, copyright owners, managers, agents and anyone else involved to work well together with less friction and better results.

What were the most difficult cases you encountered during your career and how have you dealt with them?

As an attorney, I’m required to keep cases confidential, so I can only give a high overview, not the details. I tend to deal with “difficult” cases with patience and creativity. Actually, I don’t necessarily find anything “difficult” but rather a welcome challenge and quite interesting. It’s interesting how some of the more sophisticated/complicated cases start out simple, but then the parties involved surprisingly can’t agree on one small item and it turns into something very difficult. Some of the most sophisticated licensing agreements appear to be a huge challenge, but then all the pieces fall quickly and serendipitously into place and reach an efficient and quick conclusion.

But in order to be responsive to your questions, some of the most “difficult” cases I suppose have been where there is some “falling out” of the relationship between the parties,  – for example, where you see fellow band members unable to agree on certain terms and create such an emotional issue out of it, that they can no longer be friends or collaborators. When it goes beyond business and into the personal, that’s when a case can get difficult. And – it’s not only a sad situation for their friendship, but because we will never again be able to experience the gorgeous, meaningful art they once created. A lawyer sometimes has to play a true counselor and therapist to the clients in so many respects and keep them even keeled through the business and negotiation process, so that this fall out never happens or if it does, it is kept to a minimum.

Making them understand it’s business and not personal is a huge challenge at times but quite necessary to work through the difficult times.  It’s also important to keep the flow of communication happening between the parties. My approach is always to remind the client that “the show must go on” and to find some creative solutions for them. I never like to take “no” for an answer or put up a hurdle or fence that one cannot overcome. I’d rather find a “work-around.” That is part of the interesting nature of the business and the practice of law — finding the path out that works well for all parties involved and keeps their positive relationship intact.

You serve as leadership/on boards of several music industry organizations including Women in Music (Global Co-Chair, Chapter Expansion and former President), Music Managers Forum – US (MMF-US), and the American Bar Association’s Forum on the Entertainment and Sports Industries as well as the Advisory Board for SXSW (South by Southwest). What are the main reasons behind choosing those organizations and would you choose more in the future?

I don’t think I have room for more! The main reasons behind choosing these organizations is three fold:

  1. The mission is a good one.
  2. I have a skill set, experience and a resourceful network to astutely grow and support these organizations well.
  3. I like the culture and people involved on these particular boards and working together towards a common purpose is deeply fulfilling.

Can we talk about gender differences in music, in your opinion? How can you change that situation?

This of course requires more time than this format allows to reply to this question adequately. I couldn’t possibly answer all of what needs to be here, but I’ll attempt to touch on some points.  . . . The problems that we’ve identified are systemic. The solutions are ever evolving and can be applied almost in any situation, in any industry, not just music.

The topic of improving/changing women’s inequality (I’ll focus on that one for purposes of this discussion) has been one that students and scholars (and all the rest) have been analyzing for hundreds of years and attempting to address.  Some improvements have certainly been made, in certain areas, but we certainly have a long way to go. In order to find the best solutions, it is important to study and understand the reasons that the genders treat each other differently and how we perceive members of the same and different genders, the biases and norms, the conditioning we have and then understand how to modify such human behavior and “uncode” the conditioning.

There needs to be a continued effort towards analysis and strategy – and then implementation of that strategy. There are some people who do not want things to improve or haven’t been convinced it’s worth their attention and time. In the music business, the case needs to be made for those people that there is an economic incentive to creating a more diverse and inclusive environment, workforce, management approach – whatever level or area you want to call it. And that there are a variety of very tangible negative consequences for an industry that ignores the strong gender bias issues, the deep and horrible cultures of abuse against women, and the long list of other problems plaguing our society when it comes to this topic.  And, as we go further into this topic, we need to study the misallocation of resources and the restrictive laws and policies affecting women so that we can know what and where to allocate and what specifically needs to be changed.

Creating business opportunities for women and flooding their worlds with knowledge and skills will improve the situation. That is why we work on Women in Music daily – to help build the networks of men and women who believe in the cause,, the mission, to create a more robust and lucrative business environment for women, build a strong network of resources and share expert information amongst the network. Again, there’s so much to say here on this question, but so little time in this format.

What pieces of advice would you give to young artists at the beginning of their career?

Learn music licensing and how to maximize the revenue streams in the industry. Don’t leave an understanding of that to someone else on your team and think you don’t need to know anything about it yourself. You do. If you want to create and sustain a career in music, treat yourself as a small business owner, as a young start-up. Build a team of people to work with you as you go along, so you can start delegating the duties to someone else, but never abandon the idea that you are going to need to create AND run your small business until your career matures.

What must an artist know when negotiating a contract with a label?

Again, this is a very broad question and long books have been written on this topic.

What an artist should know is that they should absolutely have a lawyer who has experience and expert knowledge on such deals to not only negotiate the deal but to educate the artist, get a sense of what their business and creative goals are, and negotiate the deal accordingly. Artists come in varying degrees and levels of interests and understanding for their future professional goals and the contract should reflect those goals after careful analysis.

More about Neeta Ragoowansi

Formerly, Neeta was head of artist-label relations/legal counsel for US digital performance rights organization, SoundExchange; President of Women in Music; VP of Biz Dev/Legal for Tunesat; and Asst. General Counsel for The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and National Symphony Orchestra. She is also a consultant to the finance/investment sector re: licensing/rights management and music industry issues, and strategic advisor, business development resource and legal counsel to entertainment and tech industry clients.

Neeta serves on the boards of Women in Music and the American Bar Association’s Forum on Entertainment & Sports Law; and is the fundraising and membership lead for the Music Managers Forum – US (MMF-US), as well as its international co-liaison to the IMMF (International Music Mangers Forum). Neeta is also on the advisory board of SXSW and is a former board governor of The Recording Academy/Grammy organization (NY chapter). Neeta has served as panelist/speaker at over 200 music industry conferences re: legal and copyright topics, as well as women’s leadership and empowerment; is a recent recipient of the Women in Music Trailblazers Award at Midem 2018; has a B.A. from Emory University and J.D. from American University, and is an actively performing musician and award winning songwriter.

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