Hard Workin' Man

Learning about the changing tides of the music business, courtesy of Brooks & Dunn

When your name is etched on the front of a university building, as Atlanta attorney Joel A. Katz's is at the University of Tennessee's Joel A. Katz Law Library, you probably have some latitude about who you can invite to a lecture series at the school. When your name's also part of the official title of that lecture series, as Katz's is for the UT College of Law Joel A. Katz SunTrust Lecture Series, you can invite just about whoever you want.

Katz, a 1969 UT law graduate who now heads the Greenberg Traurig firm in Atlanta, brought himself, his law partner Bobby Rosenbloum, and Nashville country music executive Clarence Spalding to Knoxville for a recent lunchtime talk about entertainment law in the digital age. But the real draws for the standing-room-only lecture, held inside an auditorium-like classroom in the Katz library, were two of Katz's biggest clients, neither of whom is particularly well-known for his legal expertise: Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn of the multiplatinum country music duo Brooks & Dunn.

About 150 UT law students, as well as a handful of faculty and university executives, started crowding the library lobby 45 minutes before the talk. Few of them looked like hardcore country music fans—most of them seemed more interested in the "law" part of "entertainment law," and not a single cowboy hat could be seen—but a distinct electric buzz of anticipation could be felt as the audience filed into the room. When Brooks, Dunn, and the other panelists emerged a few minutes later, they were greeted with applause that was more than just polite.

A quick round of self-promotion followed during the introductions. When asked what he would advise young artists to look for in legal representation, Dunn, speaking in a baritone Texas twang, said he'd choose someone just like Katz, and Katz described his clients as "true living legends." "These are two of Nashville's knights of the round table," he declared. "They're like Lancelot and Galahad." Brooks and Dunn were confident and relaxed in front of the audience, Brooks in a black blazer and black cowboy hat and Dunn in a white sport shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest.

The talk provided an industry insiders' perspective on the digital music revolution. With little variation, the panelists agreed that music downloads, legal and illegal, are crippling major record labels and undermining the album-oriented business model that has prevailed for more than 40 years. CD sales are down, piracy runs rampant on college campuses, radio playlists are tighter, and Apple is the biggest music retailer in the world. Music executives—and artists, and the attorneys who represent them—are desperate to find new ways to turn the 1s and 0s of digital music into enough cash to support the gargantuan hierarchy that has evolved to produce, distribute, promote, and protect pop music. So-called "360 contracts," in which artists give labels a cut of touring, publishing, and merchandise profits in return for the capital investment of production and promotion, offered the buzzword of the day. The word "monetize" was used about a dozen times. And the budding legal scholars in the audience seemed eager to find a way to carve out their own shares.

"It feels like a worn-out topic, but it seems to get worse at the same time," Brooks said. "How does it affect us? It changes daily. Wal-Mart and Best Buy say they're preparing for no more CDs within five years. CDs are about to be like cassette tapes.... When ‘Boot Scootin' Boogie' came out, the only way to get it was to buy the Brand New Man CD. We're not living in that world anymore."

When Brooks & Dunn first entered the charts in the early 1990s, Dunn said, cassette tapes made up half of the group's sales. The duo's first album, 1991's Brand New Man, sold more than 6 million copies. Its second, Hard Workin' Man, from 1993, sold five million copies. ("And this was in the middle of the ‘Garthzilla' explosion," Brooks said. "The night before last I wore a Darth Vader mask and went to a Halloween party as Darth Brooks.") Four other Brooks & Dunn albums from the 1990s sold 2 million copies or more. The biggest-selling album of 2008, Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, has sold just over 2 million copies.

"It's entirely changed the face of the business," Dunn drawled. "It'll be interesting to see where it lands."

One suggestion from the audience was that artists, empowered by MySpace and YouTube, Internet and satellite radio, and filesharing networks, might just skip the business side of the music business altogether. After all, as Brooks said, 75 to 80 percent of Brooks & Dunn's revenue comes from touring anyway, and always has. Why bother with a label at all?

"I'll have to talk to my attorney," Dunn said.