This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Sarah Williams, Lawyer and Mediator, Big Picture Legal
Razor-sharp legal maverick Sarah Williams is a London-based independent lawyer who has operated her own entertainment practice, Big Picture Legal, for over two decades.
Launching her firm in the glory days of British techno and house popularity, Williams has advised artists, labels, publishers, promoters, distributors, film and TV producers, in fact, just about every type of entertainment client you might name.
Her practice also includes governance. and conflict resolution.
Being so well-rounded suits Williams who has masters degrees in international law, political science, and international studies, and is an accredited mediator via the London-based Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).
Called to the bar of England and Wales in 1986, Williams’ early work within entertainment included stints working for famed UK manager John Mostyn, as well as Network Records, Bosting Records, Beverley Knight, Inner City, Bentley Rhythm Ace, and Groove Corporation.
Since then she has worked with Barely Breaking Even Records, Freewheeling Films, Manners McDade Music Publishing, Immersive Album Ltd, Phonetic Recordings, Mustard Music Publishing, the band Sparks, and others.
She has worked for the British affiliates of such major music publishers as Sony/ATV, Warner/Chappell Music, Universal Music Publishing Group, Imagem (now Concord Music) as well as such British industry bodies as the Music Publishers Association (MPA), the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS), and the British Academy of Songwriters Composers and Authors (BASCA).
She also helped launch the not-for-profit British collecting organization for photo agencies, PICSEL.
She is currently part of the management team of the Palestine Music Expo (PMX), leading its mentoring and internship program.
What do you enjoy most about being an independent entertainment lawyer?
Independence is one of the greatest values that there is because it allows you to become who you are, and only if you free yourself from most of the shackles of the kind of expectations and strictures of a structure, can you be free to try life. For me, that’s incredibly important. I’ve made a number of choices in my life to leave things that were really promising because I felt, “If I stay here, I won’t be myself.” I need to be myself in every aspect of my life; whether it’s work; whether it’s in politics; whether it’s my social life, whatever. It is so important. Also, it allows me to work with people that I like, and who like me. In the end, the more authentic you are, the better and the more effective your relationships. Also from the perspective of being a lawyer, you are working for people who get you, and you get them. You know where they are headed and can help them rather than having to satisfy sort of requirements that aren’t really you.
Working within a law firm there is a great emphasis on attaining billable hours.
Oh, there is, and my choices have been very much against my own financial self-interests. But, in the end, you define being successful for yourself, and that definition changes as you go through life. Money has never been a driver for me. Maybe it should be a little bit more, but I don’t care if anybody writes on my grave, “She negotiated a hell of a contract.” Being a lawyer is not who I am, it’s what I do.
What do your parents think of your career?
Absolutely baffled by it. My mother is always saying, “I have no idea how I had you.” My dad keeps giving me copies of advertisements for provincial solicitors He doesn’t understand why I’ve put myself through this struggle over the years when I could have been a managing partner in a firm of divorce lawyers in, I don’t know, Hanley (in Staffordshire). My father just keeps saying, “Are you getting paid for this?”
Half the time the answer is no.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Stoke-on-Trent. My mother was a teacher, and my dad was an engineer. I really break the mold within the family. I’m a pottery girl. I do pottery now.
Stoke-on-Trent is the home of England’s pottery industry, and is commonly known as the Potteries, with the local residents known as Potters.]
You left the University of Bristol with a law degree in the ‘80s intending on being a criminal defense barrister.
I was a criminal defense barrister. I was based in a series of chambers in London, in Grays Inn, and The Temple. I did a murder once at the Old Bailey (The Central Criminal Court of England and Wales based in London).
“Williams of the Bailey,” that has a nice ring.
I was only very young. I was the second. It was a girl who specifically asked for me. I had helped her boyfriend out of a difficult situation a few years previously. Then she—a girl of previously impeccable character—had this terrible incident with a slightly crazy brother; where she defended herself against him and ended up stabbing him, and he died. The mother was the only prosecution witness. It was an absolutely tragic case.
Did your client get off?
She did, but it was mainly because the mother was too old to give evidence. The prosecution wanted to read her statement to the court. Even though we were ready for a trial, it ended up being an argument over whether or not the prosecution could read her statement. We successfully argued that it would be unduly prejudicial. Could you imagine the poor mother having to testify against her daughter?
Afterward, you moved to Santa Barbara, California with a boyfriend and became immersed in the music scene there. You took the California Bar, had decided to be a music lawyer, and began to seek work. Then your visa and relationship both expired, and you returned to England. Following a musician to America, were you out of your mind?
(Laughing) Oh God, absolutely. I didn’t learn my lesson because the father of my son is a DJ.
Your clients include artists, creators, labels, publishers, promoters, distributors, film and TV producers, as well as many other media and entertainment companies. You have worked for the British affiliates of such major music publishers as Sony/ATV, Warner/Chappell Music, Universal, Imagem, as well as such music industry bodies as the Music Publishers Association (MPA), the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS), and the British Academy of Songwriters Composers and Authors (BASCA) You also helped set up the not-for-profit collecting organization for photo agencies PICSEL.
I have done a massive variety of work…
Why would these major companies and industry bodies hire you for legal work in-house?
Well, it’s because I have been doing in-house consultancies. Sometimes, I have gone in for a project, and sometimes I have covered somebody’s maternity (leave) and because I then had a child, I had to work around that. I had to find a way to make a living, and it really suited me when I started to be asked to do these kinds of maternity covers. It gave me this brilliant inside intro to in-house publishing and an overview of the interesting concerns, processes, and procedures of the majors. I also met some really interesting people and did some really interesting work. From that. I somehow moved off into more industry organization work; much more about governance and constitution issues and structures. It’s been really interesting working with Music Publishers Association, MCPS, and BASCA as well as with PICSEL, the organization that I was involved in setting up.
Through the Music Export Growth Scheme, overseen by UK Trade and Investments, a government organization; and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the UK government aggressively promotes UK music globally. UKTI provides funding for artists, has trade missions to key markets, and offers the help of trade advisors. As well, there was the arrival last year of ex-Labour MP Michael Dugher as the chief executive of UK Music. He’s both savvy politically, and well-connected. Despite the UK government support, it’s still is a bumpy environment for most British independent labels and artists.
It certainly is.
Still, the UK seems to be holding it together more than many others. UK record company trade income–revenues generated by sales and streams across all format and from syncs–rose 10.6% in 2017, according to the BPI. The highest rate of growth for the sector since 1995.
I wonder why that is. We seem to have a pretty healthy independent sector. It’s taken a beating, but it’s still there.
In the past, Britain’s independent label sector faced disaster twice with the bankruptcies of Rough Trade Distribution in 1989, and then Pinnacle Entertainment in 2008. At least 400 labels worldwide were affected by the bankruptcy of Pinnacle.
That nearly ruined several of my clients. It took me years to come back from that.
One of your longest term clients are brothers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks.
Oh, I love Sparks. They are wonderful.
How did you get involved with them?
Good question. It goes back to the mists of time. I was acting for another artist that was managed by the same manager, and they brought me onboard. But it’s not their current manager.
How long have the Maels been clients?
For 15 or 20 years, I think. We get on very, very well. They are such idiosyncratic creative, original free-thinking people. I know how they think now. I know what’s important to them. They are very intelligent people that are quite clear in where they are headed, and what matters to them. So the relationship is very good. We very much respect each other’s area of expertise. I also respect them as people because they have a lot of integrity. Business and personal integrity. They are really good people. They are very quiet, very reserved, and they are very funny. Ron is absolutely hilarious but in this deadpan way. He is just so funny.
Someone else close to you is Barely Breaking Even Records (BBE) founder Peter Adarkwah whom you have also worked with for 20 years. You two were involved in starting an organic farm in Ghana together.
Oh yeah, we are very good friends.
I recall listening to BBE artists Alice Smith and Robert Strauss plus there were the label’s breakout compilation series, “Beat Generation,” and “Legendary Deep Funk.” Plus the ground-breaking 2001 release of “Welcome 2 Detroit” by the late J Dilla.
His relationship with J Dilla was pretty deep. BBE was important to Dilla and Dilla was important to BBE. Peter, like many of the people we know, he’s just about the music. He’s just about the creativity, and he knows it (great music) when he hears it. I’ve ended up working more for independents labels and publishers and companies than artists often because of people like Peter. They put themselves on the line all of the time, Every time that they do a record, they are taking a risk.
To operate an independent label like BBE since 1996 is a considerable accomplishment.
Absolutely. Peter is like (journalist, DJ, record dealer, record label entrepreneur) Neil Rushton in that sense. Seeing something, understanding what the connections are, and where it’s headed, and supporting it.
Part of your independent spirit may emanate from Birmingham where you first honed your legal skills. The city is greatly overlooked as a music incubator. Over the decades, it has provided the Brit home for Jamaican ska, blue beat, reggae northern soul, dub, bhangra, rave, funk, jazz, house, acid house, hip-hop, techno, ambient dub, jungle, drum and bass, garage, and rock, and launched such multi-cultural acts as Steel Pulse, the Specials, the (English) Beat, and Fine Young Cannibals.
Birmingham also had a very active club scene with 49er’s, Roccoco, Willies T Pot, Mojo, Dial B, Salvation, and celebrated local DJs like Regis, Sturgeon, Sasha (aka Alexander Coe) and John Digweed.
I don’t think that music mix there was matched anywhere else.
The city was also the birthplace of modern bhangra pioneered by Apache Indian in Handsworth. Bally Sagoo’s 1994 single, “Chura Liya,” was the first Asian language record to chart in the UK.
Yeah, absolutely. There were a lot of interesting things going on, and there was a cross-fertilization that made things interesting. You mentioned Apache Indian because I represented Simon and Diamond (Simon and Diamond Duggal) who were Apache Indian’s cousins. They, in a sense, launched him because they wrote the first track that he performed on. I don’t think he had performed before. They are pretty amazing. They have done a lot of great things. There was this whole kind of moment where young people from that Asian background, but who had grown up with techno and disco and punk, kind of found their own voice that was authentically British-Asian, and it was really exciting.
A great time for an entertainment lawyer to be setting up a legal practice in Birmingham.
The great thing for me is that once I started as a music lawyer in Birmingham everybody beat a path to my door because there was nobody else.
Hard to believe there weren’t any other entertainment lawyers.
How were labels and artists doing their agreements?
Well, it’s interesting to think about it, really. I imagine that lots of people were just signing things that were presented to them or, maybe, they were just doing their own contracts on the basis of a letter. I don’t honestly know. In the bhangra scene, it was just buying things. There was no publishing. In the authentic Asian scene, as opposed to the crossover scene, it was just that people made a track, and they sold it. There were two shops that were also distributors. They pressed it (the recording) up, and it went around the country, and wherever else.
In many cases, these were 12-inch recordings.
Absolutely. A lot of people only got a very small amount of money from their creativity but, of course, in the scene that they were in at the time, their objective was to build up their profile to get good-earning live gigs.
[The late ‘80s and early 1990s marked the heyday of Birmingham’s grassroots bhangra scene which remained largely underground. While sales of bhangra recordings were mostly excluded from the UK charts due to unconfirmed distribution, successful bhangra artists were selling up to 30,000 cassettes a week.]
For a decade, Birmingham was synonymous with British techno and was established alongside Detroit and Berlin as one of the major centers of techno worldwide. Neil Rushton practically broke Detroit techno in the UK via his Network label based in Stratford House in Birmingham’s Camp Hill.
Well, Network is where I used to work. It was great. Genres like techno were not in any way hidebound by structure, by the music industry and the type of contracts that were being done. They were kind of inventing it all for themselves. As a lawyer starting in that environment, it was very freeing, really. It helped me to understand that yeah you obviously need to know what the parameters are within the industry, what deals are being done, what people feel is fair or not, but more important than that is what do people want in their lives at that moment? What culture did they come from?
An interesting aspect of Birmingham–as well as Manchester, and Liverpool–was that new label entrepreneurs and artists did not have to go to London to do business anymore. Previously, they had to go to London to do business because that’s where the music industry was. As well, from Birmingham, Liverpool or Manchester to London then took three or four hours on the train. Meanwhile, a spirit of DIY evolved in those cities in this period.
Completely. Have you a van? Oh, then you’re a distributor. That’s completely how it was. It was absolutely brilliant. I remember in the earliest stages of being a music lawyer at Network Records where they had basically been doing imports on the techno side…
Bringing in all of the Detroit techno tracks by the likes of Juan Atkins, and Derrick May.
Oh, they were.
Eventually, the label turned to UK acts like Altern-8, Rhythmic Krush. and True Faith.
Larry, you should interview Neil Rushton.
Well, he launched so many techno and house DJs and artists onto the international stage.
Yes, he did. He did. Neil came from a journalism background, and he basically had this tell-a-story approach. He’s a massive music fan. So it (the Network label) came from his love of music. But the way that he presented the music was really….there was such madness that went on in those days. These ideas like with Altern-8. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but there was one story put about at Christmas that Altern-8 (Mark Archer and Chris Peat) were going were going to go up in a hot air balloon, and drop Altern-8 Christmas puddings in Stafford until somebody worked out that they would turn into small missiles by the time that they hit the ground.
The 1988 Network compilation “Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit” was groundbreaking. Arguably the first major compilation of the genre, it led to the global emergence of Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Eddie Flashin’ Fowlkes, Blake Baxter, Anthony Shakir, and others. Just groundbreaking.
Yeah. Neil did quite a lot of things that were. He also saw the parallels between techno and acid house as it was coming up too. It was all very kind of seat-of-the-pants, back-of-an-envelope creative, and anarchic (scene). I just remember as Altern-8. began to break their press guy John McCready was getting calls from various newspapers asking for photos. Neil was asking John, “Where are the photos for Altern-8?” And John said, “Neil, we couldn’t afford to get them developed.” Neil responded, “Oh, yeah right. Well, here’s some money” and John got the photos. The next thing (BBC One’s) Top of The Pops is on the phone, “Can we have the video for Altern-8?” Neil was like, Yeah, yeah no problem.” He got off the phone, “We haven’t got a video.” He gave the band a video camera, and they went down to Shelley’s (Laserdome) nightclub, and for 200 quid they made a video and drove it down to London through the night. And there it was on Top Of The Pops the next day.
Was manager and label head John Mostyn just a little bit smarter than most? After all, he launched the Beat, Fine Young Cannibals, Inner City, and Ocean Colour Scene. Of course, he was also involved in the launch of 2 Tone Records, founded by keyboardist Jerry Dammers of the Specials.
I think that John was so smart about people. John is also unbelievably charming, and gentlemanly, and unbelievably interested in people. I think that kind of combination put him onto a certain track. I think that John learned on the job. He’s a very smart guy, but it was more his enthusiasm for music and sense of adventure that drove him, like many of those people.
Still, John must have had terrific ears to find and work with the people that he did.
You previously told me you helped launch one of his labels. Phffft label.
That’s right. That’s the label he started to put out Ocean Color Scene tracks. That ran for a little while.
Of course, he launched 2 Tone Records.
John was very culturally curious as well. So what was of great interest to John, and probably why we connected, was that Birmingham had such a diverse scene which was not just in pockets. It actually was cross-fertilized.
Look at the bands themselves that had multi-cultural backgrounds.
Yes. And that was so much more unusual than it would be today. There were different musical traditions there, but they remained fairly separate within pop music. There was reggae, ska and, of course, bands like the Beat, the Specials and the Selecter with that kind of proper cross-fertilization. That was very novel, and exciting, and fresh, and intelligent for people at the time.
Bands that broke internationally.
I think that made it very exciting and hopeful. I think really hopeful. Even though the music had kind of a protest, the hope was that young people in combination putting together their ideas and their creativity could create an energy that would take us somewhere better.
[Birmingham’s booming post-war economy made it a main area, alongside London, for the settlement of West Indian immigrants from 1948 and throughout the 1950s. During the 1960s and 1970s, the West Midlands region developed a culture of black British music that was unique, and remained far less segregated from the mainstream music scene than in London.]
Deep in your history can be found the infamous release of “Squidgy” by House of Windsor; in essence it is the 1992 “Squidgygate” tapes of Diana, Princess of Wales talking intimately on the phone three years earlier which was said to have been recorded and deliberately leaked by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
(Laughter) That was so funny. In the end, it didn’t do very well because radio was rather critical of the whole thing.
[In 1992, a 20-minute cell phone conversation between Princess Diana and childhood friend James Gilbey surfaced. During the call, which was apparently made on New Year’s Eve 1989, he told her he loved her and repeatedly called her “darling” and “Squidgy.” The call was overheard by two ham radio operators, Cyril Reenan and Jane Norgrove, on separate days, and recorded by Reenan, who sold the tape to The Sun. The newspaper then published a transcript of the call and set up a phone line in order for the public to listen to the recording.
“Squidgy” (Royal Core Mix) House Of Windsor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8djvvWSOt4]
What was your role in the release of “Squidgy?”
I got asked to go down to The Sun in London. They had the “Squidgy” tape. The Sun had this tape, and they thought it would be a great idea to make a record out of it. Piers Morgan, the editor at The Sun, knew Neil and contacted him. So I was recruited to go down to London, and meet with Piers Morgan, and make some kind of deal to license the “Squidgy” tape. Then, it was taken back on the train to Birmingham and turned into a record. It is actually a good record. I listened to it recently, and I thought, “Hey, that’s alright that!”
Tell me about legally clearing 48 tracks for the first 3-CD “Renaissance: The Mix Collection,” the 1994 compilation overseen by Sasha and John Digweed. The album, a mix of house, progressive house and trance house, is considered by many to be amongst the greatest mix albums of all time. You are credited on the CD as “MC Law.”
Renaissance was a club. It wasn’t in a fixed location. It was one of these super clubs that moved to different locations This was when in the UK DJs started becoming bigger and bigger stars, and the whole dance music scene was exploding. Neil and Geoff Oakes from Renaissance came up with this idea to do an album that would be like a live mix in the studio with Sasha and John Digweed, who were their most popular DJs. Nobody had done it before. The idea was to brand it (a series) under the Renaissance brand. “Renaissance,” the first album has some absolutely superlative mixing in there because it’s not just mixing one track into another. This is much more akin to hip-hop in a way in that it is using mash-ups and stings of one track into another and it’s incredibly musical. I don’t know if you’ve heard that album. I still listen to it, and it’s brilliant. There was a second “Renaissance” mix album (in 1995) as well, but the first one was the breakthrough massive seller.
You were paid a royalty rather than a fee.
That was the best selling compilation for quite a long time. I did get paid. I didn’t get paid all of it because Network did go bust, but I got paid for a chunk of it. I can’t complain.
This was in an era when there wasn’t a set licensing fee for tracks used in mix recordings.
You would not be able to do that now.
Back then, the mainstream music industry mostly considered such practices as a form of piracy.
Yeah, certain sectors of the music industry. With the “Renaissance” album we had to try to get tracks from labels where the label owners understood the concept and weren’t going to be too demanding.
Today you might be able to do a similar release but it’d be pricey licensing that much outside music. Back then, it was the Wild Wild West.
It was and it was so creative a result. I really miss that. I definitely have that maverick revolutionary inside me. At the same time, my job is helping people to protect copyright but I also think that overprotection is a mistake.
Well, the recording industry was the first media sector to feel the full impact of the Internet and technology-empowered consumers. After peaking in 1999, record companies and publishers were side-swiped by a technological revolution, and soon faced a borderless global ecosystem that defied control or monetization.
Well, it’s interesting. I love an analogy and a metaphor. I used to ride a motorbike. I find riding a motorbike a very peaceful analogy. When you are on very bumpy terrain, when what you expect to be under your wheels is no longer under your wheels, the temptation is to grip on tightly, clamp your muscles down and try and control; whereas that is the last thing that you should do. That is the point where you need to be the most flexible. That’s when you need to be able to respond, and trust yourself to be able to handle the bumps as long as you keep your head pointed in the right direction, and maintain your equilibrium. The industry didn’t do that, and I think that you just have to be careful that all your energy is not dissipated in one bump after another. You have to keep your eye on the horizon and maintain your trajectory.
The 2013 report you wrote ”Digital Nightmares or Digital Dreams? A Test of Positive Thinking A reflection on Building a Digital Economy: The Importance of Saving Jobs in the EU Creative Industries,” commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce/BASCAP Initiative, provided a quite hopeful analysis of the future of music than what most people were predicting.
According to a forecast this month (June 2018) by PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), UK streaming revenue will nearly double between 2018 and 2022. PwC predicts smartphone ownership in the UK to hit more than 70 million by 2022.
So back in 2013, against a sky-is-falling industry backdrop, you were optimistic of industry growth, and about platforms enabling musical talent to move beyond their own borders.
I think that you have to give up to first principals, all of the time. For me, in this context, the first principal was that art and culture are two of the most important aspects of our lives. People have always been prepared to expand some of their resources on these, and they always will do. The important thing is to find ways to make sure that the creators and entrepreneurs are rewarded properly. So yes, there are lots of challenges along the way, but that innate willingness to pay for art, to pay for entertainment, and to pay to enjoy culture, it doesn’t go away. So we need not fear that it ever will. What we have to make sure is that there are methods of sharing it properly.
The recording industry missed years of opportunity to bulk sell music on the internet because of fears over the conversion of music to files. It tried to discourage consumers from copying music across the internet by suing alleged infringers; and trying to implement a secure digital watermarking scheme. Shortsighted licensing maneuvers by the labels and music publishers hampered or curtailed new music services and held back downloading, and streaming.
Has protectionism ever worked in any way? It has never ever worked. I’ve studied conflict and conflict resolution a lot in my sojourn into the world of international relations and mediation, and you can see that dynamic how when people get afraid, and think that something is being taken away from them that they feel the need to defend themselves, and that creates this whole isolation that gets worse and worse. People then aren’t spending their time and energy and their resources creating opportunities and being creative. People are spending their time fighting each other. That gets nobody anywhere. You always have to see these kinds of problems as bumps in the road. Not to ignore them. Obviously, they have to be dealt with in one way or the other but you always have to have your eyes on the prize. I call my practice Big Picture Legal because I believe in that. Keep your eyes on the prize.
IMPALA has called for the European Union to probe the deal Sony Corp recently made to significantly increase its stake in EMI Music Publishing. Independents are fearful of such market dominance, and IMPALA will fight against that happening. A real concern?
Most definitely. but you know that things find a level. Things find a level in the end.
Well, trying to maneuver through European rights continues to be mind-boggling.
It is. I spend quite a bit of my time doing that these days. The problem is that the industry creates very complicated structures, and about the way that copyright has evolved. Technology creates these categories of rights, and then they become somehow cut up into tablets of stone; when actually it is just a device that somebody thought up at one point. If was up to me, I would go back to the idea of, “Right, here’s a copyright. It’s created by this person, and these other people also have a stake in it. How do we create some kind of fair division?” I know that sounds unbelievably simplistic, but in the end, taking that kind of approach is going to be so much more productive; rather than everybody going, “I have a performance right. I have a synchronization right. I have a mechanical right. I have a moral right. I have a…” I think that sometimes it is just about going back to that basic idea that this is a creation. Many people, somehow through the dint (force) of their efforts or commerce, acquired a stake in it. So how best do we divide this in a way for people to flourish?”
Industry organizations, including the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC), PRS For Music, and The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), are campaigning for EU legislative reforms to prevent copyright infringement or full licenses. Rights holders are also hopeful EU legislation will fix the so-called value gap surrounding user-generated content on video streaming sites such as YouTube.
You have all of these societies that developed different kinds of structures and different patterns. It is a little bit like trying to negotiate with the Ottoman Empire, the Roman Empire, and the Third Reich at the same time, They have different philosophies. Different languages. Different approaches. It’s interesting.
Has the uncertainty of Brexit clouded UK’s future path in regards to the music sector? You don’t really know what the future holds.
It is going to be very unclear, but while this kind of inter-society navigation can be very difficult, at the same time so much of the groundwork has already been done and I don’t think that will change too much after Brexit. I don’t think that Brexit will affect the mindset of the music industry.
Other than a law degree from the University of Bristol, you have a pair of degrees from the London School of Economics in International Law, and International Relations (Conflict Resolution) and Political Science; and an M.A. in Political Science/International and Area Studies from University of California in Berkeley.
I have a ridiculous number of degrees now, Larry.
Are you an overachiever?
Or just naturally curious?
Naturally curious, I really enjoy the world of ideas. I love being in an academic environment. I like being with other people who are enthusiastic about what I am enthusiastic about. It is just very exciting because you are part of a kind of a global conversation and I think that is really thrilling.
Today, you live in London but you lived in Midlands for quite a long time.
Yes. I lived in a place called Stone (a market town in Staffordshire, England, 7 miles north of Stafford, and 7 miles south of Stoke-on-Trent) where I was a town councilor.
That was from 1994 to 2002. Did you wind down your practice during that period?
Oh, God no. It was just a voluntary community type thing, really. No, no no I was just…I have always been involved with community politics. It’s about halfway between Birmingham and Manchester. I found it perfectly located.
How could you maintain your legal practice there?
Well, being independent allows a certain amount of flexibility. In fact, I remember very well the day I was organizing pancake races in the high street dressed in an oversized Batman costume taking a call from a client thinking, “If ever you could see me now.”
What is it about conflict resolution that you find attractive? The bringing of two sides in a conflict together?
Yeah, I think that is obviously it, but more than that, it’s getting inside people’s mindset and understanding how the same situation can be seen from different perspectives, and then trying to help translate those perspectives in a way that allows people to expand their thinking and to come closer together, and then be able to let go of a waste of energy that comes from conflict. Of course, conflict can be creative and necessary, but it can easily spin off into something that just consumes people, and it stops their productivity. As well, it is fascinating to come to understand how the truth is not an immedicable objective thing. It is almost like looking at a crystal through different facets. As well as the fascination of that, I like to help ease that miserable burden of tension from people, and allow them to be productive again.
How did your social activism develop in order for you to work on various projects in South Africa, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, and the West Bank?
That was more on the kind of teaching side. I was the director of the Symposia on International Conflict Resolution. One symposium was dealing with conflict resolution in Africa, another dealing with conflict resolution in the Middle East. They were really interesting programs where we brought together practitioners, academics, and trainers and we had 100 amazing young people from all over. We spent a month together listening, discussing, and creating. We had such fascinating speeches. I think we had most of the American mediating team from Camp David. We had the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. We had the head of the International Crisis Group, Group, Gareth Evans. We had the former president of Cyprus, Glafcos Clarides. We had amazing people. We had somebody that had been in the Robben Island prison with Nelson Mandela (the leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress spent 18 of his 27 years in prison there).
Just extraordinary people sharing their stories. That was an incredible experience. But also it really has informed my thoughts on human nature and politics and institutions, and deal-making. I was also chair of an organization called Rebuilding Alliance that was doing work in Palestine, trying to protect villages and rebuilding homes. I got involved with a small human rights organization in Cameroon (in 2008) called the Association for the Protection of Women and Childrens’ Rights. It has been shut down by the government now because of the terrible situation in Cameroon. The head of that organization had to flee. He’s now in America, having claimed asylum. Eventually, I had to leave that world behind. It kind of has followed me really into my practice now.
Your social activism continues with your involvement with the Palestine Music Expo (PMX). You are part of PMX’s management team and you lead its mentoring and internship program. A rewarding experience?
Completely. PMX for me is the most perfect project imaginable because it joins what I do with who I am and what I believe and what I care about. I had been in the region before. I think that to be there, and to be amongst all of that creativity and energy and that kind of sharing environment, is really special. And, I don’t know about you Larry, but I think that it has really rekindled my connection to music.
As well as attending the three-day PMX event in Ramallah for the past two years as I did, you are also providing mentorship year round.
Not so much on the musicianship side though I sort of am facilitating (trip-hop artist) Moody Kablawi’s work with (producer) Aaron Horn. They are working together really well now. We are trying to organize for Moody’s time to come to the UK and spend some time here. I facilitated his sister Maram Kablawi’s mentorship on the management side. I am also mentoring (lawyer/manager) Lana Nahas, who is (singer/songwriter) Rasha’s sister. And there are various other people who are interested in being mentored. So we are trying to put people together in a meaningful way, but develop a more formal program as well.
I am helping out Rasha Nahas who I think is an international star.
She really is. She really has something.
[To view “Desert” by Rasha Nahas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXiZEqTes5M]
You stepped away from politics. No aspirations to, perhaps, run as a member of Parliament?
I did go quite a way down that road actually of being selected, but in the end, being a member of the Labour Party for a very long time, I felt that politicians end up very limited to the good that they can do. That they too get sucked into a kind of struggle for power and influence. You are having to put out fires all of the time. I’d rather be in a place where I can have ideas and put them into practice in my own way, and create small pockets of positive change. I think that is going to be a better use of my energy.
Also a politician, no matter their intentions or how well they do, becomes a target for the media, and the public. Look at all of the mud slung at your Labour party leader, and the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.
He’s a very interesting character. It is quite interesting to see what someone like him–who is not a natural power broker–who is sort of a conviction politician with some extraordinary strengths and some extraordinary weaknesses….he’s really an Independent which has given him the moral authority that he’s got. At the same time, it is also what makes him a poor political leader because he just is not very good at creating this center of gravity, and then pulling people along.
Yeah, exactly. He’s not about doing that.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.