Being a music-industry lawyer? “It’s like being a priest and a divorce counsellor simultaneously,” says Jules O’Riordan of Sheridans.
“Some days you officiate over more weddings and happy moments and other days you officiate over acrimony. It’s a delicate combination of the two.”
O’Riordan’s route into music law had a few twists and turns. In the late 1980s he was studying law at the London School of Economics (LSE), more by accident than design: he had no particular preference for a subject, so found his way to law.
Yet as he graduated, acid house had just migrated from Ibiza to London, with Danny Rampling’s Shoom opening in late 1987. By the next summer, it was both the most exciting music genre and the most vilified subculture in the UK.
Under the sobriquet of Judge Jules, O’Riordan jumped in with both feet. He started DJing (in clubs and on Kiss FM, which was still a pirate radio station), working as a promoter and an agent, then moving into the label world as an A&R with Mercury Records imprint Manifesto.
From there, he moved to Radio 1 in 1997 for 15 years and became a staple of its dance lineup. Yet this was followed by a career change – or rather, a career revival – as he retrained to become a professional lawyer.
Music Ally spoke to O’Riordan about his career path; how the industry has changed in that time; why he doesn’t regret missing out on the ‘EDM’ explosion in the US; and why he advises new artists to buy a house before they buy a Ferrari.
As a lawyer, do you feel you’ve followed a very unusual career path but one that gives you a better insight into the artist side of the business?
I’ve done it all. I’ve been a DJ, a manager a promoter, agent, record company A&R, I had my own small label, been a radio DJ… With the exception of creating a label services company or being a music publisher, I think I have done everything else.
Most, but not all, of my colleagues have come into law in a more conventional way and certainly none have done it in such a 360 way. The industry has changed massively and I am particularly hungry for knowledge. I feel that as a music lawyer, it is quite a different skill set that is required compared to, let’s say, somebody who does property conveyance.
Are you conscious of not just being a “dance music lawyer”?
The biggest change for me, as I approach my fifth year as a lawyer, is becoming more of a generalist in the industry rather than coming at it from one angle in the industry.
A lot of the patterns and a lot of the issues in dance music do run across the whole industry, but there are certain areas in which dance music is different.
My first couple of years [at Sheridans] were to brush up on that and become an expert in those areas. One of them is producers. In dance music, you don’t really have third-party producers as the producer is the artist.
How has the industry changed since you made the switch into law full time?
During my tenure I have seen streaming provisions, particularly in recording agreements, change significantly. Obviously blockchain and the application of blockchain is a little bit further [along]; how that impacts from both a commercial awareness perspective and in the contracts that run within the music business, that’s a slightly more distant thing.
But it is my life. I read around the subject. As an artist and as someone who has still got their own small label and still puts records out and who makes the slightly less glamorous stuff like library music and puts together sample CDs – all of which is blocked into my weekends – it keeps me very alive to the issues.
How do you think acid house and the rise of rave music changed the music business?
Really at the time the only career ‘DJs’ that existed were radio DJs. There weren’t any career club DJs. It was a glorified hobby or a part-time job at best.
But over the period of being at university, I was putting on events and DJing at events and then got onto pirate radio. The name ‘Judge’ came about as I was putting on illegal events – at a time prior to the Criminal Justice Act [in 1994]. The law around illegal events when I was doing it [wasn’t as strict]. I am not sure I was necessarily breaking any laws. Not that I am trying to sound pious.
It is an interesting dynamic – this proliferation of the entertainment industry into some smaller hands. At the time, I was on Kiss FM – which was a pirate but became legal in 1990 – and had to partner up with some more significant media players and some more conventional media players to give it gravitas.
It might not have ever become legal if it hadn’t done that; but there was definitely a trend of small quasi-illicit players becoming much more mainstream. Cream in Liverpool is a good example, especially with it going on to do Creamfields and then getting sold on to Live Nation.
Ministry Of Sound was always a bit of an anomaly at the time in that it was created by now-Lord [James] Palumbo. There are many examples of people who came out of a cottage industry and created very successful businesses.
On a back room level, there are a lot of people who have created great infrastructures business. For example, Somethin’ Else radio productions, who make loads of stuff. Or Listen Up, the PR and radio plugging business.
There is a whole infrastructure of people who are just the individuals who came out of a scene that was initially given a very tabloid-friendly identity but that actually generated a lot more than just silly headlines and Daily Mail outrage.
Amid that tabloid outrage, how did your parents feel about you turning your back on a law career and entering this (at the time) controversial world of dance music?
During that period, I was lucky enough to be part of something in that I was promoting a lot of events and I was on pirate radio. I was part of the genesis of it. I don’t go into legal practice after I graduated and when I did eventually go into legal practice, I had to do my degree again as it was so out of date.
My dad was an actor and then a TV director. He understood what it was like to be in and out of work and the risk of being a self-employed entertainer. I was lucky. It wasn’t a wealthy background, but I came from a middle-class background.
Sometimes parents, when you have been to a good university and have a law degree, would see it as a great risk to go on and do [what I did]. Because of what my dad had been, he was quite cool with it.
I think any circumspect artist should know that their career is not going to go on forever. Actually, I am shocked my career has gone on for as long as it has. I suppose in a more brand-conscious society, if you can build enough of a brand, then you probably can perpetuate that brand for longer.
What brought you full circle back to law?
It was immediately upon stopping at Radio 1 [in 2012] that I started to be a lawyer. It was in the same year. I had spent seven years – quietly and by the slowest means possible – studying at night school and working on planes as I gigged around the world. I re-did my degree.
It was something I knew I was going to do from about the age of 30. At 30, I was surprised I was still a DJ and I thought there was going to be no chance at 40. That was my cross-fading moment, to use a DJ analogy, between one career and another.
What I didn’t get was that I would still be as busy as I am as a DJ. But actually the two of them have a symbiotic relationship in that the moment you become a lawyer at one of Europe’s top music law firms, suddenly you get a view from the mountaintop over the careers of other successful artists and what their management are doing.
You are privy to information that is wholly different from what you would see as an inward-looking artist. It has helped that aspect of it.
I did a year as a paralegal in the brands team here [at Sheridans], protecting apps, merchandise and music from online platforms. It was a low-pressure grounding in the workings of having a day job, figuring out the workings of a law firm and getting some basics sorted about IP and how you protect that IP.
I then did a trainee element here which was sorter than a typical fresh-out-of-university traineeship as I had done the paralegal works.
I qualified a few years ago and I very rapidly built up a large client base, about 80% of which comes from the dance world. The non-dance element is increasing because, as one’s more general skills kick in, you can be a bit agnostic about the genre of music you are dealing with.
What do you feel you offer as a lawyer?
I come with the hunger of a young lawyer but the experience of somebody who has been in the industry for 30 years. That is quite unusual. I am very hungry. I want to do extremely well.
I have built up a very good client base and I am with an impeccable firm who have got a client roll call – both in and out of music – that is awash with household names.
Normally you couldn’t drag a lawyer of my number of years into a meeting with one of the biggest clients without being quite concerned that they just keep their mouth shut to listen and learn. I don’t need to do that. I am also very hungrily commercially aware.
What part of music law appeals to you most?
Artist representation. That is where I come from. But there is only so far you can go in artist representation if you wanted that to be your sole practice area.
The reality is, and I was no different, for most artists, going into see their lawyer is absolutely bottom of their list of priorities and therefore the conduit to the relationship with an artist tends to be via their manager and not via the artist themselves.
If it considered to be a role of management to facilitate those deals that the artist is doing via their lawyer. In an ideal world, it would be great to just sit here talking to artists and imparting some of the wisdom I have got beyond just being a lawyer and beyond the black letter of what is going on in a contract.
But, in truth, most artists wouldn’t want to be in their lawyer’s office in the first place. It would be their manager that would do it on their behalf.
Some lawyers see 360 deals as an ideological battle and won’t sign them on principle. What is your stance on them?
Publishing is a different matter, but I think the ideological battle is over. Publishing is a completely different issue.
So you are OK with 270 deals?
I think publishing only ever gets brought in on certain production agreements. I have not seen a major label deal where publishing [is locked in].
I have seen smaller labels attempt to do it. But not 360. I have seen smaller labels take recording rights and live rights – and try to take publishing as well. With some of them, you can brush it aside easily.
Others say they don’t make enough money out of it [recording rights] and then you need to take a view. As a lawyer, naturally, you might be representing an artist or manager who is quite unhappy with that. The publishing side in multi-rights deals is a less-commonplace occurrence.
Can you make money in streaming or live if you are not the 1%?
In the last 12 months, we have seen the slight levelling off of streaming. I think streaming is too new to take a view on what the revenue is and how it would enable one to live on it. The revolution in the music business is, as much as anything else, the need to go and exploit what you do in a clever and multi-faceted way.
What is important to remember is that the music business, as a whole, has prospered with the invention of the CD and repackaging. There has been a steady decline in both the perceived value and in sales of music over a long period of time. The writing has been on the wall for a long time.
Dance music has always had technology at its core. Has it adapted better to the record industry’s new reality better than other genres?
The big money-maker in dance has long been live. This is massively pre-dating the rest of the music world. Of course there are one or two exceptions, but in the 25 or so years that I have been involved, there have only been a couple of handfuls of serious album acts who have emerged and who have sold albums in the conventional sense.
Of course, compilations have done very well and there have been certain golden years for singles – like 2014, when almost every #1 that year was a dance record. But the reality is that the money is – and always has been – in live.
For the very best paid DJs, it is stilted [defined] by Vegas. While although Vegas will be entertainment-agnostic, they will move on with even a hint of dance music working well. And we have seen more residencies being given to those acts that are a hybrid between dance music and urban music. Acts like The Chainsmokers and DJ Snake.
You can see an evolution in the mainstream US music culture away from dance music at the moment. It is purely cyclical and the cycles are not working concentrically between the US and the rest of the world. But I think a lot of those big-ticket incomes in Forbes [in its annual Electronic Cash Kings list] are based around Vegas.
EDM has exploded in the US. Are you kicking yourself you missed out on that huge payday?
I toured the US just prior to the big EDM thing. It has been growing. Festivals had been growing – but principally in the coastal cities and especially on the west coast. I don’t go to the US as much as I did, but I have a lot of clients [there or working there] and my connection with the US is more as a lawyer than as an artist.
I earned good money out of it. I went to the US 100 times to DJ. I might not have been on [David] Guetta wages, but I did well out of it. I am not resentful in the slightest, actually. I made some good friends and had some really, really good times. I still do a small amount there – but not touring. Long-haul touring is unsustainable for me with being a lawyer.
I can go out and DJ in Europe at the weekends and go to bed at 9pm on a Sunday night and I am fine for the rest of the week. I do between four and eight gigs a month – but only at weekends. It’s around the UK, primarily. But I’ll do Ibiza in the summer. I do weekends. That’s all I do.
What advice do you give new acts about what they can expect from the industry in 2017?
Sometimes it is quite dry legal advice. Don’t go out and buy a Ferrari before you’ve bought a house! When you are 20, you can’t contemplate what life is going to be like when you’re 25 let alone 30.
Historically, before I was a lawyer, many record labels and publishing companies signed huge catalogues in perpetuity. Now anyone who is represented by a lawyer in the modern world wouldn’t possibly allow that to happen. I have got the rights back to records I did in the past that I have been able to re-exploit.
Some of the bigger dance records still have a great life now on compilations and other exploitations, so it is worth thinking long term and thinking about the implications of where you will be long term.
That is a difficult message to get through to someone who is young. I was no different to anybody else when I was 20 or 25. You think then that you might as well be dead if you’re over 30!
I think it is extremely difficult for me to give a one-size-fits-all bit of advice to artists because everybody is different. Every artist comes at it from a different angle. Some might have a lot of suitors. Some might only have one.
Some might have some degree of commercial experience or just be innately more commercially savvy. Some might not. Some might be a part of a group. Some might be solo artists. That’s a hugely different dynamic and presents hugely different problems and issues.
Some might be coming in with managers for whom the lawyer stepping into managerial territory might be absolutely appreciated or might be more problematic.
What I can say with absolute certainty is that I bring something very different to the table – but I wouldn’t ever apply one-size-fits-all to anybody. In fact, I would be pretty useless if I did. It is all about giving advice that is really good for that individual.
Would you want to start out today as an artist?
Possibly. The thrill of creating stuff and having people appreciate it – or sometimes not appreciating it – plus the even greater thrill of being out there and performing to people is the greatest drug imaginable.
In a perverse way, as a lawyer, I get the same thrill in helping be part of the team that creates that for an 18-year-old in 2017.