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Alumni Profile: Reid Hunter (’86)

Dean Blake Morant poses with Wake Forest University School of Law Alumnus Reid Hunter ('86).

Dean Blake Morant poses with Wake Forest University School of Law Alumnus Reid Hunter ('86).

Reid Hunter (’86) grew up with a love for music. He listened to music, he talked about music and, though an old-fashioned notion to many of today’s youth, he bought music. Lots of music. So much of it that his friends refused to help him move whenever he relocated.

Hunter spent hours in record stores, a relic of the past where one could listen to music, talk about music and, yes, buy music, whether in the form of cassette tapes, vinyl albums or CDs.

Today, Hunter is an attorney for Serling Rooks Ferrara McKoy & Worob, a prominent New York City firm that concentrates in music law. His clients include artists such as John Mayer, Ray Lamontagne, The Fray and the Zac Brown Band and Grammy-winning producer Steve Lillywhite and Grammy-winning mixer Michael Brauer.  

He’s worked with many of his artist clients since they were unknowns.  Mayer recently credited Hunter for his early role in Mayer’s career in the liner notes of his Grammy-winning album Continuum, writing: “Reid Hunter was the first.”  Another client presented Hunter with the medal he received for having written one of year’s most frequently played songs at the conclusion of the awards show as a token of his thanks for believing in him before he was signed.

Hunter returned to the Wake Forest University School of Law on Nov. 19, 2010, for a special luncheon. He talked about his path toward his career, his time at Wake Forest and the state of the music industry, which, not unlike publishing, is facing unprecedented challenges introduced by the Internet and a generation raised on digital media, free entertainment content and instant gratification.

“Name a record store,” he asked students and faculty who gathered in the Law School’s boardroom. Most in attendance could not, primarily because, for all intents and purposes, few such stores still exist as a viable and competitive business. That’s sad news for someone such as Hunter, who spun records as a nightclub deejay his entire three years as a student at Wake Forest, and long before that used every extra dollar he earned to buy albums and, later, CDs.

“I’m the guy who had the fancy stereo when no one else did,” he said.

As Law School Dean Blake Morant said in introducing Hunter, the music lawyer graduated from Wake Forest and embarked on a “classic career” in law. “But he always had this internal passion to work in the music industry,” Morant said.

No doubt, Hunter was determined to pursue his dream of working in the music and entertainment industry. He ultimately realized his goal, but not without a lot of hard work and a fateful 400-mile bicycle ride through Colorado.

He related to the students, “After getting out of law school and watching many of my peers find themselves in careers that bored them, I made a promise to myself.  I vowed that if ever I was faced with an opportunity to do what I wanted to do, but had to take a huge cut in pay, I would do it rather than be unhappy.” 

Then, one day, while on a challenging six-day bicycle ride through the Rocky Mountains, he contemplated his career as an attorney in the technology sector.  Midway through that ride, he admitted to himself that he, too, was in a career that no longer fulfilled him.  But he quickly realized, “The only thing holding me back from doing what I really wanted to do in life was the fear of failure.”

In a hint of irony, failure proved to be only a remote and far-fetched possibility as, on the day he returned from Colorado, Hunter began devising a plan that would lead to an extraordinary and stellar career in entertainment law.

Hunter earned his bachelor’s degree in 1983 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before starting at Wake Forest.  After failing to find a job in the entertainment sector, he began his legal career practicing computer law with the Atlanta firm of Decker Cooper & Hallman, a firm formed by Wake Forest University alumni, then moved with computer law group to the Atlanta law firm Hurt, Richardson, Garner, Todd & Cadenhead, where he practiced in the computer law and intellectual property groups.  

After a short stint as in-house counsel and chief operating officer of a small Atlanta software developer, Hunter was hired as Contract Counsel and, subsequently promoted to General Counsel, by an Atlanta-based division of Dun & Bradstreet.  He described those years to the Wake Forest students as essential to his later success in the music sector.  It was during those years, Hunter said, that he learned important lessons about life, about working and about being a lawyer.

Once he set out in pursuit of a career in the music business, Hunter says, he convinced a promising, young up-and-coming artist in Atlanta named Josh Joplin to hire him as his attorney. 

“I told him that I had never done this before, but that I had worked hard to learn the law and business of the music industry.  And I promised him that if I ran into something I couldn’t handle, I would associate someone with experience to help me.  Fortunately, Josh trusted me and, over time, introduced me to many of the artists in the Atlanta area.” 

Joplin went on to sign with Artemis Records, to have a hit song on AAA radio and remains a client to this day.  One of the artists Joplin introduced to Hunter would become his first platinum-selling artist, Shawn Mullins, and through his work with Mullins, Hunter learned about a promising 22-year-old singer and guitarist who was drawing crowds at a small Atlanta venue, Eddie’s Attic

After seeing the the young artist perform, Hunter invited him to dinner and offered to help him find a record deal.  Several months passed and Hunter assumed that the potential client had forgotten him.  Then one afternoon, he received a call in his office.  The caller said, “Hi.  It’s John Mayer.  I’d like you to be my lawyer.”  One year later, after multiple auditions, meetings, phone calls and showcases (and after Hunter collected a file folder full of rejection letters, which he still keeps in his office today), Aware Records offered Mayer a deal.

Hunter describes himself as a transactional lawyer in the music business, “which means my practice is mostly artist-based.”

It’s the lawyer, Hunter said to the students, and not the manager who is usually the one expected to know what the current state of the deal looks like.

“When a problem arises in the business aspects of that artist’s career, you’re the person they call, you want to be the person they call. You don’t want them developing relationships with an army of lawyers … because someone in that army of lawyers will take your job away at some point.”

While he works from a “loft style” office in the Union Square area of Manhattan, he frequently travels to see his clients on the road, and not the other way around.

“Once they’re successful, it’s rare that they come to see you.  So I make a point of attending key events, such as John’s recent performance at The Gorge Amphitheater in Washington and the Fray’s upcoming show with U2 in their hometown of Denver.” 

Like any good lawyer, he strives to keep clients happy and works to stay in the lead. He visits them on the road and in the recording studio, just in case they have a question, but mostly because he wants them to see his face and to know what’s going on in their lives.  And he always tries to be in the audience at the Grammy Awards when they win.

“In reality, it’s a super-competitive business,” Hunter said.  “It takes years and years to find an artist who has the talent and the work ethic to become a household name and to create that lifelong career.  If you’re fortunate enough to find one, you can’t afford to lose him or her to your competition.”

Hunter told the students about a late-season NASCAR race at Talledega Speedway in Alabama.  The Zac Brown Band got the crowd started before the drivers revved their engines, and the band’s performance was streamed live over the Internet.

“Every time something like that happens there are a multitude of rights to be cleared involving multiple parties and many late night negotiations,” Hunter said. “My job, among other things, is to know who the various rights holders — the stakeholders — are in the transaction, as well as the customary terms of the transaction.”

Law students seeking a similar path to Hunter’s should expand their search beyond the music industry, branching into things such as branding and endorsements, as well as film and television, and should learn all they can about the intricacies of contract, intellectual property, copyright and trademark law.

And they should probably take steak and lobster off their dinner menus, at least for the time being.

“If you want to work in the entertainment field, you probably should be prepared to be hungry for a few years. Because that’s what most everyone who has made it did to get started.  I know I did.”

One other thing, he said. Music isn’t exactly what one would call a growth industry.  Recorded music, which once made many artists, companies and executives lots of money, is losing its value in the consumer’s eye.  Moreover, with the advent of the iPod and iTunes, the business has moved away from sales of higher-priced albums towards individual song sales and “all you can eat” services offering access to virtually any song for as little as $10 per month.

“A lot of lawyers are out of work, and that’s the unfortunate thing,” he said.  For the most part, Hunter said, he deals with same eight or 10 law firms each day. A dozen or so years ago, some 35 firms operated meaningful practices in the music arena alone.

“If you’re a real hustler, and you have an entrepreneurial sense about you, especially if you have a good ear and can associate yourself with talent on the rise and be there first … you can still do it. But it’s much harder than it was when I started.”

“It’s probably not a great place to be anymore, because there’s a whole generation of folks coming up who don’t buy music.”

He laments the current state of affairs, which, he said, is due in least in part to legislative inaction.

“I think it’s catastrophic that, over the last eight or 10 years, Congress has taken such an abysmal interest in preventing the evaporation of the entertainment industry. Because the bottom line is, it isn’t just music. Book publishers are next; bookstores are going away. I defy any of you to find a record store in most towns that has an inventory of interesting music.”

A bill is in play that would clear the way for recording artists who don’t write their own material to be paid by the radio industry that profits from playing their music. The radio industry makes its money through advertising. To sell that music, however, radio relies on music.

“But as it stands right now, they pay the songwriters for that privilege. But they don’t pay the performers. So, if you’re John Mayer that’s fine, because you write your own music… If you’re country artist who doesn’t write your own material, it’s a problem.  If the artist doesn’t write, she’s not getting paid for any of her songs being performed on the radio.  This bill keeps dying every year because of the strong radio industry lobby. While this bill is very important to the recorded music industry and the artist community, and would be a nice step in the right direction, I don’t know how Congress can undo the damage done to our industry by the MP3 and the Internet at this juncture.”

“When your artists are getting hurt, you’re getting hurt, because they can’t pay you if they don’t get paid. If they can’t pay for your legal fees, then you’re doing pro bono work.”

“It’s been very sad to watch a business crumble in front of my eyes as I have over the last 15 years. It’s a challenge. If you want to get into this business, you should know what you’re getting into.”

In the end, despite the harrowing music industry climate, he doesn’t regret the decision he made on that bike ride in the Rockies.

“Crazy as it was, I realized that day that if I tried doing what I really wanted to do and fell flat on my face, the worst thing that could happen was–I’ll give up being a lawyer, I’ll move to Colorado, I’ll work in a bike shop and on my days off, I’ll bike in the Rocky Mountains.  So how bad can it really be if I fail?”