State of the Artist
by STAN SINBERG
When you think of names that transformed rock ‘n
roll, you think The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, John
Branca, Michael Jack-
OK, maybe John Branca’s name doesn’t come trippingly
to your tongue. But consider this: without John Branca, music
entertainment lawyer extraordinaire
*Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video would never
have been released
*Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys would likely be long dead
*Madonna might have performed in front of the Pope
* Every rock ‘n roll tour in recent memory would look totally
And on this particular Wednesday morning at Occidental
University in Los Angeles, legendary rock guitarist Carlos Santana
wouldn’t be receiving an honorary doctorate degree in music.
“I’m the first in my genealogy to graduate college,” Santana,
clearly moved, tells the class of incoming freshmen. Placing the cap an gown
on Carlos, and looking every bit as proud, is this Branca guy, who also arranged
the whole shebang for his client and friend.
It sounds like a small thing, but it’s part of the reason
why Branca, 54, wiry and looking like a rock star himself, has
represented more artists in the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame
- 28 - including Michael Jackson, Santana, Aerosmith, The Rolling
Stones, Beach Boys, ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac, Bee Gees and The Doors – than
anybody else; and why he’s been listed in all twelve editions
of Best Lawyers in America. And why rockers dig the guy so much
that, for instance, at his first wedding ceremony, Jackson was
Best Man (accompanied by Bubbles the Chimp, wearing a tux), Little
Richard was the minister, and David Lee Roth hosted the bachelor
party; And why he cuts a swath so broad that at his second wedding,
the Pope – the real Pope, not some bling-bling wearing
hip-hop artist by that name – sent a representative; And
why his deals have revolutionized the way the music business
It boils down to the fact that John Branca loves rock music and
the artists who make it, and he’s in a position to make
a qualitative difference in the musicians’ lives.
Take the Brian Wilson story: when he first became
an entertainment lawyer for what’s now Ziffren, Brittenham,
Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie, Stiffelman & Cook LLP and
attended a meeting with the Beach Boys at the ripe old age of
27, Branca found a corpulent and nearly catatonic Brian Wilson
with his head buried on the desk. The other Beach Boys were evenly
divided, 2-2, over whether to fire their manager, Steve Love.
Wilson had the deciding vote. Branca instructed Wilson, “Brian, if you’re in favor
of firing Steve, bang on the table once. If you’re against,
bang twice.” Wilson, Branca says, banged three times.
It’s one of Branca’s countless anecdotes about rock
stars, but it was also a “bang for help.” A couple
years later Branca, Brian’s brother Carl, and Brian’s
manager Tom Hulett, staged an intervention, forcing Wilson into
a treatment program, which is widely acknowledged by insiders,
Brian included, with saving his life.
And while he didn’t save Michael Jackson’s life,
he may have saved the King of Pop from torpedoing his career
before it really catapulted into the stratosphere. The year was 1983. Rock music videos were still in their infancy,
the average video had a budget of $50k, and MTV was being criticized
for not playing black artists.
In that atmosphere, Jackson told Branca he wanted to budget a
million dollars for his next video, “Thriller.” When
the lawyer blanched, Jackson snapped, “Make it happen.”
Branca was temporarily flummoxed, but persuaded Showtime to pony
up $1.2 million for a “Making of ‘Thriller’ Video – the
first “making of” video documentary of its kind. In the “Thriller” video, Jackson turns into a werewolf.
But Jackson, a Jehovah’s Witness at the time, was scolded
by church elders, who told him that his werewolf transformation
promoted demonology. Jackson ordered Branca to destroy the video.
“That was insane,” said Branca, who had the master copy. “I
couldn’t destroy it.”
Desperate, Branca called Jackson. “Michael, you remember
Bela Legosi? He was a very religious man” – Branca
had no idea whether Legosi, who played Dracula, was, or not – “And
Bela has a disclaimer on his movies that his films don’t
endorse vampirism.” Branca convinced Jackson to place a
similar disclaimer on ‘Thriller” ("Due
to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this
film in no way...") - and music video history was changed.
In the following five days Thriller, which was already out a
year and a half – sold a million copies. Branca was suddenly
in the national spotlight, and the most famous entertainment
representative in the world. Oh yeah. Branca also convinced a stubbornly insecure Jackson
to let the national television audience see him unveil his “moon
walk” during the Motown 25th Anniversary Special. And we
all remember how THAT turned out.
Branca’s mother, Barbara Werle, tagged John
for better things, literally from birth. A show biz mom who won
the Harvest Moon Ball and danced on The Ed Sullivan Show, when
it came time to deliver, Berle, who resided in Mt.Vernon, instead
went to the hospital in neighboring Bronxville, because it made
for a classier address on baby John’s birth certificate.
Berle moved to LA to pursue a show business career, leaving John,4,
behind to live with his father, John, who was a major league
baseball prospect before being drafted in WWII (his uncle, Ralph
Branca was the Opening Day pitcher for the Dodgers in the 1947
World Series) and who later became New York State Athletic Commissioner
and a NY assemblyman.
At age 11, Branca joined his mother in LA, and at 13, started
a rock band, The Other Half, playing keyboards and guitar, as
well as penning the songs. At 16, the band had a record deal,
and occasionally opened for The Doors at the Hullabaloo Club. “We
even headlined there once when they couldn’t get anybody
good,” he jokes.
But his studies faltered, and, he reluctantly admits, he “got
into drugs” and wound up in the hospital where Werle gave
him an ultimatum: either go back to school or get a job. Realizing
he wasn’t qualified for the latter, Branca opted for school.
But that didn’t really take, and one day Branca marched
into the principal’s office and announced ‘I’m
done.’ For some reason the principal went along, and suddenly,
Branca was a high school graduate.
In the few months before college began, however, Branca’s
mother worried that her son would backslide, and enrolled him
in a slew of opera and ballet classes.
“There were twenty women and me. It was humiliating,” he says of
the ballet class. Although his classmates included Joanne Woodward and Yviette
Mimieux, Branca grimaces. “It was the worst. College never looked
At Los Angeles City College he majored in music, but soon realized
that, “Unfortunately, I had inherited my mother’s
athletic ability and my father’s music skills,” and
transferred to Occidental, where he “got practical.’ Upon
graduating, he enrolled at UCLA School of Law, and received his
degree in 1975.
It was while working as an estate planner at another law firm
that Branca ran across an article in Time Magazine about Elton
John, being represented in legal negotiations. “It was
like a bell went off. I thought, ‘That’s what I should
Branca currently lives in a 25 room mansion in the exclusive
Beverly Park section of Beverly Hills, with Linda, his wife
of five years, sons John Connor 3 and Dylan Gregory 1 ½,
and daughter Jessica 17, from his first marriage, who lives
there part-time. The house is crammed with Italian antiques
and mementos of his two passions, music and sports, including
a highly valued baseball card collection.
In 1990, Jackson abruptly left Branca when record
company mogul David Geffen convinced him that Branca exerted
too much control over him. Branca feared his career would nosedive.
Instead, the next three years proved his most productive. During
that time he worked out deals for ZZ Top, the Rolling Stones,
and Aerosmith, with the latter signing what’s considered
to be the first rock “mega-deal,” a four album pact
reported to be worth up to $50 million
That Aerosmith was pleased can be gleaned from the letter they
wrote that hangs on a wall in Branca’s house:
Thanks a million) (crossed out) (WRITER’S NOTE: all
words except ‘thanks’ in this letter, and A LOT should
have an ‘x’ over them but should still be readable)
An unprecedented amount (crossed out)
An undisclosed sum reported to be greater than that which any
rock n roll band has ever… (all crossed out)
In 1989, The Rolling Stones rolled out their “Steel
Wheels” tour, and Branca again changed the way the game
was played. “Up until then, local promoters handled each
concert city. What we did with the Stones was give one company
control of all the sponsorships, venues, ticket sales and merchandise
in North America. This made a tour much easier to organize, so
venues could be secured earlier and tickets sold sooner.” It
quickly became the template for how major concert tours were
BEHIND THE MUSIC DEAL
During the time Prince changed his name, he signed a $100
million deal with Warner Brothers records. A month later
he called up Branca’s partner, Gary Stiffelman, and said “I want
to make a deal with Sony.” Stiffelman said, “You
can’t do that, you just signed an exclusive with Warner.” Prince
replied, “That deal was for Prince. This one is for ‘The
Symbol Man.” When Prince learned he couldn’t do it,
he started wearing the insignia “Slave” across his
A key to Branca’s success is that, tempting
as it must be to “get down” with artists like the
Stones when they’re in party mode, Branca resists.
“I’m supposed to be the authority figure. If I’m getting
drunk and sloppy, are they going to listen to me? Because when it comes to
raising Hell, I’m not as good as they are. They’re world class.”
Another is that he sincerely believes that record deals are stacked
against the artist.
made to sign six- seven album deals, which can span a career.
Over time, management changes or loses interest, and the artist
suffers. So you have to find leverage to renegotiate the contract.”
Also, for some reason, songwriters often lose the
copyrights or royalties to their songs. Branca is proud that
he was able to regain copyrights for Don Henley of the Eagles
and royalties for John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival,
And a third key is his creative deal-making ability, praised
even by those who sometimes sit on the other side of the table.
Berry Gordy called Branca, “A good friend, a great quarterback,
and the Smoky Robinson of Deal Making.”
Jordan Scher, President of Geffen Records, gushes, “John
is an innovator. He’s constantly thinking of new ways to
And Jeff Kwatinetz, head of the giant entertainment management
company The Firm, says, “It’s very easy for lawyers
to find reasons deals shouldn’t work. John’s a deal-maker,
not a deal breaker. He’s as good an entertainment lawyer
that has ever lived or breathed.”
But while Branca’s deals may change the
music industry, the industry constantly evolves, as well. For
one thing, as rock music has declined, Branca has taken on a
number of rap artists, including Eminem, Dr. Dre, and Nelly.
For another, there are far fewer record companies than when he
started out, resulting in fewer deals and less money for artists.
There’s also the explosion of music downloads to deal with,
and the assortment of ever-new rights to be negotiated, including
cell phone ring tones.
But Branca keeps innovating, too. The same day as the Santana
ceremony, Branca completes a revolutionary deal between the group
Korn and EMI, their record company. Whereas record companies
are traditionally involved only in a band’s CDs, leaving
the group to fend for itself in other areas like touring and
merchandising, EMI now becomes partners in all aspects of Korn’s
operations, increasing both sides’ incentive to succeed
in all areas.
“In the future, this will be a new model for how music deals are constructed,” Branca
Speaking of Santana, after the ceremony honoring him, the new
Doctor describes Branca in terms attorneys don’t hear very
are like shamans. Shamans use the law of nature, lawyers use
the laws of reason. Shamans protect against curses and hexes,
lawyers protect against parasites and leeches. I feel very
protected by John.”
Santana left out that shamans are also about
transformation. Which is fitting for a guy who, after all, transformed
rock ‘n roll.