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BUSINESS: FEATURE WRITING: John Branca

Stan Sinberg
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-
John who?
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 different

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 works.

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 so good.”

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 be doing.’”

BRANCA UNPLUGGED
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:

Dear John,
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)
A LOT!!

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 arranged.


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 forehead

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.

“They’re 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, among others.
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 do deals.”
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.”

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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 predicts.
Speaking of Santana, after the ceremony honoring him, the new Doctor describes Branca in terms attorneys don’t hear very often:

“Lawyers 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.