This is the sixth installment of Rolling Stone’s series At Work, in which we explore the fast-changing music business from the perspective of a different industry leader each week. Read earlier pieces in the series here.
Dina LaPolt’s law firm was born because Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur, in 2001, started telling others in the music industry that LaPolt was opening her own practice. Today, LaPolt Law — which has worked with artists like deadmau5 and Britney Spears — is the only major, music-focused law firm owned by a single female attorney. The music industry knows LaPolt for her zealous approach to music law, her heartfelt relationships with clients (she says Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler is like family), and her no-bullshit attitude. She’s constantly fighting for artists’ rights, as well as encouraging other women in the industry via public-speaking platforms, and reaching out to people struggling with addiction. LaPolt, who’s built a reputation as an artist advocate and was key in the passage of the creator-aiding Music Modernization Act a year ago, took Rolling Stone through her frenetic schedule, the myriad of challenges she’s faced in her career, and why she believes so strongly in fighting for others.
Walk us through your craziest days.
Depending on what is happening with my clients and the industry in general, my schedule changes daily. I am really good in a crisis. Whether it was 21 Savage being snatched by ICE one week before the Grammys in 2019 or one of our big clients deciding to release a song that night, I get into action.
A recent crazy day was the Friday before the Grammy Awards, January 24th. The Grammy scandal had just hit two weeks before, and many artists had trepidation about attending or being on the show, so it was calls and texts 24/7. In addition to all that chaos, my firm had to attend the Recording Academy’s Entertainment Lawyer’s Initiative Luncheon in Santa Monica, where I received the Service Award last year. And then I had to get home right afterwards to do a quick wardrobe change, so I could get to MusiCares’ [gala and tribute show] downtown, where Aerosmith was being honored. I was the one introducing the band at the show. That was a crazy day.
How do you cultivate trust with your clients?
A lot of it has to do with having no conflicts of interest. A lot of clients that I have or had are constantly checking in with me on some advice given to them by other representatives — whether it’s managers, agents, whatnot. They’re not sure that person is actually looking out for their best interest, because they represent multiple parties.
When clients don’t want to do something or they disagree with somebody on their team who’s telling them to do something, the first place they go to is, “How can I trust this person?” “Is this person self-dealing?”… There’s no self-dealing here. And in many cases, there might not even be any self-dealing. That’s just where the clients go. If I have a manager that represents two different people, and the manager thinks it’s a great idea for one client [to be featured on the other’s] track, the first thing a client says, in their mind, is “Why? Is it good for the other artist, but not for me?”
How selective are you when it comes to agreeing to work with a client?
I’m very selective. It has to come to me from somebody. I just don’t take random people. So, some other representative says, “This person is moving on from their lawyer and they want other meetings,” and I work with that person. Or it’s another client that says, “I was with so and so, and they want to meet you.” It has to come from some place, and I must have a connection. I have to really believe in it, which is also a tough thing. And frankly, I’m a business, and I’ve been doing it for a minute, so there has to be some money there. It’s very hard for us to take on new, developing things, unless I really, really believe in it.
What do you see as the biggest threat to the music business?
Terrible laws that do not protect music creators, such as the Safe Harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or all the government regulations that negatively affect how songwriters and other music creators control and are paid for their work. Further examples are the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees which govern how songwriters are paid and the lack of a performance right in the sound recording for terrestrial radio even though the United States represents 33% of the global music industry worldwide. These laws and laws like these threaten the very existence of some our nations’ most treasured professions, including professional songwriters, producers and recording artists.
What’s the most overrated trend — or biggest bubble — in the industry right now?
Honestly, I can’t think of one right now! That does [say something]. It says that we’re over a lot of the hump. The dot-com was once a trending thing, and then it turned out to be a disaster when Napster ate our lunch.
There is a good trend, though, and I hope it doesn’t go away. Companies are really making a proactive effort to have diversity. That’s a new trend with women and making a proactive effort to find women. Before, people just hired the most competent person in front of them, and nine times out of 10, that’s a man – a white man. Even when I’m looking for lawyers, the first 15 referrals are always these men. I have to really look and hold out if I’m going to hire someone of diversity.
“The amount of times that I’ve been gaslighted at work… I mean, that’s just the reality. I’d usually be the only woman, the only female lawyer, in the room, and if I was upset about something, someone would say, ‘Why are you getting emotional about this issue?'”
During your rise, did you find yourself fighting against a lot of dismissal based on your gender?
Yes, yes! Oh my god, yes! The amount of times that I’ve been gaslighted at work… I mean, that’s just the reality. I’d usually be the only woman, the only female lawyer, in the room, and if I was upset about something, someone would say, “Why are you so upset about this?” They would never say that to a man. Or, “Why are you getting emotional about this issue?” Once I educated myself on what gaslighting is, I started calling people out on it, which became really comical, actually. And it became somewhat of an industry lore.
How does someone respond to being called out for gaslighting?
A lot of my male colleagues were shocked to think that they were doing that. I remember being in a meeting at Interscope and I was the only female in the room. I was upset about something, and one of the male lawyers — who also represented the Tupac Estate, so he, ironically, was on my team — literally turns to me and says, “Stop. We don’t have to be so emotional about this issue.” I slammed my hand on the table and I said, “Stop gaslighting me! It’s a bunch of bullshit. And if you weren’t getting your fees paid directly in the agreement, you’d be just as upset as I am.”
Most of the time, [my personality] works for me. Sometimes, it doesn’t. There are some executives and company people that don’t want lawyers like that. They want to just get things done. There are also a lot of artists that have their heads in the sand that just want to get along with things. They don’t want to hear, “This is bad.” There are people that I have great relationships with that I would never be able to represent because they just don’t want to hear it. They have a bad picker, and they wonder why they’re still where they’re at in their career 15 years later. It’s like, dude, you keep doing the wrong thing!
From your perspective, is entertainment law becoming more inclusive when it comes to welcoming women into the field?
I think so — especially now. I think women who open their own firms in the music business or in entertainment have a chance now. When I did it, I was dismissed. It was like, “Okay, there’s this low-level girl, who seems to be very outspoken and unique. I’ll have lunch with her, help her, refer her some things. Poor thing’s not really going anywhere.”
I don’t think it has such a bad stigma the way it used to. I opened my own firm and people were literally like, “That’s ’cause she’s not getting hired anywhere and she doesn’t have a choice.” Other lawyers would say, “You know, you’re really good at what you do. You should put your name in the hat of some of these firms now. You’re really responsive. Your comments are on top of it. You’re teaching at UCLA. You’re getting your name out there. I think you can start applying to some of these firms.” Some of my male colleagues would tell me that. It wasn’t negative to them — they were helping me. “You can use me as a reference!”
“I am survivor in every sense of the word. It’s literally only been hurdles.”
What’s the greatest hurdle you’ve had to overcome to get here?
I have only encountered hurdles! There has been no easy path for me. From being told I have a learning disability in grade school and that I probably will not be going to college, to actually going to college and graduating, to then be told I can’t go to law school because I only have a bachelor’s degree in music, to actually going to law school and passing the bar exam on the very first try, to then overcoming a terrible drug and alcohol addiction, to helping Afeni Shakur gain control of her son’s legacy, to opening my own law firm 19 years ago which has now grown to 10 full time attorneys and is the only firm of its stature owned and operated by a sole female attorney. All this. I survived an illness three years ago where I almost died. I am survivor in every sense of the word. It’s literally only been hurdles — that’s why I am never disappointed if something doesn’t work out the way I expect it to. I know that God and the universe ultimately have my back.
What made you want to be lawyer? Why did you feel so strongly about attending law school?
By the time I went to law school, I was 27 and I had already been in the music business over 10 years. What I realized was that a lot of the music business outside of being a lawyer was a lot of bullshit. It’s a lot of dealing with undesirables. There’s more bottom-feeders in the touring world — like, in the club sector — than any place in the music business.
As a manager, you have to deal with all of that. You have to deal with everything in the artist’s career. And the expectations that an artist has of a manager are just really, really high. When I was managing groups, I could do nothing right. God forbid I was five minutes late to a show or something fell through; it was always my fault. But the lawyer could go to a show every six months, they walk in the door and you’d think Jesus was coming in.
They were always involved at a very high level. I really liked that. If we were booking shows or I was managing, no matter what was happening, everything needed immediate attention — whether the sound system didn’t work, the power went out, the opening act didn’t show up or the club didn’t pay. As the lawyer, you are not dealing with that kind of minutia. You are at a very high level, only dealing with the high-end issues, which I really liked and I still like to this day.
In encountering all of the hurdles that appeared in front of you, at the end of the day, it was still always law calling your name?
Yes. Lawyers in the music business that represent artists are really businesspeople. “Lawyer” is my skillset, but what I do all day long is run clients’ businesses. If I had to practice law all day, I’d shoot myself. That’s why I love being a music lawyer, because music is very complicated — between all the rights, the performing rights, the copyrights, the income streams relating to merchandising, rights of publicity, trademarks, all the protections that come with those different bundles of rights. I find that interesting, because I can really contribute to the overall advice of running the business, as opposed to being brought in when everything is negotiated… I just think I need a lot more complication in my life to keep it interesting.
What advice do you have for people with big goals who have also found themselves in the fight against drug and alcohol addiction?
First, they have to admit that they have a disease. I think that was the hardest part for me. I had been told for many years that I had an alcohol problem. If you were close to me, it wasn’t long before you realized that I didn’t have an off switch and I took it too far. I did everything else besides get sober. I got into yoga, I went on spiritual retreats, I stopped eating meat, I meditated every day, I started reading Buddhist literature. I think the hardest part for anybody in overcoming addiction is admitting that they have a problem and that their life is unmanageable because they have this addiction issue. Once that happens, I feel like they can start putting together the pieces of their life.
What are your opinions on the importance of having a work/life balance? Do you have ways to disconnect?
That’s a hard a question for me. I have been working on balance since I’ve been sober. My sponsor will tell you that, and I’ll be 22 years sober in April. It is a big issue that’s gotten a lot better since I got married. It’s been a lot better since I’ve had kids, but it’s still something that I struggle with all the time. When you love what you do, it becomes an addiction, and I have an addictive personality. It’s hard for me to turn off, because I get pulled. You gut pulled by a force greater than yourself. I’m excited when I know that one of my clients is getting a deal. I’m excited when it comes in, and if it comes in late Friday night, it’s hard for me to not look at it over the weekend, because I want to.
Right now, my firm is expanding. We took more office space in my building, and starting in the first week of May, they’re gonna be doing construction and building out more space, which is really great, because now my firm has 10 lawyers. That’s all happening, and it’s exciting — figuring out the aesthetic and what offices are gonna go to people. I really have to force myself to detach, because it’s healthy. That’s something that I’ve learned over a 20-year period — that forcing myself to detach, and not look at emails or open agreements, and go do things with my kids makes me a better lawyer.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten in your career?
Afeni Shakur telling me I need to open my own law practice. I always believed in positive affirmations and that stuff, even before I got sober — and how powerful it is to really believe it from your gut. We have a saying in 12-step recovery meetings: “You act as if.” So, you act as if everything is wonderful. You act as if you’re happy. You act as if you’re not miserable. When you can do that, things start happening to you. It’s like when you’re raising your children, you give them all these positive affirmations all the time. And there have been studies; when you tell people they’re sick, they get sick. If you tell someone every day, “Gosh, you look sick. You don’t look good,” after a week, they’re gonna not feel good.
So, Afeni would tell me for over a year — literally, every day — “You need to open your own law practice.” She would start calling other people and telling them that she’s telling me these things. She’d say, “Oh yeah, Dina’s gonna open her own law firm and you’ve gotta help her. You’re gonna help her get recognized for running her own law firm.” Executives at Interscope would tell me — people who distributed Tupac’s records! This guy was the head of business affairs and he goes, “I just had a long talk with Afeni and she told me that she’s gonna help you open your own law practice.”