Is biology destiny? Well, not always for Charles “Chuck” B. Ortner. Once a biology major, Ortner, AB ’67, changed his tune when a Western civilization class resonated more and altered his progression to the study of law. Today, Ortner is one of America’s leading music industry attorneys, having advised such superstars as Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga and Bono.
Ortner, who has represented Madonna since 1984, originally turned her down as a client. “I listened to her demo and told a mutual friend that she would never sell any records.”
However, Madonna thought differently.
Years later, Madonna told Ortner that she had learned what he had said. “She said that she felt sorry for me, that I didn’t get it, didn’t realize that she was going to be the most successful recording and touring artist in the history of the world,” Ortner says.
Nonetheless, Madonna persisted and Ortner took her on as a client, believing he would never get paid. “That loyalty is something that she’s never forgotten,” he says.
Over the years, Ortner, a partner at Proskauer Rose, LLP, in New York, has won the confidence of at-times-temperamental music superstars and senior executives, earning his stripes in sophisticated, high-stakes litigation that often affects the entire music industry. Ortner also represents the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Inc. (the Grammy Award organization) and its National Legal Counsel.
The changing music industry
In MGM v. Grokster, Ortner represented The Recording Academy, the Recording Artists’ Coalition and more than 50 leading recording artists, arguing in an amicus brief that Grokster and similar online music-sharing systems were engaged in massive copyright infringement.
As with the Grokster case, he often works at the intersection of intellectual property law and ever-changing technology.
“How do you make money when so many people are illegally downloading music? You have a reduction in revenues for songwriters, recording artists, record companies and publishers. These are life-and-death challenges for them,” Ortner says. “On the legislative front, I go to Washington every year to talk to members of the House and Senate about the Copyright Act.”
Under its current provisions, says Ortner, broadcast radio stations playing recorded music pay no royalties to the recording artist or record company, only to the songwriter and publisher.
“Given the tremendous downturn in revenues, it’s become a real sore point for the recording-artist community. So there’s a multi-year battle going on in Congress,” he says.
With the industry in flux — due in large part to the way technology has changed listening habits — Ortner is helping clients on the transactional end of the business as well, discovering new business models and outlets for their music.
“Back in the ‘good old days’ artists would record albums with advances of $10 million, $20 million, sometimes $30 million against royalties,” he says. Album sales are now way down, largely due to illegal as well as perfectly legal downloading. According to Ortner, people want singles, so the whole structure for compensating artists has been changing dramatically.
“To me, it’s remarkable that ringtones turned out to be a business that generates billions,” he says. “People are perfectly willing to pay large sums of money for a ringtone for their cellphone, yet they’re not willing to pay for records. It’s very bizarre.”
Fascinating & challenging personalities
Bizarre, too, at times, is the behavior of Ortner’s clients. His client list includes a “Who’s Who” of popular music: Among them have been Shania Twain, U2, Sting, Meat Loaf, the Eagles, Bon Jovi, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Whitney Houston and renowned record producers. One of the most challenging aspects of his work, says Ortner, is trying to respectfully explain to “strong-willed clients” the ramifications of their decisions, as well as help them make decisions that are not going to put them in legal jeopardy.
“Some of my clients perform in stadiums with 90,000 people screaming at them. It’s hard to tell them that they’re wrong or that they’ve overlooked something,” Ortner says. “I have learned to do that in a way I think is helpful. They understand that I’m independent. I give them the advice I think is right. If they don’t like it and want to fire me, I tell them to go ahead — that I would not be crushed.”
Among his most challenging clients, he says, was Michael Jackson.
“I spent a fair amount of time with Michael, so I think I sort of understood him. He was an amazing artist and a very challenging guy to represent,” Ortner says. “He saw the world totally differently, and he had very, very deep feelings. He was a very emotional guy.”
But being different is what makes recording artists special, says Ortner.
“Lady Gaga is who she is because she sees the world differently than people like me. So the observations she makes, the things she creates are fascinating. They’re not mundane,” Ortner says. “If I were to write a song or conceive of a public performance, it would not be interesting — not like Lady Gaga at the Grammys. She came on stage in an egg!”
Top talent in his own right
But the road from his Long Island hometown of Great Neck, N.Y., to music industry prominence took some interesting and fascinating turns, says Ortner. “It was not a linear process.”
Although he had been classically trained in piano and loved music, neither that nor law was on his career radar screen. “I was a biology major at Washington University, and I had wanted to be a molecular biologist,” he says. “But I was required to take the ‘History of Western Civilization’ and fell in love with history.”
That interest dovetailed with history-in-the-making: campus Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement.
“It was a tumultuous time, and I thought that being a lawyer — being an advocate and trying to make the world better that way — would be an exciting career,” Ortner says. “But I ended up making the world safe for rock-and-roll stars.”
(Another significant event in Ortner’s life occurred at Washington University during his freshman year: He met his wife, Jane, also AB ’67. Their daughter, Amy, attended the university, too, graduating in 1994 with a degree in history.)
Ortner earned his JD from Brooklyn Law School in 1971 then worked in the federal prosecutor’s office in New York before joining a large law firm there. He eventually focused on computer law, representing companies with technology problems. Then fate intervened.
“I joined a firm that was representing Carly Simon, then a superstar, in a lawsuit, and I was assigned to assist the partner in the matter,” Ortner says. “I discovered then that you could actually make a living being an entertainment lawyer, combining a love for the practice of law and a love of music.”
As computer science impacted the music industry, Ortner’s technology background served him well in complex, landmark intellectual-property cases involving voiceprint technology and sophisticated digital-recording history-tracing. Over the years, he’s also handled significant transactions, such as record-company joint ventures.
Recognizing his talents, Chambers USA, a leading independent lawyer-rating service, has described Ortner as a “legendary music expert [and] one of the premier lawyers in the copyright world.” In October 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Ortner to the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In March 2011, he was elected to the board of trustees of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
Ortner’s contributions to the industry and artists do not stop there: “I’m also a counselor to many clients who come to me for strategic advice: where they should go with their careers, or how they should go about adopting a baby in Malawi. Those sorts of things.”
Ortner also has devoted a substantial amount of time supporting cancer research. When his wife was stricken with bone marrow cancer, he organized an album, with music from Melissa Etheridge, members of R.E.M. and U2, to raise research money. He later joined the board of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and assisted Stand Up To Cancer in its two television shows that netted more than $200 million to fight cancer.
Rick Skwiot is a freelance writer based in Key West, Fla.