“As a kid, I was always listening to records, watching old movies on TV, and going to the theater,” recalls New York–based attorney Steven Beer, AB ’81 (political science), AB ’81 (history). “I learned early on that there was a common thread for almost all artists. They did not have control over their careers and their business, and, more often than not, they suffered the consequences.”
The teenaged Beer devoured magazine and newspaper stories detailing the personal tragedies of once-famous actors and musicians who were struggling. These stories in turn helped to shape Beer’s career as an attorney on the side of artist empowerment.
“Specifically, I try to align myself with the artist’s goals,” he says. “Given the radical change in the marketplace, those old benchmarks don’t always make sense.”
When he speaks at venues like the Tribeca Film Festival and the South by Southwest Film Festival, Beer encourages creative artists to act more like entrepreneurs.
For some, that’s a challenging proposition. But for others, it’s a welcome opportunity. “They’re excited,” Beer says. “They don’t have to be fearful that their content will be diluted or diminished by a third-party gatekeeper, or that they will be told to wear certain clothes or act a certain way. They can chart their own career paths to success and make more money on a per-transaction basis, because they don’t have to share it with a traditional record label or a film distributor.”
Developing talent, at every level
Though he now focuses much of his time and energy on the independent film and music industries, from 1993 to 2003 Beer was working in a more traditional commercial market.
“My industry colleagues like to remind me of my active involvement in the development and career launches of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Aaron Carter and numerous other mainstream music artists,” he says.
It was Beer who cast Lady Gaga in the group No Secrets when she was only 16 years old. “I instantly knew from her audition that she had the talent and drive required to someday be a force in the business,” he says.
The strains of developing artists, however, compelled Beer to re-focus his practice. He explains: “I was traveling too much, and I was really missing my family. I didn’t feel like management was something I could do well on a full-time basis, so I told Stefani and her dad — she wasn’t Gaga then — that I wouldn’t be able to continue to develop her.”
Beer dropped Gaga from his celebrity client lineup in 2003, seizing an opportunity to transition away from artist management when his partner at the firm, Larry Rudolph, quit practicing law to become Britney Spears’ full-time manager. Beer then moved to the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, where he practices today.
He still represents big names like Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo and DJ Pauly D of Jersey Shore fame, and he’s still handling big-money deals. At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Beer sold a film to Sony Pictures Classics that became one of the top-grossing documentaries at the box office last year (Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest). He’s also at work on a big-budget Berry Levinson film starring John Travolta and Al Pacino on the life of John Gotti Jr. Yet Beer now finds time to work with smaller, independent music and film artists.
Innovative tools for marketing
It’s significant that Billboard now tracks the most popular songs on YouTube, where a hit can be generated by grassroots promotion as well as by more traditional advertising. New media is serious business.
It was on YouTube that 20-something Julia Nunes, one of Beer’s clients, first made her mark. Though she now opens for the likes of Ben Folds, Ben Kweller and Weezer, Nunes launched her music career with a series of charmingly self-produced videos on her own YouTube channel. In one video, Nunes belts out an original song accompanied by her signature ukulele. In another, she’s harmonizing with herself (on previously recorded tracks), while leaning earnestly into the webcam of her laptop computer, messy bedroom in the background.
“CNN recently profiled Julia because of her success in accessing and motivating her fan base to advance her career,” Beer says. “She set out to raise $15,000 to cover her recording costs, and by the end of her 30-day Kickstarter.com campaign, she raised close to $80,000.”
Kickstarter.com, the funding platform that Nunes used, is just one of many innovative weapons in the contemporary artist’s arsenal. On Kickstarter, people donate at whatever level they choose to help an artist fund a project. The more successful an artist’s social networks online, the better they are able to reach these modern-day patrons of the arts.
To date, Nunes has released four albums since 2007 on her own label, Rude Butler Records. Her YouTube channel has generated upward of 6.5 million views and has more than 200,000 regular subscribers.
Likewise, filmmaker Nina Paley found success with Sita Sings the Blues, the award-winning animated feature that she marketed and distributed largely under her own steam. Beer served as the film’s executive producer and producers’ representative.
“Paley has been a one-stop shop,” Beer says. “The film has garnered all kinds of recognition, and she has sold thousands of DVDs without the use of traditional distribution relationships. She used the film festival circuit and private screenings as her theatrical release, choosing to treat her film like an art piece.” In addition to distributing her work via festivals, Paley presented the film at gallery screenings.
Taking a trend to heart
Not one to leave his work at the office, Beer has embraced the spirit of artist empowerment and has been putting leading-edge business practices to work on the home front as well.
Beer and his wife, Bonnie, who is a global marketing executive for Laura Mercier cosmetics, have three sons. Their oldest, Alex, is a freshman at Northwestern. (“His mother’s alma mater.”) Youngest son Gabe is 13. Middle-child Max, 15, is a professional actor.
When Max landed the lead in the coming-of-age adventure, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, Beer helped the producers secure worldwide distribution, including an exclusive DVD partnership with Walmart. The film had a theatrical screening in New York City in September 2011 and is now available on DVD and VOD prior to a broadcast later in 2012. Beer served as executive producer to the project, which also stars Mira Sorvino and Joe Pantoliano.
Perhaps fittingly, Beer has launched a small sideline to his film and music work: He’s writing a book called The Prudent Parent’s Guide to Your Child’s Career in Music and Entertainment.
“I love working with young artists because they are dedicated, committed and hard-working — and they are not jaded,” Beer says. “They are also interesting given their sometimes complicated family relationships. I’ve seen some extraordinary examples of professional parents in my day. Some of them are good, but, unfortunately, not all have been a constructive force.”
He has no publisher for the book just yet, but he isn’t worried about getting the work out there. “I may self-publish,” he laughs, “and practice what I preach.”
Gretchen Lee, AB ’86, is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
Learn more about Steven Beer at Greenberg Trauring.