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Music Man: Ron Sweeney JD ’78
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Monday, February 14, 2022
USC Gould alum, music industry legend Ron Sweeney pushes for change – and equity – in the record business
By Diane Krieger
In June 2020, as the George Floyd protests galvanized the nation into action, entertainment lawyer Ron Sweeney JD ’78 sent an open letter to major record labels challenging them to up their game.
Charitable giving to social justice initiatives, he argued, isn’t enough. People want opportunities, not just donations.
“Address the elephant in the room,” Sweeney wrote in the letter, published by Music Business Worldwide. “Why is it that Black music generates hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars a year and yet [major record companies don't] have a meaningful number of employees of color, let alone in the executive suite?”
Twelve concrete demands followed. One has already borne fruit. Sweeney called on record companies to “zero out the unrecouped royalty balances” of African-American artists they’d signed prior to 2000.
Traditionally, artists receive an advance payment upon signing with a record label. The studio might also cover recording costs, marketing budgets and radio campaigns. In return, artists forgo royalties from their album until the label earns back its initial investment, or “recoups.” Many artists never see another dime, even as streaming revenue from their catalog continues to flow into the record company.
That changed last summer, as Sony pledged to wipe out some of these old debts, according to Rolling Stone magazine. On February 1, 2022 both Warner and Universal also wiped out their unrecouped balances.
Sweeney, as an industry legend, is in a strong position to push for change. In 2012, he inked the third-largest deal in music history — a $150 million contract for Lil Wayne, according to Forbes.
Repeatedly named one of the top music lawyers by Billboard Magazine, Sweeney has done major deals for artists like James Brown, Eazy-E and Sean “Puffy” Combs. In the late 1990s, as a senior executive with Sony, he controlled a $70 million A&R budget and was directly responsible for signing multiple platinum- and gold-selling acts.
Entertainment attorney, manager, consultant and former powerhouse record executive, Sweeney’s remarkable journey began at USC Gould School of Law.
“I got an incredible legal education that has served me well throughout my career,” he says.
College and law school weren’t in his original plan.
Sweeney grew up poor in South Central Los Angeles, raised by his divorced mom, who worked as a hairdresser. At 12, Sweeney started working a paper route near Florence and Normandie to help support the family. By 17, he was running bets at Hollywood Park, operating under the iron rule of “your word is your bond.” It remains the touchstone in his professional life.
Importantly, Sweeney was a drummer — “and a really good one,” he adds, unabashedly.
He dreamed of playing with jazz and R&B bands in New York, but his mother’s threat of kicking him out if he wasn’t in school or working — combined with the invention of the first drum machines, which dried up recording session work he relied on — motivated Sweeney to pursue a different path. After a year at Cal State Northridge he transferred to UCLA, studying political science with a business minor while moonlighting as a tax auditor for the Internal Revenue Service.
Looking through the books of wealthy tax cheats stirred his interest in the law, so in 1975 Sweeney enrolled at USC Gould. But he lost interest in taxation upon hearing Dee Anthony, the talent manager behind rocker Peter Frampton, speak on campus.
“After that talk, I lost my mind,” Sweeney recalls. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be. Because it’s music.”
He became a student intern for USC alum Joseph Porter III (JD 1971) and stayed on as an associate after graduating. Sweeney learned the trade under Porter, who introduced him to Clarence Avant, the legendary “Black Godfather” of the music industry. At age 25, Sweeney became Avant’s lawyer.
Around the same time, he married Patricia “Michi” Sweeney, whom he’d known since eighth grade. The couple recently celebrated their 44th anniversary. Their two sons both work closely with Sweeney: Jacques, 40, is his investment adviser; Justin, 39, is his law partner.
In 1980, Sweeney left Porter’s firm to strike out on his own. His first client was jazz trombonist Fred Wesley. Doubling as attorney and artist manager, Sweeney often accompanied his talent, such as the girl band Klymaxx, on tours.
“I wanted to know how it all works,” he says, “so I would go out on the road to see everything. The venues. The promoters.”
As head of Avant Garde Management, he oversaw Clarence Avant’s label, Tabu Records, and managed several of its artists.
In 1995, Sweeney moved to New York to become executive vice president of Sony Music and Epic Records and helm the label’s Epic Urban group.
“I wanted to understand the other side of the record business,” he says. “As a lawyer, you’re negotiating, and they’ll tell you, ‘We can’t do that.’ I wanted to know why.”
He left Sony after just three years, deeply disenchanted with what he’d seen in the industry.
“The record companies have been very unfair to artists,” says Sweeney, who found the underrepresentation of minorities in the workforce equally infuriating.
Back in California, Sweeney explored and invested in Silicon Valley startups, with an eye toward digital solutions that would benefit recording artists.
He set out to develop a more equitable system. He sees the old way, with its “recoup” arrangements and 10-percent artist royalties, as an exploitative vestige of a bygone era. Under the Sweeney model, artist and record company split revenues 50-50.
Digital Disruption Entertainment LLC, the tech-driven record label Sweeney launched last year, provides full transparency so artists can remotely monitor their sales and distribution data.
“With my accounting background and because I worked at Sony, I know all the tricks of the trade. I’m creating a new business model, and I plan to force the rest of the record business to adopt my model,” he says.
His law firm continues to help clients. In October, Ron Sweeney & Co. was retained to handle all entertainment-related matters in the estate of rapper DMX, who died last April.
At this point in his life, Sweeney, 68, can afford to pick and choose the projects that excite him.
“I’m very big on addressing the wrongs in the record business. I feel like that’s my purpose,” he says.
The artist advocacy work continues. He’s currently in negotiations with a major record label to create an education fund for the children and grandchildren of Black recording artists signed before 2000.
Up next: Sweeney is exploring public interest law opportunities in partnership with USC Gould and other law schools. He hopes to deploy student volunteers to help artists reclaim their master recordings and publishing rights under section 203 of the Copyright Act.
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