The DJ With the JD
Monday, April 10, 2006
LOS ANGELES Joe Escalante is a compact, gray-at-the-temples, 43-year-old punk rocker wearing a hip Paul Frank plaid shirt. He has played bass in the same band -- the Vandals -- since he was 19. They had a couple of hits in the 1980s that, for the most part, only people in L.A. remember. They still play.
He has also made a tidy sum as a Hollywood lawyer. (JD, Loyola Marymount, '92.) He had an office and secretary at CBS for several years. He left the network to start a punk record label and do a little private practice. Escalante's label helped the world discover, among others, a band called Blink-182, which made millions, which naturally led to some distasteful near-litigation.
That's the essence of entertainment law: Everyone loses and nobody actually wins, but this does not preclude any one of us from getting a piece of the sunshine promise of stardom and happiness in pretty California.
Escalante is at least happy-seeming. He no longer practices law and swears he will never produce or distribute another album again -- or at least for now. He and his wife live in the Pointer Sisters' old spread (dark wood floors, enormous windows) in the leafy hills just off Sunset Boulevard. The Pointers long ago had to relinquish the house to the shambles of their careers, he says -- just another cautionary tale about the music industry. The questions are always the same, no matter the star: What the hell happened? Where does the money go? Who sues whom, and who owns a piece of the rights to what?
And in the "American Idol" age, in which we're all apparently entitled to fame and fortune, there is one more question: How can I keep litigation from happening to me? Americans are savvy about entertainment law in ways that make war or global warming seem like abstract threats. The real danger is that your band might break up -- even if you don't have a band.
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Escalante is in a booth at the studios of Indie 103.1-FM on a recent Friday morning, taking calls on his weekly one-hour talk show, "Barely Legal Radio." People call in about their most nagging problems -- the fine-print kind. These are showbiz (emphasis biz) dilemmas, and Escalante dispenses casually glib, So-Cal-style legal advice.
The questions from callers are detailed and dramatic: Should the guy who produced my demo get "points" (a share in royalties) even if he might not wind up producing my major-label album? What's better -- a five-album deal or a one-album deal? Should my just-formed Orange County funk band incorporate yet? I wrote a song for this chick and now she's recorded it and she didn't credit me -- how can I sue her? I heard myself playing drums on a song I wrote on this band's record, and they never paid me -- now what? I'm making a documentary about an obscure, very dead musician -- do I need permission from his estate? My kid has written some songs and we registered the copyright, but now this producer dude wants to . . .
Tony from Gardena, Calif., is calling: "My question is I'm in a band now and we're starting off and we came up with a name and want to know if any other band has this name. Like, is there a Web site where we can put in the name and see? And if we use this same name . . ."
"Okay, Tony," Escalante says. "I've got a Web site for you. Ready?"
"Um, yeah," Tony says.
"Okay, I'm going to spell it for you because it's kind of hard to pronounce. Ready? G. . ."