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Sony Music Settles with Black Law Firm over artists rights

    “David vs. Goliath:  One Small Firm That Took On A Big Label and Won”

    (NEW YORK) – What started out as an ugly dispute over platinum albums nearly a decade ago has turned into a landmark amicable settlement for an Atlanta-based music lawyer who sued Sony BMG Music Entertainment for telling urban artists not to use his law firm.

    Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

    Walker filed a 13 count complaint alleging among other things that the Verity Records of Sony BMG plotted consistently to defame his name in lies and rip clients from his small Connecticut based law firm –which is currently relocating to Atlanta.  The label also allegedly threatened the artists if they used Walker’s services.The trial was scheduled to start on April 29th  in Bridgeport, CT, but the two parties agreed to an amicable settlement.  Walker was pleased and hopes he and Sony can move forward in making great music and helping artists.

    “For every black attorney or black representative, whether manager, publicist or agent, who has been told that he or she is 2nd rate and cannot get the job done; we celebrate this lawsuit and settling it amicably,” said Walker.

    From day one, “we have always said, we have to protect the rights of an artist to use competent legal counsel that they choose to use, regardless of race, color or creed,” added Walker, negotiated a then record publishing contract for Sony artist Hezekiah Walker.

    Dedicating the lawsuit to his mentor and dear friend, the late Johnny Cochran, Walker explained emotionally, “For decades black lawyers have been treated with second class treatment and constantly having to prove that they can do quality legal work.  It is very harmful when past representatives from Sony, a major player, encourages and fosters these false stereotypes…knowing we work twice as hard as everyone.”

    Filed nearly a decade ago in 2005, the law firm, led by Attorney Walker, accused Verity Records, Provident Distribution and Max Siegel, former Sony exec and President of Verity, with tortuously or illegally interfering with contractual relationships that the law firm had with dozens of artists.   The case received a plethora of national attention.

    “It is like a modern day David (Attorney Walker) took on Goliath (Sony BMG) with a slingshot and won”, said award-winning songwriter David Frazier (“I Need You To Survive”) who shared his story of coercion and threats by Sony to fire Walker years ago.   See LA Times.

    In the very detailed complaint, the Plaintiffs named numerous examples of alleged bad conduct by Sony employees, including the omission of the firm’s name on album credits intentionally, defamation about the firm and a refusal to pay artists top dollars for the use of their copyrights and intellectual property.

    For example, from 1998-2002, Walker had secured top payment for nearly two dozen artists on the popular “WOW Albums”.   The lawsuit alleges that Sony then instructed those artists to terminate Walker or face a possibility of not working at all for the top urban label again.

    “We would make great successful albums together, yet some of the executives at the label were mad that in the process, we secured top dollars for struggling songwriters and artists. As a result, when an album went gold or platinum, the former executives wouldn’t even give us a symbolic plaque to put on our walls, which is customary and standard when your artists has a hit record with a label —everyone shares in the success,” Walker explained, highlight the lack of good faith on the most basic things by the executives named in the suit and deposed.

    According to the lawsuit, the bad faith continued with a number of clients told not to use the top-rated attorney, including many high profile clients Walker represented like Grammy winners Hezekiah Walker (no relation), Donald Lawrence, Tramaine Hawkins and Twinkie Clark to name just a few and legendary songwriters like David Frazier and V. Michael McKay who were told not to use Walker on their mega publishing and copyright deals.

    “He would close more deals than any other lawyer in the history of gospel music,” explained Pastor Jerome Bell, a manager/road manger for the likes of Richard Smallwood and Tramaine Hawkins, who now leads the Maryland Family Christian Center Church.  “Yet and still, executives at the time would constantly try to badmouth him and scare you into not using him.  The smart artist and managers knew he provided good legal work, was honored to represent you and really had your best interests at heart, if it meant being unpopular in the process.”

    “Often labels want artists to use attorneys that the labels can control –this avoids paying the artists their worth and saves the labels millions of dollars and is clearly a conflict of interest.   When you decide to lie about a firm and threaten artists, you have crossed the line,” said Walker in describing former executives and staff members of Sony’s urban and gospel divisions, who are no longer with the company.

    Walker explained that when a song appears on an album if you are the songwriter you are entitled to about 7-9 pennies for each copy sold.  Thus, if an album sells platinum, the one songwriter could be due anywhere between $70,000 to $90,000 under the Copyright Act and the rate negotiated for the use.   Labels often ask you to reduce these pennies in half so they do not pay out as much –which Walker contends is unfair to an artist or songwriter who makes their living off their hit catalogue.

    Defendant Verity Records, now called RCA Inspirational, is the largest mainstream gospel label in the world. Based in New York, it has been home to gospel music stars Richard Smallwood, Yolanda Adams, Fred Hammond, Donald Lawrence, Donnie McClurkin, Kirk Franklin, John P. Kee and Marvin Sapp to name a few.

    Walker, a graduate of Howard and Yale and former in house counsel for the Source Magazine, has worked with some of the leading names in the music industry including Jamie Foxx, Freddie Jackson, Rick James, DMX, Shirley Caesar and BET’s Bobby Jones, among others. He recently co-chaired the legal team in the successful litigation and settlement between Disney’s Kyle and Chris Massey and A&E/Lifetime networks over a show involving Bristol Palin.  He is also a regular guest contributor to CNN, BET, ABC, FOX, Court TV, HLN and Arise TV networks.   Walker is also the author of “This Business of Urban Music” (Random House), the #1 urban legal reference book and teaches a very popular entertainment law related class, “Michael Jackson: The Business of Music” in Atlanta.   In Atlanta, he is working with the Granville Law Firm Group and the Greene Legal Group.

    No terms or details of the settlement were disclosed.  Walker hopes the two parties can move forward amicably and work with artists in the future to make great music.

    He also plans to put a copy of the lawsuit on his website at or if artists tweet or email him @jameslwalkeresq or [email protected]

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