Years with Company: 21
Address: 1645 N. Vine, Penthouse 1002, Los Angeles, CA 90028
Clients: Snoop Dogg, Gerardo Ortiz, YG, DJ Mustard, Joan Sebastian, Silent Giant Entertainment, Ty Dolla $ign
Recently named one of Billboard’s Top Lawyers of 2020, Helen Yu has been serving the entertainment community for more than a quarter century. Having strategized deals resulting in scores of No. 1 hits, her abilities have significantly impacted the direction of hip-hop. Also notable is her representation of some of Latin music’s biggest stars, such as Gerardo Ortiz and Paulo Londra.
I started off life as a musician. But having a nice Asian family, they were like, “What? That’s not happening. That’s not something we can support.” That’s how I ended up getting into entertainment law. I said, “Hey, I can at least be involved.”
The Label Experience Advantage
I worked at a couple labels. It gave me perspective on what they do––how every department works, the flow of management, of projects, of talent, of marketing, of promotion, all that stuff. I started off at Enigma Records, which was an alternative rock, punk and new wave label. My first label job was at Virgin Records America. Back in the day, they had everything––The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Ice-T... They had everything going on back then.
Now, when [clients] don’t understand (“Why can’t the label do this?” Or, “What’s the label doing here?”), it’s really helpful because I can give them insight. Most of the artists I have worked with don’t understand corporate structures and certainly have never worked at a record company.
Referrals and Reputation
Usually, my clients find me on a referral basis. If you do good work, then other people say, “Hey, she does great work.” Even people I’ve done transactions on the opposing side will say, “Wow, we really like the way you work. Can you represent us?” That’s a real compliment.
Positive Client Qualities
I look for people who make great music and have great talent. That’s the number one thing. I also like to work with people who have integrity and honesty. I’m not [a fan of] getting into business with people who like to take shortcuts, thinking that’s the way to win. That’s really important to me. And I look for someone who works harder than me. I want an artist who wants to win at a very high level. They’re constantly working and doing what needs to be done to propel their careers forward, because it’s part of who they are. It’s in their DNA.
Finding and Quizzing Attorneys
Ask for referrals from friends. Obviously, there’s good old Internet research. Read Music Connection and just find out about the industry. Ask what kind of experience they’ve had, what kind of deals they’ve done. Those are the main things.
The other part is you have to get a feel. Does that person’s point of view and ethics vibe with you? It’s a business [where] a lot is based on gut feeling and intuition. Take that energy and put it into––does this feel right to me? Does this person seem like they have integrity and they can accomplish what I want? And if you see any red flags, even if your friend says, “Oh, so and so’s good,” listen to your instincts.
Estate Recovery Is a Sub-Specialty
I’m really proud that I recovered the estate and copyrights of Marc Bolan and T. Rex. That took years of my life, but I was able to recover various copyrights and quite a handsome sum.
Generally speaking, recovering copyrights for estates and those kinds of things, that’s a real sub-specialty. Very few lawyers have the ability and knowledge to do that. It takes highly specialized knowledge and an understanding of international income, international copyright laws... 90% plus of the lawyers out there haven’t focused on this very complicated, technical area. It’s a specialty within a specialty.
In-House Music Publishing
I’ve been doing [North Hudson Music] for over 20 years. That also requires specialized knowledge because you have to understand international collections in every territory. You have to have the relationships. And you have to understand how publishing works. There are many types of streaming income and it’s getting ever more complicated. It’s a lot of work. Some lawyers try, but without real knowledge and dedication, most are not successful. I keep it very small.
Serving the Film Industry
When I worked at Sony Pictures, I worked in post-production. It was generally independent films. Obviously, studio movies have their own in-house lawyers, but if it’s an independent film we’ll do everything from soup to nuts. We’ll set up all the unit agreements with SAG-AFTRA, the Writers Guild, Directors Guild, as well as contracts for all the producers, associate producers, directors and at times we’re also involved in acquiring the actual property. Maybe it’s a script that we need or it may be the adaptation rights to a book.
When the film is done, we’ll handle post-production as well, which is usually the composer deals and/or music synchronization for any pieces of music they want to license. It’s almost like one-stop shopping because otherwise you’d need different people for different things.
Virtually No Virtual Reality
At first, we were licensing a lot of content with virtual reality companies. We’re doing less and less of that type of thing. Most of that stuff, it seems, they’re doing in-house. They’re creating their own content. There’s not as much licensing work in those kinds of things as there was when VR first started happening.
Where To Score Synchs
There are entire sales companies whose job is to pitch or get breakdowns on what people are looking for in production. The other way is to get in touch with people who have music libraries. Believe it or not, television needs a lot of music. Not all the music can be expensive, well-known hit songs. They’re going to get some, but only the top shows have really big budgets. Otherwise, you have to bring music in for a reasonable amount.
Believe it or not, I’ve been busier during this time because clients have been on lockdown and everybody has a home setup. People make most of their music at home on their computers and guess what––they need legal work and agreements and clearances to get the music out. It’s been a bit overwhelming. You’re not in your office environment, so you don’t have everything and everybody’s a bit slower, but I’m okay with it.
Attorneys review and negotiate contracts. Lawyers aren’t managers. So the best time to get in touch with a lawyer is when you have a contract.
Making a Difference
I had one situation where [a songwriter] was leasing their home. They were going to get kicked out and the owner wanted to sell. They didn’t know what to do and I was able to help. Not only did it affect that writer, it affected that writer’s entire family. That felt really good. It’s a service business and I try to make a difference in people’s lives.
The Key Is Persistence
Have dedication. Believe in yourself. Work hard. Be good. And don’t give up the dream. Forget about the naysayers, whether they’re outside people or voices in your head where you beat yourself up. You’ve just got to stay the course. And if you stay the course, you can accomplish anything.