“I don’t have to tell any of you that the best moments of my life were created by artists and enhanced by music, because this is true for all of you,” said Susan Genco, co-president of The Azoff Company, who received the Service Award at the 24th annual Recording Academy Entertainment Law Initiative luncheon Saturday afternoon (April 2) in Las Vegas. Her sentiments were echoed by keynote speaker Cameron Crowe, who wrote the Oscar-winning, semi-autobiographical screenplay for the 2000 film Almost Famous.
He told what presumably was the real Almost Famous story, about a 12-year-old boy whose mother intentionally raised him across the street from a law school she so desperately wanted him to go to. Instead, his sister’s secret stash of records in their rock-music-is-banned household led him to getting incredibly rare interviews with rock stars ranging from David Bowie to the Eagles (before they became the Eagles) to Led Zeppelin for the cover of Rolling Stone (a trade the band hated at the time), eventually becoming what Recording Academy CEO/president Harvey Mason jr. regarded as “Rolling Stone magazine’s youngest-ever contributor at age 15.”
“When people ask who’s the band, who are the real people in Almost Famous, it was all of them and all of us,” Crowe, now 64, told the room full of music lawyers, entertainment journalists, CEOs, managers, “anybody here who helped clear the 150 music cues in Almost Famous” and more impassioned patrons of the industry at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, where the 64th annual Grammy Awards were moved to this year due to COVID-19. “It was Irving [Azoff] and Ronnie Van Zant and Glenn, Elliot Roberts and Neal Preston and the people that inspired Susan Genco, back when she was a DJ with the same dream of loving and being close to music, the music she still loves so passionately and fights to support.”
And in her sustained fight, Genco made her plea that the collective passion for the artists must extend to their protection. As one of the key figures who helped get the Music Modernization Act signed into law four years ago, the 2018 Billboard Women in Music executive of the year and the Irving Azoff-led Music Artists Coalition have been leading advocates for the FAIR Act, which won its first committee vote on Wednesday. The FAIR Act would repeal a 1987 amendment to California’s “Seven-Year Statute” (otherwise known as California Labor Code Section 2855) that allows record labels to sue artists for damages if they leave after seven years before delivering the required number of albums in their contract.
“We all work hard for the artists and songwriters that we love. They give us the gift of music, so let’s make sure we give them what they need and what they deserve. Let’s be sure that they get their fair share, and let’s please do it together,” Genco said while delivering her acceptance speech.
She took a page from Crowe’s script and painted her own love story of how she got to work in music. It started at “a small club in Buffalo with my friend Lisa. There we were watching this remarkably young band from Athens. They were that perfect combination of art and great songs. And like Penny Lane in Almost Famous, we fell in love with that band. Although, for the record, neither one of us every slept with Michael Stipe,” she joked. “The next scene is in a dark hallway in law school, where my Mitch and I sat arguing about our favorite R.E.M. record. And then we went to see Nirvana, The Lemonheads, Rage Against the Machine, Uncle Tupelo and so many more. And I feel deeper in love with him” — Genco recalls while breaking out into a short sob — “with every note that we were together.”
In the various positions she’s held in the industry — including vp of business and legal affairs at Arista Records, under the tutelage of Clive Davis, and executive vp of Global Music Rights, which is under The Azoff Company’s umbrella — Genco’s role as a mother of three has provided her with some of the most fulfilling moments of her life. “For me, there are no better musical moments than taking my kids to see their favorite bands. For Nicole, My Chemical Romance. Owen, Neil Young. And my Ava, Harry Styles, of course,” Genco added.
Azoff sang her praises as someone who champions musicians, songwriters and publishers through legislation and preserves their legacy via Iconic Artists Group’s catalog purchases, including David Crosby’s catalog; Linda Ronstadt’s recorded music assets; and The Beach Boys’ recordings, brand, memorabilia and select compositions — all within the last year. But outside of the industry, he also commended Genco for being a “tireless advocate” for women’s economic and social justice through The XX Fund, of which Genco is the founder and co-chair, as well as the LGBTQ+ community’s visibility and rights. Laurie Soriano, ELI’s executive chair who presented Leron Rogers of the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association with the 2021 Service Award after last year’s virtual event, described the UCLA School of Law adjunct professor as “the best role model.”
Before Full Stop Management’s chairman introduced Genco, he asked her partner and partner/co-chair of Covington & Burling’s commercial litigation practice group Mitch Kamin, “On a Will Smith scale of 1 to 10, how bipolar are you feeling today?” in reference to the actor slapping comedian Chris Rock at Sunday’s 94th annual Academy Awards, which was met with mixed reaction (mostly laughter) from the audience. He reflected on their “nearly parallel training” as young bucks in the biz who wanted to represent artists, starting from Genco’s undergraduate education at Wellesley College and Azoff’s time at the University of Illinois. “She joined the Snyder Board of Governors that put bands on her campus and I promoted and put bands on campus and made a bunch of money for myself instead of the university,” he said while firing off more wisecracks that caused the room to erupt in laughter, adding, “Then she went to a small finishing school called Harvard, and I went to the David Geffen School of Music Terrorism. Next, she went to Clive Davis, and David Geffen and I did everything we could to take Clive Davis to the cleaners.”
Following his humorous speech, Azoff introduced a video montage of Genco’s peers — including Full Stop Management partner Jeffrey Azoff, The Azoff Company’s other co-president Beth Collins, Columbia Records co-head of urban music Shawn Holliday, Full Coverage Communications president/CEO Kristen Foster, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and 2019’s ELI Service Award recipient Dina LaPolt — and family members joined Azoff in the chorus, which included a clip of her family actually breaking out into song.
“We are so grateful for all you did on the Music Modernization Act, the federal legislation COVID relief packages, and all the work you do as a board member of the Music Artists Coalition, which includes the upcoming work you’re going to do on the FAIR Act, which is eliminating the record label exemption from the Seven-Year California Statute,” LaPolt said in the video with gusto, prompting the Black Music Action Coalition’s co-founder/co-chair Willie “Prophet” Stiggers to applaud and the whole room to follow suit once she added, “That sh– has to go!”
Genco, who wiped away stray tears with her napkin, felt nervous yet incredibly grateful ahead of the glowing presentation dedicated to her. “Because [the Entertainment Law Initiative is] about welcoming new people into the music business and the next generation of legal thinkers around these important issues, I’m really honored and just humbled to be part of it,” she told Billboard ahead of the the luncheon, while joking, “I keep saying to my husband, ‘Twelve years of Catholic school and I feel like I’m having a bat mitzvah: There’s a video, I got a special outfit. I’m not used to this.’”
The event started by honoring the winner of the ELI student writing competition, USC’s Sona Sulakian, who won a $10,000 scholarship, along with the runners-up, Loyola’s Chelsea Cohen and Stetson’s Michael Harrigan, who each received $2,500 scholarships. All three students will get a mentor session with a leading entertainment attorney. Mason also celebrated the recent onboarding of the Recording Academy’s first in-house legal counsel, Jennifer Jones.
“Be bold and be innovative,” Genco told Billboard regarding the advice she has for these law students preparing to enter the music business. “For a long time, [it] was very static. Unfortunately, when piracy first hit the recorded music business so hard, it was terrible. But it required innovation, it required new thinking. Same with the pandemic. Artists — and there are a lot of legal issues around that — got really creative. I think the most important thing for the next generation is to be flexible, to be bold, to be innovative. Always use the guidance that you got from law school, that ability to think analytically about things that are so amorphous, like the Metaverse and NFTs. And you’re an important partner to the artists, who have all of the creativity, and then to be partnered with someone who can think through the legal and business implications is incredibly important.”