By Isabelle Spearin
You could say that Stephen Dallas, Senior VP of Universal Music Publishing Group’s business, legal and digital business development division, has seen it all. Fronting the legal departments of three of the world’s largest music publishers over the last 15 years, he’s witnessed first-hand the industry’s darkest moments and ultimately, its rebirth.
Currently based in Los Angeles, Dallas spent his formative years in upstate New York, often visiting extended family in Canada. Inspired by the popular music of the 80s, he picked up the guitar as a teenager. “I wanted to be Eddie Van Halen but when I realized it wasn’t as easy as he made it look, and no one told me about the callouses, I put it down,” he laughed. “I picked it back up in college and I’ve been playing ever since, it’s very cathartic.”
After high school, Dallas headed off to Boston University to study Communications and Political Science and later went on to pursue a Juris Doctor at New York Law School. “My first year of law school was when I started hearing about Napster,” he recalled. “So, I took copyright which I found very interesting, and contracts, which I thought would be the last thing I would like but turned out to be a favourite.”
In his second year, Dallas landed an internship with BMG Entertainment’s legal affairs department. “One of my first assignments was to research MP3s and how they were being illegally downloaded, and something called the “Diamond Rio Player,” he said. “Looking back, I was basically entering the business right at the start of its slow decline to near collapse.”
Post-graduation, Dallas entered private practice before eventually landing a job in the Legal & Business Affairs department with EMI Music Publishing in 2006. He spent his days at EMI immersed in writer deals, catalogue acquisitions, corporate and litigation matters. “Those were rough years, piracy was rampant, Spotify wasn’t even a thought,” he said. “But I can tell you this much, I’m so thankful for having entered the business at its low point because I’ve seen it come back and essentially resurrect after all those years of people saying it was done.”
In 2012, Dallas joined Warner Chappell Music to oversee the structuring and negotiation of complex, often first-of-their-kind digital deals in the early days of the industry’s transformation. “When I started, I was immediately thrown into the trenches of working on a longstanding, major digital deal that had to be closed in 2 weeks,” he recalled. “I didn’t sleep much but what I learned in those two weeks set the foundation for doing digital deals going forward, sort of just rolling up your sleeves and diving right in… it was an amazing experience.”
Two years ago, Dallas moved across the country with his family to join Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) in Los Angeles as Senior VP of Business and Legal Affairs and Digital Business Development.
“One of the many virtues of working at UMPG is being surrounded by professionals who are at the top of their game,” he said, acknowledging the talent of his worldwide colleagues and UMPG Chairman and CEO, Jody Gerson, who’s been widely credited with the company’s turnaround. “Songwriters and artists are drawn to UMPG from Jody on down,” he said. “She has created a songwriter-first culture and I think it’s a comfortable home for a lot of writers who feel like their creative and business are being taken care of and promoted.”
UMPG’s roster alone speaks volumes and features some of the world’s most beloved songwriters and catalogs, like Adele, Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Shania Twain, Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift, Eminem, Pearl Jam, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Selena Gomez, Paul Simon, Metallica, Alicia Keys, Elton John/Bernie Taupin, Billy Joel, and many more.
When asked for his perspective on the value of a song, Dallas feels it’s immeasurable and unquantifiable.
“Sure, we can calculate and track the various forms of income a song earns in different territories, but when I think of the value of a song, it’s about the joy, pain, happiness, sorrow, action, inaction, connection, spring in your step, lull you to sleep, take you on the dancefloor, and all the other emotions, feelings and memories a song can elicit,” he said. “I don’t know of anything else that quite captures all of that for a person.”
Underpinning his work with digital service providers is an unwavering commitment to see UMPG’s songwriters realize proper value for their songs. “We want the digital services to succeed but we also want our writers to succeed because without the writers and without the songs, it’s clear that there are no services,” he notes.
Positioned at the intersection of technology and music, Dallas has a unique insight into emerging trends. “Nowadays the digital marketplace is a very busy marketplace,” he said. “We’re starting to see standalone audio-only services adding different elements like podcasts, short-form video, ticketing and merchandising so you’re starting to see diversification on these platforms.”
Another trend is a push on the digital side for a single-point licence, similar to record labels. “Publishing and rights owners are now looking at the world holistically because our digital partners don’t just operate in one territory, they operate worldwide,” he said. “People want less complexity so we’re testing out new licensing models to try to provide more rights from a single point.”
Dallas oversees the lion’s share of Canadian business at UMPG and currently sits on the Canadian Publishers Committee and Music Publisher Canada board. He is also a member of the Music Licensing Collective (MLC) expert group in the US, which is currently reviewing the administration of voluntary licenses with the Music Modernization Act.
“It’s a huge change on how licensing in the US will be done going forward,” he said. “When the MLC is up and running next year, it will be interesting to see how it may change the licensing market and we’re keeping a close eye on that.”
Dallas lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children. He is currently enjoying rebuilding his vinyl collection of favourite albums from the 80s, 90s and 00s.
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