How Miller Thomson's Kurt Dahl has helped clients navigate the music industry's shifting winds

The drummer in the group One Bad Son, Dahl has been chasing his calling, not a paycheque

How Miller Thomson's Kurt Dahl has helped clients navigate the music industry's shifting winds
Kurt Dahl, Miller Thomson

Reflecting over coffee with a mentor about how he’s managed to grow his practice over the last 14 years in a niche area of the law, Kurt Dahl considered his motivation in doing it.

“From the outset, I didn’t chase money but chased my dream, which meant I’ve always been happy doing what I do… I don’t think most lawyers can say that,” he says. “I want to be exceptional not because of something so simple as money but because this is my calling in life.”

The Saskatoon partner at Miller Thomson LLP focuses his practice on entertainment law and intellectual property. He represents musicians, songwriters, music producers, record labels, managers, publishing companies, and other music, film, and gaming industry stakeholders. He is also the drummer for One Bad Son, a rock band which, over the last two decades, has released five albums, 16 singles, and toured dozens of times throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe.

Called in 2010, the band kept him busy during his first six years of legal practice. He negotiated deals, advised clients, and drafted contracts from the back of a tour bus. In hindsight, it was a good premise for a TV show, he says, but it also demonstrated to prospective clients that he knew what they were going through. He was living it too.

“Word of mouth has always been my biggest source of success,” he says. “I didn't have any clients when I started out. It wasn't like I was handed a bunch of clients from a senior lawyer or something. I had to earn every client along the way.”

Dahl got his start on the West Coast, working for a prominent entertainment lawyer named Bob D’Eith. He practised at Murphy & Company – as it then was – before joining Miller Thomson last October.

He has always been known as “the artists’ lawyer,” which he says is an honour. But as his career progressed, he attracted more clients from “the professional side,” including large independent labels, publishing companies, and managers. This dimension has broadened his perspective when helping artists sign deals because he knows what it looks like from the other side of the table. “It's that balance of finding that sweet spot where it's actually a great deal for both sides,” he says.

Dahl has also had to balance lawyering with a music career. Lately, the latter has cooled down to a “best of both worlds situation,” he says. Instead of being on the road eight months of the year, One Bad Son does the occasional show, focussing on “quality, not quantity.” They still have a large fan base and produce new music. The band recently released its first single in six years and has another one coming out in a few months. But Dahl has three young kids and a busy legal practice, and while he and his bandmates still have a desire to play and create music, they do not want to live on the road.

“It's still fun – arguably more fun than ever right now,” says Dahl. “For a while there when we were touring like crazy… it felt like a job.”

“Now, it's not. It's a hobby, and I say that in a good way. We get to play music, have fun, write great songs, and then rock out.”

Dahl began his legal career anticipating the seismic shifts transforming the music industry. He focused his LLM thesis on how the internet would change how musical artists made a living. With streaming services paying a fraction of a penny per play, record companies no longer focus on selling records, and the traditional relationship between an artist, their copyright, and the label has been remodelled.

When Dahl started his career in 2010, most record deals were “more or less the same,” he says.

“Now, every deal I see is different. That's a good thing. It keeps me and people like me on our toes. But also, it keeps everyone creative – both on the label side and the lawyer side.”

Labels responded to the drop in album sales with 360 deals, where they get a cut of multiple revenue streams the artist produces, like publishing, touring, and merchandise. For a while, Dahl says 360 deals were a “four-letter word” in the industry, and artists did not want to touch them. Though he will try to minimize those entitlements when repping an artist, he says that if the label can help facilitate those other revenue streams and invest in them, 360 deals can make sense for artists.

Even though revenue from the sale of music has plummeted, Dahl says the use of music has never been higher. He negotiates with film and TV producers to have his clients’ music appear in their movies and shows. And every time a song is played publicly, whether in a store, a mall, or a pub, the artist gets paid, and the amount has increased and enforcement has improved, he says.

“Streaming is still sort of a hot-button topic… Streaming services are not even really a consideration when it comes to revenue. It's more just a necessary evil to get your music out there.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Dahl wondered what it would mean for his practice. But 2020 turned out to be his best year yet. The music industry looked inward, reassessed, and tried to hone business models to squeeze every bit of juice from every dollar coming in. He collaborated with clients to maximize revenue streams.

A significant change since then has been the increase in SoundExchange revenue – money coming from satellite radio spins.

“The value of a spin on satellite radio has never been higher for Canadian artists,” he says.

At the pandemic’s outset, he told one client to sign up for SoundExchange. Dahl says she called a year and a half later, nearly in tears, because she had just received her SoundExchange cheque for the year, USD $90,000, which she essentially considered found money.

“I’m working with all my clients, on both the artist side and the professional side, to track down every single dollar out there,” he says.

“If I can find 20 grand here, 30 grand there, for my clients, you put it all together, and you can make a decent living.”

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