Poker face

Poker face

November 5, 2009 10:39


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Walking into the lobby of the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem during Succot, David Renzer looks like most of the other American tourists milling around - middle-aged, clean cut, sporting a button-down shirt and a black kippa. But it's unlikely that many of the other guests are one of the top music business executives in Los Angeles. If having influential friends in high places is part of Israel's poker hand in the high-stakes game of hasbara, then Renzer is a sparkling ace in the hole. The chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG), the music industry's leading global music publishing corporation, which represents music in every genre from many of the world's top songwriters and catalogs including U2, Elton John, Mariah Carey, Maroon 5, Keane and Coldplay, the 49-year-old Renzer is a power player in the world's most powerful entertainment playground - Hollywood. A behind-the-scenes A-lister, Renzer has never hid his affinity for Israel. A long-time active member of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, he was one of the dozens of signatories last summer, along with Jerry Seinfeld and Natalie Portman, of a letter protesting the calls to boycott Israeli films at the Toronto Film Festival. And ramping up his identification with Israel even further, Renzer has recently taken on the position of cultural chair of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, the 12-year-old initiative designed to strengthen the shared identity and destiny of Israel and Jews in Los Angeles. "When I was asked to head the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership culture program, I thought of how much time and effort Esther puts into Israel, I said, you know what, I think I have to find a way to give a little bit back also," said Renzer, sitting in the hotel's lounge after arriving here from business meetings in London. Esther is Renzer's wife, who is a cofounder of and the international president for Stand With Us, the nonprofit, pro-Israel student activism organization. Together, the couple put their time where their mouths are when it comes to garnering support for Israel within the most important Hollywood community. "What David and I do isn't so different," said Esther, who joined her husband later in the conversation. "Stand With Us is dealing with correcting misinformation about Israel, and with telling Israel's story in a positive manner - the green Israel, the hi-tech Israel. We talk about both divestment and investment. And part of telling Israel's story is speaking in the universal language of music and culture." That's the language that Renzer knows well, having grown up in a musical family - his father was a cantor in south Florida. Renzer became a musician himself, writing and producing songs, and even cowriting a number four hit on Billboard's R&B charts in 1985 with "Electric Lady," a song for long-obscure group called Con Funk Shun. "That's my claim to fame," laughed Renzer. "My daughter embarrassed me recently by finding the song on the Internet. I recently received a nice royalty check, which means that some radio stations somewhere are still playing this record." The issue of royalty checks for artists is paramount in Renzer's profession. Since he joined UMPG in 1996, he's successfully positioned the company as a global leader in music publishing, owning and administering more than two million song copyrights, signing artists like Dave Grohl, 50 Cent, Diana Krall and Prince, closing deals for the Holland Dozier Holland and the Henry Mancini catalogs and expanding worldwide operations by adding a Latin music division. In tones that reveal his New York University business background, Renzer patiently explained what the realm of music publishing entailed. "There are two distinct intellectual property rights - a copyright on a sound recording, which is what a record company's involved in, and a copyright on song, which a music publisher is involved in," he said. "We do many things that a record company does - we sign and develop songwriters and artists, we have recording studios, we help get songs exploited in film and television soundtracks. In a traditional model, we might pitch a song to someone like Madonna and hope that she covers it. Alternatively, we might help develop an artist. "We have a group called Florence and the Machine out of the UK that's become very successful - we signed them first to a publishing deal and later shopped them to a record company. Alanis Morrisette was developed by our company as a young writer/artist. We put her together with producer Glen Ballard and they wrote an album called Jagged Little Pill that sold 30 million-plus copies." IN THE AGE of digital music and film downloads, the procedure of compensating writers when their songs are used has become infinitely more complicated. And Renzer has devoted much of his efforts to navigating the company through those uncharted waters, sometimes with controversial results. "We make money for our artists when a song is sold on iTunes, or when you buy a CD (if you can still find a retailer!), or when you take a song and place it in a commercial, film or television show, ring tones, master tones - all the new digital uses. Our business continues to grow and has multiple revenue streams, which has really been the key to the resilience of the music publishing business," said Renzer. However, a recent court ruling in the US has decided that, unlike European laws, a songwriter and artist who has a song included in a film or TV show is not entitled to a performance fee when the show is downloaded. "What it means for a film or TV composer is that there's no back-end royalties when something is downloaded on the Internet. The composer gets an upfront fee, the studio buys up all the rights, they don't get a royalty on DVDs, now they don't get a backed royalty on downloads," said Renzer. The issue became exacerbated when Renzer was reviled on digital media chat groups for not only calling for performance fees for downloads, but also saying the same performance fee could be owed by sites that offer previews of songs - as when customers play a 30-second track preview on iTunes. Jonathan Potter, executive director of the Digital Media Association, responded in an interview with cNET that music industry giants like UMPG are running scared that the business model is shifting away from public performances to a model of private performances. "This is a turf battle. They are saying, 'The songwriters aren't getting paid.' Baloney. Songwriters are getting paid. They're paid sync rights and [mechanical] rights. They aren't getting paid for the public performance in a download, because there is no public performance in a download," Potter said. Renzer defended his position, explaining that while companies like Apple do pay fees to publishing companies for downloads, the rate doesn't include payment for other services like streaming radio and 30-second previews. "I think America is behind the rest of the world in terms of having a fair copyright royalty system that compensates all composers," said Renzer. "It's just wrong that there's no back end royalty in a download. The whole system is evolving. Unfortunately, all of us in the industry are spending a lot of money on copyright tribunals and on lawyers as our industry sorts through these types of issues." WITH HIS EYE directly in the storm of the music business, it's a wonder Renzer has time for other pursuits. But his role in the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership reflects his commitment to helping the Israeli entertainment industry expand and grow with expertise of Hollywood professionals. According to its Web site, the partnership "brings together the brain power" in the worlds of culture, education, health and human services and economics to work on mutually beneficial programs dedicated to a "shared Jewish identity and destiny." One of its continuing projects is a series of master classes, bringing together students and teachers of different disciplines, from television and film to dance, social work and opera. This summer, a list of LA luminaries, including Sex and the City creator Darren Star, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler and independent producer Gail Berman (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) went to Tel Aviv for a series of film master classes with Israeli film and TV professionals. Renzer said that as he works opposite his Tel Aviv counterpart cultural chair, noted Tel Aviv philanthropist Miki Yerushalmy, he hopes to build on the success of the program and add his own flourish to it. "I'm still working my way into, understanding what it all is and figuring out what kind of mark, if any, I can contribute," he said, adding that he was headed the next day for a series of meetings in Tel Aviv, and to attend and speak at a get-together of Garage Geeks, the cutting edge, tech-entrepreneurial brainstorming sessions spearheaded by Yossi Vardi. "What I'm hoping to launch - and we've had discussions that have been received with a lot of excitement - is a class that is geared toward Israeli film and television composers and to essentially do a master-class type of program and have them interact with top Hollywood film and TV composers, agents, executives and heads of music at all the studios. That's one of the things I'll be working on in Tel Aviv, putting the next steps in place to launch that sometime in 2010." The probability that the program will not only get off the ground, but include many of those top professionals he referred is because, despite his modest, polite demeanor, Renzer retains a formidable clout within the music industry. "I managed to pull out the Judaism in all my friendly executive friends," he joked. "But there are a lot of film and music executives in Hollywood who do have a connection to Israel. For instance, one of the top agents in Hollywood for film composers is married to an Israeli woman, and he was just here in Israel." The Renzers visit regularly, and their two grown daughters have both spent periods of time studying in Jerusalem. "My daughter is spending the year at the Midreshet Harova yeshiva in the Old City," said Renzer proudly. "My family's very traditional, Esther comes from an Orthodox family and my kids seem to be moving toward that direction." While he doesn't wear a kippa when he's at work in Los Angeles, Renzer doesn't shy away from identifying with Israel and regularly struggles against the tide of mass apathy and even anti-Israel sentiment among some Jewish entertainment insiders. "I don't know why Israel is in the magnifying glass all the time - that's the big question," he said, adding that there's been a steady stream of Hollywood visitors to Israel in recent years, and not only through the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles master classes. "There's a high-profile agent in LA - David Lonner - representing some very prominent filmmakers and actors, and his mother is Israeli and he has a very deep connection to Israel. He organizes a group every year of about 10 top Hollywood names, and these are people that are making big-budget films and heads of studios," said Renzer. "Nina Tassler from CBS TV just accepted to become chairman of the entertainment division of the federation in LA. So, I think there is on the one hand this nice community of leaders willing to speak up and act for Israel. Then you do have many filmmakers who do lean to the Left. And there are times when you try to promote the Jewish Federation and Israel comes into the picture, and it becomes a hot topic," he added. While his professional discretion would never allow him to suggest to someone like Justin Timberlake that he should perform here or take part in an Israel event, Renzer said that he exerted his influence in more subtle ways. "Recently the Israeli consul in LA was putting together an event and was trying to reach Gustavo Dudamel, the celebrated new director of the LA Philharmonic. He happens to be signed to one of our classical record labels, so I reached out to the head of our classical record label and got them together," he said. "What's really going to be interesting as we develop this film composers' workshop is going to bring out the Israel in a lot of Hollywood execs whom I deal with on a day-to-day basis. We handle all the music rights for Warner Brothers, Universal and NBC. So, we have a lot of execs whom I'm going to drag into this thing and make them help, and it's going to be a lot of fun." Israeli hasbara has just found its straight flush.

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