Abdo on the job—at he Grammys with itmaker Anna Nalick.
Abdo, 55, says the accolades he and the firm receive are based
on their roles as artist advocates.
“I picture myself as the general counsel of an artist’s business,”
he says. “The artist is the CEO and I’m the consigliere—I’m Tom
Hagen. And the artists know that there are a lot of tools here—
litigators, core intellectual property lawyers and estate lawyers.”
Even lawyers who might be seen as adversaries—such as
Michael Reinert, former executive vice president of business and
legal affairs for the Universal Motown Records Group—appreciate
what Abdo does.
“I deal with lawyers from the coasts all the time and sometimes
they lose sight of the real goal—protecting their artist clients while
maintaining a good working relationship with the [record] label,”
says Reinert. “With Ken, you get the best of both worlds. He fiercely
defends his clients’ rights and desires while at the same time
knowing how to work with executives throughout the label to make
sure that the results are good for all concerned.”
MIXING BUSINESS AND FUN ISN’T JUST ESSENTIAL TO ABDO’S
practice; it’s what got him into the legal field. His father, E. John
Abdo, founded the firm in 1936. Abdo’s older brother, Bob, joined in
1973, but not only was there some doubt that Ken would be a lawyer,
he says, “there was some doubt I would get out of high school.”
Abdo, a musician since childhood, worked as a mobile DJ and
did time in acts ranging from a ’50s tribute combo called Sleeze
Band to a heavy rock band called Cast Iron Mist. (It was while
playing in the latter band that he met his wife, Karen; the couple
recently celebrated their 30th anniversary.)
It didn’t take him long to realize, as he puts it, that he was on
“the wrong end of the music business. I wanted to be where the
creative grist is processed as opposed to being a disc jockey.” An
ideal way to get in on that process was by being an attorney, and
the ideal place to set up practice seemed to be Abdo & Abdo.
One problem: The firm didn’t have an entertainment practice.
In fact, there was no entertainment practice in the Midwest that
would rival those on the coasts. Eventually, Abdo changed all that,
about 10 years after joining the firm in 1982. “I told my dad and
brother when I started, ‘Either I’m going to practice entertainment
law or I would want to consider another occupation,’” he says.
Of course now, among its many practice areas, the firm’s
entertainment side draws a disproportionate amount of attention
from the general public. Walking the halls of the firm’s offices in the
IDS Center, visitors are greeted by an array of signed gold records,
movie posters and other memorabilia from grateful clients.
Last fall, Abdo and litigator Barry O’Neil helped singer Kristen Hall,
a founding member of country group Sugarland, gain a settlement
from her old band to recoup money she claimed to be owed.
Singer/songwriter Vienna Teng, another Abdo client, interrupted
her recording career to go to graduate school. Rather than pressure
her to keep recording and performing, Abdo congratulated her and
assured her the record-buying public would wait.
“Two things impress me most [about Abdo]: his interest in
unconventional models for musicians to earn a good living, and
his appreciation for artists who’re also involved in other pursuits,
like me,” says Teng.“He looks at the long term, at how to structure
deals so musicians will have the financial and artistic freedom to
do what they’re most passionate about.”
Steven Greenberg, a longtime Minneapolis music producer and
founder of the Web design firm Designstein—one of the first of its
kind—was first made aware of Abdo’s existence in the ‘70s, when
both were disco DJs. Greenberg resisted having Abdo represent
him until about a decade ago.
“I had my LA lawyer, but at some point I wanted to have a guy
here,” says Greenberg. “I’ve watched him grow into a real New
York/LA entertainment lawyer right here in Minneapolis. I felt good
handing him all my music stuff.”
Abdo’s passion for artist advocacy is almost a cradle-to-grave
proposition. He’s represented Jonny Lang since Lang was a teen,
and he helped Michelle Branch at the launch of her career and
negotiated her initial major record company and other agreements,
and he and his colleagues do copyright, tax, and estate counseling
so that artists’ work can benefit the artist and their descendants.
Several years ago, he was the first to file a termination transfer
notice for “Funkytown” with the U.S. Copyright Office on behalf of