David Bercuson Fights for his Client's Rights
Two decades ago, consumers could hear live music at concerts, listen on the radio, watch TV, or purchase records, tapes or CDs at a retail music store or mail-order service. Since then the music industry has been turned upside down, and continues to evolve rapidly. Now, the most popular options include downloads from digital stores like iTunes or Amazon, online music and video streaming services, satellite radio and online CD stores. As a result, the revenue stream for performers has fragmented, and artists need attorneys who know how to negotiate for their income and fight for their rights.
Miami attorney David Bercuson has centered his legal practice in this challenging entertainment environment. “You have to understand the legal issues in this new age, educate clients and be an effective advocate. Every day is filled with different issues,” says Bercuson, whose office is near Dadeland in south Miami-Dade.
As an entertainment lawyer, Bercuson is regularly invited to concerts and parties, and his office is filled with gold records and memorabilia from clients including Flo-Rida, Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias and KC and the Sunshine Band. That’s because stars in the music, TV and film industries appreciate his legal skills and experience.
“I wouldn’t do anything without discussing it with David, says Farruko, a rapidly rising star in the Spanish language music industry whose first two gold records are already on Bercuson’s wall of fame. “I would find a way to give him a new lung if he ever needed one and preserve him like Walt Disney [in a cryogenic chamber] so he is always available.”
A Leader in the Field
Today, Bercuson is one of the most highly recognized attorneys practicing entertainment law in Florida. His diverse client list includes U.S. and international music labels, artists, as well as South Florida television personalities like Cristina Saralegui, Jim Berry, Eliott Rodriguez, Ambrosio Hernandez and Adamari Lopez.
Known as a tenacious advocate for his clients, Bercuson is also experienced in domestic and foreign music licensing and obtaining recording or publishing deals for artists. In 1998, he was instrumental in bringing MIDEM, the world’s most important music conference and market, to Miami for three consecutive years.
“I’m fortunate in that my clients typically come to me by referral,” he says. “Sometimes a manager, publisher or record label has taken advantage of them. Other times, they simply want to have the best possible contracts in place for the next stage of their careers. I help them achieve those goals.”
Born in Chicago, Bercuson moved to South Florida at age 11. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Tulane University and his law degree at the University of Florida. He recently celebrated his 44th wedding anniversary with his wife Marla, who is director of business operations at the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. They have two daughters and six grandchildren.
“My early career was spent in commercial litigation,” says Bercuson. “I wanted to grow my practice, so I called The Florida Bar in the late 1980s to sign up for their referral service. Commercial litigation had the longest list of attorneys, so I put my name down for entertainment law. It was the shortest list and I had just represented a musician negotiating a contract for a performance on a cruise ship. Business grew exponentially from there.”
Bercuson’s timing couldn’t have been better. At this same time, CBS had just moved its Latin American music operation from Mexico to Coral Gables on the same floor as his law office. Soon, Bercuson was representing Disco CBS (which became Sony Music Entertainment US Latin LLC) with litigation matters and negotiating contracts for artists and producers. He also gained experience in licensing arrangements with music publishers, broadcasters and other organizations around the world.
But Bercuson didn’t want to build his practice around one major client that might change direction at any time. “I had lunch with one of my friends from high school who suggested I could help many other artists right here in South Florida,” he says. “I told him he was right, and made myself available for all entertainment related clients.”
Soon, Bercuson was representing Spanish-language artists and TV talent, followed by English-language performers, TV anchors and sportscasters. Several years later, Disco CBS was sold, but by then Bercuson was already well established in his own practice.
A Variety of Engagements
While Bercuson usually represents individual artists, he also helps composers, independent labels, producers and publishers, staying active in all aspects of the entertainment industry. “I am not an agent or manager for my clients; I do their legal transactional work,” he says.
A typical day for Bercuson might include negotiating a new recording, publishing or sponsorship deal for an artist, negotiating a contract for a TV news anchor, reviewing an endorsement contract for a top recording artist, or representing the mother of a young singer being courted by a U.S. record label. He has also handled some types of arbitration and litigation matters, such as a programming dispute between two TV companies one from the United States and the other from Argentina.
“The music industry is changing every day,” Bercuson says. “So, you have to keep pace with the market. In addition, the laws haven’t kept up with the times.”
Bercuson does a lot of work with legacy acts like KC and the Sunshine Band, as well as new stars. “Everyone was singing along with KC at his recent sold-out performance at the Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood,” he says. “Those hit songs continue to bring in licensing revenue from TV shows, movies and advertisements all over the world. But the songs are also subject to piracy, and artists’ rights must be protected.”
To help his clients collect royalties in other countries, Bercuson is an expert in “neighboring rights;” a source of income derived from public performances on the radio. Under the 1960 Treaty of Rome, artists and labels split the revenue derived from radio airplay — a concept called neighboring rights. “Because the U.S. didn’t sign that treaty, collection of these monies can be arduous,” he says.
Bercuson has taught as an adjunct at the University of Miami School of Law for more than 25 years. He is also a frequent lecturer and speaker at various Florida and American Bar Association meetings and conferences as well as at music events and on college campuses including Harvard University Law School and many others. Reflecting on his field, Bercuson says patience and flexibility are essential attributes in entertainment law. “To be successful, you have to be an effective legal strategist and advocate for your clients,” he adds. “You also have to be prepared for anything, because you never know what’s next.”