Over the last few years, the success of music attorney Kent Marcus' past and present clients Paramore and Kings of Leon has dramatically altered the global perception that Nashville is home to country music only. Nowadays, this Music Row player regularly fields calls from industry colleagues from Los Angeles to London asking for updates on Nashville's homegrown rock scene. With a roster boasting local luminaries from American Bang and Jeremy Lister to up-and-comers such as Mikky Ekko and Meghan Kabir — in addition to the usual Music Row fare — Marcus has, whether he likes it or not, cultivated a niche as the go-to high-powered attorney for those braving the city's local rock trenches.
It's a reputation he has a love/hate relationship with, mainly because it overshadows the volume of country on his client list. "The best marketing tool that I can have is word of mouth," he tells the Scene over a leisurely mid-town lunch. "But it's an unfortunate perception because it's not true ... I think [it] exists because of my more successful clients. It's [the genre] I love, so it's easy to be 'the rock guy,' but I don't like the tag." Plus, he adds, being a great lawyer isn't a skill set specific to a genre.
Sporting a leather jacket, jeans, a plaid shirt and not a single gray hair in sight, the 40-year-old Marcus is a far cry from the suit-and-tie caricature most people imagine when they think "entertainment lawyer." Perhaps that's due to his own musical background — as the self-proclaimed "drummer, lawyer, wanna-be guitarist" who spent his formative years playing in bands. "I always had that bug," he says. "I think it creates mutual respect that [my clients and I] can talk about music." Marcus wanted to combine that love of music with his law school education and previous experience in film and television.
He moved to Nashville in 1996 to work for Capricorn Records, and 14 years later (eight of which were spent sharpening fangs with Music Row entertainment firm Zumwalt Almon & Hayes), Marcus is now captain of his own ship with one of the most impressive caches on Music Row. He helped guide Kings of Leon into the Top 40 stratosphere. He was instrumental in fostering the 360 deal — the controversial what's-yours-is-mine business-model-du-jour that has now become an industry standard — when he negotiated the first such agreement between a new artist and a major label, for the Franklin pop-punk quintet Paramore. The band's 2007 release Riot! became the first rock album by a Nashville artist to go platinum.
Equal parts music lover and industry wonk, when discussing general business trends, Marcus tends to leave the "legalese bullshit" for the contracts and speaks in nonspecific ambiguous aphorisms. But when he starts talking about the art form of music, his dedication to his clients — from artists to labels, songwriters and publishing companies — and his desire to build the brand of the city, he shows his boundless passion for the job he repeatedly professes his love for. It's the kind of persuasive confidence that seems to proudly declare, If I can't help you write your own ticket, nobody can.
But the real question so many locals must be asking is: So how do you get Kent Marcus to throw his weight behind your band? The answer: Show him you're worth the risk. Prove to him that there's nothing else you can do, nothing else you want to do, and that you'll starve for it.
"I like batting 1,000," he says. "If I'm gonna stick my neck out, I need to know that I'm not gonna look like an asshole. Don't come to me when you just walk out of the studio with a great record and go, 'Here, get me a deal.' I won't do it."
In other words, show him you have what it takes to become the next feather in his cap. If you think you can, then now is the time to shine, because according to him, "A lot of people are paying attention to Nashville. It's on the map. People are recognizing the quality pool ... it's happening." And it's happening on his watch. —Adam Gold
Photographed by Eric England at Marcus' office.