A Lawyer, a Pianist and a Composer Walk Into a Bar: Marc Ostrow, Esq.

July 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

Like so many of our favorites at Cornelia, the single person of Marc Ostrow truly comprises many people at once. Marc Ostrow, Attorney at Law, is a respected and published intellectual property attorney. Marc Ostrow, Businessman, is a licensing and publishing exec who’s helped elderly megaliths like Boosey & Hawkes amble into the 21st century. This Thursday, Marc Ostrow, performer, will be joining us downstairs for what he’s described as his key sanity-keeping activity: Singing and playing the music he loves. Here Marc expounds on the roots of Lounge, the nuances of litigating creativity, and how best to misspend free time at law school. 

Tell us a little about your musical training background. Were piano lessons foisted at an early age? An elective music appreciation or theory course that unlocked skills in composition? Singalongs with the family? 

I started playing the piano when I was around six or seven. My older brother, who learned from a friend of his, was my first teacher. The first piece I ever learned to play was “Moon River.” Why? I have no idea. One day I was playing for some family and friends when I was about nine and my grandmother exclaimed “And he’s never had a lesson!” “Obviously” was the immediate retort from another of my brother’s clever friends.

So, I eventually studied with my brother’s friend’s teacher, Joe Nieli, a Juilliard grad who’d been playing club dates from the time he was a teenager. Joe was great. He had two Steinway grands in his studio. He’d send me to the blackboard for ear training drills. He taught me theory and music structure and introduced me to jazz. We’d trade eights and fours and I started writing around that time – little piano pieces. I never wrote any lyrics until years later. I learned everything from Bach to the Beatles so by the time I got to Penn I was well ahead in theory and ear training – I just didn’t know the proper names for things. And while I never became very technically accomplished at the keyboard, I learned to be a pretty good musician, which was more important to me than scales, arpeggios and etudes.

In a similar vein, what brought you into Law?

My older brother is a lawyer and he seemed to like it. So, I decided early on that I’d go to law school, which freed me up in college to study what I wanted. Both my siblings were double majors – my brother English and Math; my sister English and History. So I studied English and Music, figuring that as long as my grades were good it didn’t matter what I studied to get into law school. Otherwise, my choices seemed to be limited to either grad school or driving a cab.

Ironically, it was really during law school that I first started writing songs. At Chicago they have a tradition of doing an original musical from scratch every year. I found that to be more stimulating than most of my courses, so during my second year, I was the music director for “Will of Fortune.” I wrote several of the songs plus an overture and orchestrated the whole score for a 16-piece pit band. Another tradition was the faculty walk-on. One of the professors was a renowned Constitutional scholar who also ran a Gilbert & Sullivan troupe. I wrote him a recitative and patter in the style of G&S (with a lyrical assist from my sister, who introduced me to G&S). My crowning achievement was to get 40 law students on stage to sing four-part harmony in key. But the best bit of legal advocacy I ever did was to convince the curriculum committee to give me law school credit for a Chopin seminar taught by Charles Rosen – one of the few A’s I got in law school.

What, then, drew you to study and practice law as it pertained to music? 

After law school, I didn’t practice intellectual property law. I did general commercial litigation at two now-defunct firms. Always being precocious, I had my first of several continuing mid-life crises at 29. After months of dry heaves in the morning, I simply quit not knowing that I’d do next. Being a jazz fan and living in what I called the “Near East Village” I used to go to Bradley’s all the time. It was the best piano jazz bar ever – a pretty small space but with a long bar. One of the things I like about going to jazz concerts is that you can eat and drink while listening to the music and in between sets you can actually approach the musicians, some being more approachable than others. One of the friendliest was the late pianist, James Williams. James grew up in Memphis and played in church. He would play gospel-tinged ballads that could move you to tears. I’d hear him every time he played Bradley’s and we became friends. To make a long story short, my next job was working for his music publisher, Don Sickler. That’s how I got into and learned the music business, particularly publishing.

What are some of the unique challenges associated with litigating intellectual property as opposed to ‘tangible property’?

I find music licensing, which is what music publishing is all about, to be challenging because with intangible property, you can carve up the rights so many different ways. For example, one song could have several writers, each with her own publisher, and the song can be licensed for sheet music, for use in a movie, in records and ringtones; it can be heard live and on the radio and each use may involve several different entities, from print publishers like Hal Leonard, to mechanical licensing entities like Harry Fox, to performing rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI – as well as the music publishers, music supervisors and clearing houses being involved. And each use has its unique licensing issues and standards.

What’s the appeal for you in doing lounge & cocktail classics? Are there masters of the genre you have in mind as you perform or compose?

Well, I do happy hour at my club, kind of as a service – or maybe disservice — to the members. And for free drinks. Your cocktail classics are basically the Great American Songbook, as well as tunes by writers like Jobim – no lounge lizard set is complete without “The Girl From Ipanema” – and jazz standards from the likes of Monk and Miles. I’ll also throw in some Beatles tunes and singer-songwriter stuff, like Paul Simon and Carole King. It’s great music. Oddly enough, I rarely perform any of my own tunes when I do happy hour.

If you could spare one (off-the-clock) desert island piece of advice for the young songwriter, what would it be?

Get a rhyming dictionary! Seriously. Like any profession, whether you’re a lawyer, chef, mechanic or a songwriter, you have to learn your trade and the tools. Learn how songs from the Great American Songbook onward are structured. But, have something worthwhile to say, musically and lyrically. And learn the basics of the business. If you’re a songwriter, you’ve got to know about copyright and what music publishers and performing rights organizations do.

Lastly, can you tell us anything about your latest music licensing outing? 

My partners and I are working with a software development team to create an online music community that includes full – service music publishing, specifically for classical/concert and jazz composers . And for musical theater and related genres – but not pop, rock, urban or country. We’re aiming to launch the service by year’s end. I’d tell you more but I’d have to kill you – or at least make you sign a confidentiality agreement in blood.

To learn more about Marc you can visit his website. Marc Ostrow appears Thursday, July 14th at 6pm at the Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia St., NY, NY. Reservations are available at 212.989.9319 or by visiting http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com

§ 2 Responses to A Lawyer, a Pianist and a Composer Walk Into a Bar: Marc Ostrow, Esq.

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