Making Art Work: School of Music alum now VP at Sony Pictures

Rod Davis is the vice president of Music Business Affairs for Sony Pictures Entertainment. In this role, Davis is responsible for handling music transactions from negotiations for composers, musicians and music supervisors, to recording artists and soundtrack album agreements for feature films, television series, game shows and interstitial works. Davis earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah School of Music, his master’s in music at the University of Southern California, and his J.D. at Southwestern University School Law School. Prior to his work at Sony Pictures Entertainment, Davis acted as senior counsel to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, handling music rights and transactions for the studio.

What was your early relationship with music? What were your initial career ambitions?

I have played piano since I was seven years old. Initially, I was planning on becoming a concert pianist, but I quickly realized that I was going to enjoy teaching music rather than living the life of a professional touring musician. Eight hours a day of practicing alone in a room is a big commitment—there are people that can do that, but that life was not for me. So, when I went to the University of Utah, I sought a degree in music education, with the goals to teach high school music and then eventually teach at the university level.

However, all of a sudden you can come to a divide in the road and take a different career path. Fortunately for me, it was not a true diversion, because I have always stayed in music.

Who were your most impactful mentors at the University of Utah?

I had some wonderful professors while at the U. Specifically, Dr. Newell Weight, the conductor of the University of Utah A Cappella Choir and music education professor, Dr. Ed Thompson who replaced Dr. Weight conducting the A Cappella Choir and later became the chair of the music department, and Betty Jeanne Chipman who was an amazing voice teacher. I accompanied Chipman’s students in their voice lessons and performances.

The traits and similarities about these three people were: they had a real passion for music, they were musically gifted, and they diligently worked to accomplish their goals. You could tell they loved music, it was in their souls. They had a desire to teach and to share. That combination inspired me. It is why I continued on in music education and eventually was hired to teach music at Bountiful High School, a job I truly loved.

When did law come into the picture?

I wanted to teach high school music and then move to the university setting, so the career path looked like: get a master’s degree and then my doctorate. Dr. Weight had earned a graduate degree at the University of Southern California. I truly admired him, so I decided that’s where I would go. I went to USC to get my master’s in music. And that’s where I first became aware of music law and music attorneys, careers I had never heard of before.

In high school, I had two real passions: music, and speech & debate. Even back then, I was thinking of pursuing music education, or possibly law. All of a sudden in midstream of my music teaching career, when I found out there were attorneys practicing music law—it was like a lightbulb was turned on.

This was a way to combine my two passions: music and law.
I love my job. I love what I do, and it’s music continually, every day.

What do you consider your first big break?

I had just graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and was looking for a job. On the back page of Variety, the motion picture entertainment magazine, there was an ad placed by MGM studios (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). They were seeking an attorney for their Music Affairs group with at least two years’ law firm experience. Well, I was right out of law school. But, while I was there, I was a legal intern with Warner/Chapell Music, one of the largest music publishers in the world, and with ABC television. Therefore, I had some legal experience in entertainment and a lot of experience in music. I sent in my resumé. Shortly thereafter, they asked me to come in for an interview and then another interview. It was a really coveted position with numerous applicants. When they offered me the job, it was just like a dream come true.

I knew there were so many candidates from law firms that had applied. When I asked MGM why they had chosen me for the job, they said they wanted a music attorney that could do all the legal work and analysis, but also truly knew music as a musician.

We’re in the business of creating tremendous amounts of music for our motion pictures. There could be situations where we find out that someone is infringing on the studio’s music copyrights, or someone makes a claim that someone else’s music has been used in one of our motion pictures without authorization. At this point there are two steps of analysis that need to be done: first, music analysis (Has there been copying with the harmonic structure, melody, or rhythm, etc.?).

Secondly, legal analysis (Are these two pieces of music substantially similar in a legal context?). Because of my background, I was able to do both types of analysis. And that’s why the studio selected me.

What are some highlights of your work so far?

I was able to assist in the music legal affairs transactions for several “James Bond” movies, which was exciting, and also “Men in Black,” “Jumanji” and “Spider-Man.”

But I have to say that one project that I really enjoyed and stands out as being the music affairs attorney on the television series “Breaking Bad”. For all its seasons, it was such a complex show, and the music was so unique. From the music by the composers, to what they were licensing, they were finding music in the strangest places and I had to make sure it was all legally clear. It was really something I was so proud to have been a part of.

Another project is theOutlander” series which season five is currently airing on Starz. I love “Outlander.” It’s such a great property and handling the music affairs for it is really rewarding.

What advice would you give undergraduates? 

The thing I want to share with students is just how big the music industry is. It’s not just performance—of course without performance, writing and composing, you wouldn’t have music. But whether you are talking about all of the record labels, film and television producers, music publishers, managers, agents, and all of the products that require music, the industry is quite expansive. Music is pervasive in our society, it’s around us all the time, and there are many players making it happen. The world is wide open. The most important thing is honing your skills and becoming the best person you can, and the best musician or artist you can. When you strengthen those skills, you put yourself into a marketable position. There’s so much out there to be part of in music and the fine arts.

You might think that there’s one thing you want and that’s the only option for your career. When music law became available, in my case, it opened up so many new and wonderful opportunities for me. There are music scenes all over—from classical to popular, to hip hop, jazz, symphonic orchestras, video games or even the music you hear on your phone when you’re on hold, or in the restaurant, or in a movie theatre. There are organizations out there to help collect income for the writers, and the performers. To be part of it, where every day you have contact with music, if you have the passion for it, there are so many avenues that you can pursue.

I started as a music teacher at Bountiful High School with 120 students in the choral department and within five years I built up the department to where I was teaching 500 students a day—almost half of the students at the high school were participating in music courses. People enjoy being a part of music. To leave what was a successful teaching career and change direction, it had to be something that would be just as rewarding, stimulating, and exciting, and it was! I’m glad I took that leap of faith.