Sound advice: Chris Johnstone, Music Choice
16 November 2009
Who better than a musician turned lawyer to handle the legal side of one of the music industry’s most significant players, Music Choice? Matt Byrne meets ex-Quireboys keyboardist Chris Johnstone
Chris Johnstone is particularly well-qualified for his role as head of legal and business affairs at Music Choice. When the lawyer kicked off his legal career at Baker & McKenzie he was known in the firm as the “rock ‘n’ roll trainee”. For once, a tag like that in the context of a law firm is well justified.
Before Johnstone saw the light and decided to pursue a career in the law he was the keyboard player for The Quireboys, a British rock band whose debut album A Bit of What You Fancy made it to number two in the charts.
But after seven years of touring and recording, and at a time of a lull in the band’s fortunes (it has recently reformed with a new line-up), Johnstone belatedly headed to law school.
More than a decade later, Johnstone has reinvented himself as the man in charge of all legal and business affairs issues at Music Choice - Europe’s leading digital music broadcasting company for more than 15 years.
”It’s a role where you really have to be happy getting your hands dirty,” admits Johnstone over a coffee in Spitalfields near Music Choice’s City offices. Although the company does use external law firms - in particular Rosenblatt, Latham & Watkins and Reed Smith - Johnstone is the first port of call for all things legal.
Since he joined the company in 2006 two major cases have dominated Johnstone’s workload, the longest running of which stems from a competition law-related complaint (widely reported as the ‘Cisac case’) originally filed by Music Choice in 2003 and which ran in parallel with one brought in 2000 by the broadcaster RTL.
This complaint objected to alleged restrictive practices by EU-based collecting societies in the reciprocal agreements authorised by their international association Cisac (the Confédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Auteurs et Compositeurs).
The case boiled down to the fact that there was no simple multiterritorial license available for digital rights exploitation. That meant that for years, Music Choice had been obliged to clear rights separately in each country with a different collecting society.
“It was a hugely inefficient system,” explains Johnstone. “In a digital world, where you can just press a button to access whatever reporting data you need, a simple one-stop multiterritorial licence should be available for small companies like ours.”
In 2007 the European Commission agreed. It published its decision in the Cisac case - a landmark as it was the first time competition law had been applied to agreements among music copyright collecting societies - ordering them to allow music users to obtain multiterritorial licences for pan-European exploitation. The decision also paved the way to allow composers to join whichever collecting society they wished to have represent them within Europe. The case, on which Johnstone worked closely with Latham partner Marc Hansen, is currently under appeal.
Johnstone’s other major battle was a trademark row with Minneapolis-based US retailer Target Brands. That four-year battle centred on which company was the legal owner of the bull’s eye logo in the UK, also came to an end in 2007 when the Intellectual Property Office ruled that Music Choice was the rightful owner on this side of the Atlantic.
This case was also groundbreaking in that the trademark registry awarded Music Choice £112,000 in costs, an unprecedented move. Johnstone turned to Laura Clatworthy, an associate at the company’s main go-to firm Rosenblatt to help it with the trademark case, along with 11 South Square’s Richard Arnold QC.
In what was clearly a landmark year for Johnstone and his company, also in 2007 Music Choice acquired Xtra Music from Maxide Music and LGI Ventures (part of Liberty Global). “We handled that one entirely in-house,” says Johnstone.
Although he may not have faced titanic legal battles like the Cisac or Target cases recently, Johnstone’s in-tray is constantly full and constantly changing. “The music world changes so fast,” says Johnstone. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of keeping up.”
For Johnstone that involves digital rights deals, IT and carriage agreements, plus negotiating a whole raft of company and commercial matters. The major thrust currently is the
rollout of Music Choice’s music video-on-demand service.
The company already provides a raft of high-quality non-stop music channels such as Total Hits, Classical Greats, Hip Hop and the Greatest Rock Anthems Ever. Look carefully at the latter and you never know - you could well hear Johnstone belting out The Quireboys’ greatest hits, Hey You, Seven O’Clock and I Don’t Love You. Not something you can say about every lawyer.
Name: Chris Johnstone
Company: Music Choice
Job title: Head of legal and business affairs
Reporting to: Chief executive Margot Daly
Number of employees: 25-plus
Legal capability: One
Main law firms: Rosenblatt, Latham & Watkins, Reed Smith (UK), Kennedy Van der Laan (Netherlands), Nishith Desai, AZB & Partners (India), Probst Law (Switzerland), Noerr Stiefenhofer Lutz (Germany), Shaul Ben Haim (Israel), Gide Loyrette Nouel (France), Uría Menéndez (Spain), Hammarskiöld & Co (Sweden)
Chris Johnstone’s CV
1980-84: Classics, Brasenose College, Oxford
1994-96: CPE/LPC, Staffordshire University
1985-93: Keyboard player, The Quireboys
1996-98: Trainee, Baker & McKenzie
1998-2005: Associate, Bakers
2006-present: Head of legal and business affairs, Music Choice