Rockin’ role: Roger James, MTV Networks

MTV Networks International general counsel Roger James has the dream job for a lifelong music lover.

Roger James
Roger James

There are not many jobs where you can combine a love of music with a career in law, and Roger James has arguably the most coveted – senior vice-president and general counsel at MTV Networks International (MTVNI).

It is a role that sees him hang out with music icons one day and seal a multimillion-pound acquisition the next.

James always wanted to work in the music industry, and when he realised he was unlikely to make it in a band – “I play guitar, but quite badly,” he claims – he managed to find another route via the law.

He now wisely leaves the music to his wife, a songwriter who works with the likes of the Sugababes and Girls Aloud.

James joined Richards Butler, the City firm taken over by Reed Smith in 2007, as a trainee in its music and entertainment team in 1996. He soon became frustrated by the lack of focus on the music industry, but did manage to land a secondment at MTV’s offices in London in 1997. When he was offered a job as legal counsel a year later, he jumped at the chance.

“Music’s always been a big part of my life,” he says.

James worked his way up to become vice-president of business and legal affairs for MTV UK, a ­position he still holds alongside his current job. He landed the MTVNI general counsel role last year, when his predecessor Sofia Ioannu left to become managing director of MTV Networks Latin America.

MTVNI is the international division of MTV Networks (a subsidiary of US giant Viacom) and is responsible for all MTV business outside the US, including the management of 68 channels, including Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and VH1.

The size of the company means James’s role has a wide remit, ranging from music and media licensing, compliance and government relations to joint ventures, M&A, sponsorship agreements, advertising contracts and litigation. The only area he does not oversee is employment.

It is the variety that James believes has kept him at the company for so long. Following a number of ­acquisitions the company is barely recognisable as the one he joined.

“As a company MTV changes every three months,” he says. “In fact, it probably changes every day.”

It also helps that the job has perks.

“I get to meet the artists – most of the good ones and some of the bad ones too,” he says.

Two names stand out for him. In 1999 James worked with Damon Albarn shortly after the release of Blur’s 13 album, and a few months before that met record producer William Orbit after he finished work on Madonna’s album Ray of Light.

Earlier this month he attended the MTV Europe Music Awards in Madrid. While it was another chance to rub shoulders with the stars, there was also the small matter of overseeing contracts with dozens of artists and more than 50 suppliers, contractors, sponsors and advertisers.

“The ratings were fantastic and it’s something you feel privileged to be involved with,” he says. “The music industry’s changed so much with the decline of record labels that there aren’t many organisations that can put on an event of that scale.”

When he joined the company he focused on content and advertising issues, but a lot of his time is now spent on M&A. Last year he helped oversee a £350m deal that saw BSkyB’s sales house Sky Media take over advertising airtime for MTV, VH1, Viva, ­Nickelodeon, ­Comedy Central and BET, an area previously handled by MTVNI ­subsidiary Viacom Brand Solutions (VBS). The deal involved transferring 83 VBS staff to Sky Media.

“In a consolidating market you don’t want to be the last man standing and we stole a march,” says James. “That deal put us ahead of the game.”

James oversees 86 staff, a large team that allows him to keep a lot of work in-house, including all work relating to music rights. But a fair amount also gets outsourced. While the company does not operate a ­formal panel, its preferred list of advisers includes Olswang for IP and advertising and Field Fisher ­Waterhouse for corporate and ­litigation. Others include DLA Piper, Singapore-based Drew & Napier, Dutch firm Kennedy Van der Laan and Shearman & Sterling.

Of all the issues James handles, the one he considers the most ­challenging is piracy.

“Piracy’s a contentious area but we’ve seen good strides, with ­governments acknowledging the importance of the entertainment industry,” he reflects. “There’s no silver bullet, but we need to make people aware of the implications of ­downloading material for free.”