Scene at Berklee: Jeff Harleston

The longtime Universal Music Group executive discussed streaming, changing business models, and the three skills required to make it as a musician. 

February 27, 2020

Don Gorder, chair of the Music Business/Management Department, recognized Jeff Harleston (left) for his contributions to music business education at the 2020 Zafris Lecture.

Image by Stefan Thompson

When Jeff Harleston became an entertainment lawyer in the mid-1990s, he’d never done a contract negotiation. As a litigator who was part of the prosecution for the Iran-Contra affair, Harleston knew next to nothing about entertainment law. But a call from a law school classmate prompted a move to Los Angeles and led to a 27-year career in the music business. Harleston is now general counsel and executive vice president of business and legal affairs for Universal Music Group.

In a recent conversation with Don Gorder, chair of Berklee’s Music Business/Management Department, Harleston talked about the changes he’s seen during his time in the industry. The advent of file-sharing and streaming systems, he said, “changed everything” for both music consumers and record labels. “The [user] experience changed,” he said. “Suddenly, everything was detachable, and everything cost 99 cents [on iTunes].” He compared the business-model shift to a grocery store that suddenly had its back door forced open and its shelves raided: instead of being gatekeepers for music and charging standard prices, record labels had to “build a new store,” he said. 

Harleston’s remarks took a positive turn after that: he urged students to take advantage of the tools at their disposal, including social media, and seek out ways to connect with fans. “You’ve got to have three skills to make it as a musician: imagination, tenacity, and a sense of fearlessness,” he said. “There are lots of ways to get your music out there.”

Learn more: Berklee's Music Business/Management Department offers courses for students interested in contracts, distribution, artist development, and other aspects of the music industry. 

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