Apr 14, 2021
13 min read
Darren Traub makes being a lawyer seem like the coolest, most creative job you could aspire to. Carving out a one-person niche at the intersection of music, video games and technology with the added bonus of knowing all the legalities that go with those worlds, Traub says, “The biggest compliment is when people tell me, ‘Oh you don’t act like a lawyer.’”
If you see Traub hopped up on Red Bull at a festival, he’s likely cranking out contracts. His record is 170 contracts over the course of four days across three laptops. Because, as he says, “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”
Traub spoke to Festival Advisor about how he went from being a corporate lawyer to an entertainment lawyer to his recent move to the WWE as the senior vice president of entertainment and talent management.
How did you get into entertainment law?
There’s no one who loves dancing more than I do [and] can [dance] less than I can. I would love to be a musician. I’ve tried it. I’m no good. I would kill to be a D, but I know the business side of creatives. Even in high school with my friends, I would know, “here’s what we do to make a business out of it.”
I took a year off between undergrad and law school and worked at Coca-Cola in the licensing division. I learned a little bit about intellectual property. At the time, I was roommates with a heavy metal band that made it big. I went to law school knowing I wanted to do entertainment law.
I graduated law school and moved back to Atlanta. You come out with a lot of debt and take the best job you can get. I worked for a big law firm who didn’t do entertainment law. They suggested I be a corporate trademark attorney. Meanwhile, I’m going out all night to clubs, hanging out backstage, and I have these cool contacts in the entertainment industry that are telling me, “Thank god you’re an attorney, I have a record contract.” I started bringing in legitimate clients. My law firm said, ‘Either quit this or get fired.’
I had read about this small entertainment boutique firm in Atlanta. I went to them, bringing my clients, and they taught me entertainment law. I wanted to create this cool intersection of technology and entertainment. No one taught it to me. No one gave me a client. I hustled like an emerging hip-hop artist to get what I did.
How did you get into working specifically in electronic music?
We moved to New York because my wife got transferred to a law firm there. I got a job at a firm doing real estate law. I was a volunteer lawyer for the arts on the side. I was active in the entertainment bar, but just because I went to meetings doesn’t mean I knew what I was doing.
One day, there was an email that went around the firm that said, “Does anyone know trademark litigation and what EDM stands for?” An electronic music brand was being sued and interviewing law firms.
We met with them and I said, “Every law firm is going to tell you the same thing. Your case is very by the book. You could go with whoever is the cheapest, but I love EDM, and I dare you to find another attorney that can tell you that. These are my favorite artists. This is my favorite main stage. I love the underground. I would kill for a Sasha and Digweed back-to-back. I love me some Oakenfold. If you’ve got to be stuck in a conference room with someone for 10 hours a day during your trial, don’t you want it to be someone you can rap music with than someone who doesn’t know what you’re talking about?” We got the client.
After a two-week trial, I was 90 percent sure we won, but I suggested the client settle. Even if we won, the client would want to know what could they do next week, next month, next year with the marketing and branding? The jury’s only going to tell you what you did up ‘til now was fine. The minute you change something, you’re going to get sued again. What you want is a rulebook. The only way to do that is to settle. The firm was infuriated about settling, but the client was going to be happier.
We hammered out a 16-page, single-spaced settlement. Over the next six months, the client kept calling me asking questions. The following year, they invited me to their festival. While I was there, one of the main stage artists canceled at the last minute, and they had a new artist they needed to book. I said, “I can do that contract for you. I litigate contracts, therefore, I can type a contract better than anyone because I know what’s right and wrong.” I knocked out the contract and became their transactional entertainment lawyer, building them up from one to 46 festivals, protecting their trademarks, doing their artist agreements, revising everything.
I started making friends with the artists and others in the industry. When they needed help with contracts, I would do that. I had cool entertainment things no one else was doing, and I wanted more of that.
Talking to the artists, they said they love to play video games. That became esports. I went to my law firm and said, “no one is doing technology and entertainment. I want to build this unique practice.” I had a blueprint. I needed $25,000 to market and build it out for the firm. The firm said I could use the $6,000 marketing budget they gave me. I started shopping other firms. Davis Wright Tremaine is a cool technology and entertainment firm. They said “let’s give it a shot.” I built this giant practice at the intersection of gaming, culture and music.
You bring a lot of creativity to your practice, which is not necessarily something traditionally associated with lawyers.
I’ve developed this incredible network across film, gaming, esports, technology, fashion and music. I talk to them all day, every day, in 30-minute blocks. My questions are: What are you working on? What do you see going on in six months? In one year? I’ll store what they tell me.
If someone is asking about hip-hop artists that are into gaming, I’ll make that connection. My specialty is more like business development, because I know everything that is going on including stuff no one knows about. I present ideas, telling them how I would structure the deal.
Most attorneys, when you tell them what you want to do, will tell you what the law says and how you can’t do any of those things. You tell me what you want to do, and I will figure out a great way to do it. You hire me because I need to know what the law is and structure you a deal that gets you where you want to be and protects you in doing it.
You really need to know the client, understand their ethos and the demographic that goes with it. It’s also knowing the nuances of why Tik Tok is different than Instagram Reels, why Twitch is different than YouTube, why Fortnite is different than Roblox, and why Ultra is different than Electric Zoo is different than EDC is different than Tomorrowland - what makes each of those companies cool and special. Then, you can connect them and draft an agreement or put a good deal together.
What were your requirements for someone becoming your client?
Two things. One, I need you to trust me implicitly, understand that I have no filter and you’re paying me to give you a legitimate answer. I’m going to get you to where you need to be. Two, you need to pull me into every one of your creative ventures and all the discussions. I need to know what’s going on so I can point you in the right direction so you don’t waste your time. I’m not going to charge you to be in these meetings and brainstorming discussions. That’s how we’re going to get to know each other, get this rapport going and get this cool cadence.
How has your unique set of skills played out in the livestream space?
This past year was especially strange. I had all these live events that shuttered - but no worries. We can keep the client relevant. We can pair them into video games. The concert’s canceled? Why not play a concert in Fortnite or Minecraft?
Video games would call and say, “what can we do with music?” Big clients would call, “how do I build out in video games? What’s real about esports and what’s real about gaming and can you explain that to me?”
Gaming is what skateboarding was in the ‘90s. Skateboarding was a culture. That didn’t mean that, if you’re a marketer, you should go sponsor a skateboard team or sponsor the X Games. You needed to learn to speak this language and understand this overlay of hip hop and fashion that spoke to a skater in the ‘90s.
Gaming now is the evolution of hip hop. It’s music, fashion, culture. It’s the way Gen Z and younger millennials engage with each other through Discord, Fortnite, social media, Twitch, livestreams. The center of it is game focus, whatever your game is, but you don’t need to sponsor an esport team or put your stuff within the video game. You have to understand this culture and figure out a unique and authentic way to get your content fed to a gamer the way they devour content.
How do you connect what happens in a video game, with direct to avatar sales, to more significant physical purchases in a “real-life” setting?
Direct to avatar sales, which is all the digital merch you stunt out your avatar with, is huge and real in the future.
Unless you’re engaged on that platform and your whole identity is within that platform, you’re not going to care about spending money, but it’s a real thing, because if I’m a 16-year-old and I can’t afford a real Louis Vuitton bag, if you sold me a #1 Louis Vuitton for my avatar, to me: one, that’s almost as exciting as going to the store and getting it; and two, my avatar looks really cool carrying Louis Vuitton. Now, that person is kind of hooked and their aspiration is ... “when I get my first $3,000, I’m going to drop it on a Louis Vuitton bag.”
Brands realize this is real, that they’re not denigrating themselves by making a $1 avatar version of their product. It’s not like anyone is saying, “I was going to buy a $3,000 bag, but I can get an avatar version for $1, screw it, I don’t need it.” If anything the $1 version is going to translate more. Brands are finally figuring this out, which is why you see Louis Vuitton in League of Legends, Gucci pairing with Fnatic, Balenciaga dropping fashion shows as a video game.
Artists are taking note and thinking, “I could do a world tour and not get 40 million eyeballs on me. By the way, I made $20 million for being a video game for 10 minutes.” Now stadium rights and stage naming rights to these avatar concerts are being sold for $1 million.
Festivals are thinking they’re irrelevant. I promise you, no one sat in front of a virtual concert and thought, “I don’t need to go to a festival this year.” If anything, it was, “I really miss festivals. I can’t wait to go back.” The big marketing play is, “how do I use a digitized version of my festival to build hype, to get people more psyched up to go to my real thing?”
My answer is, that’s your real super-fan who tunes in. It’s a great marketing tool, because you can throw a digitized version of your festival months before, test out things in real time. For those who attended the digital version, you can offer 10 percent off a ticket to the actual festival, or drop 500 tickets as Easter eggs, go find them, or they’ll go on sale early.
All of this becomes even bigger when live events come back. In the meantime, gaming is taking off. When live shows return, this is going to lay on top of that. I think that’s going to be a really neat change.
Since they’ve had the experience of providing a digital show for their fans, artists all want to keep that component even when they go back to in-person shows.
You can reach your fans way more and can get new fans. Maybe you’ve never heard of an artist and you’re in a video game. You come across them and end up listening to their album. All of a sudden, you’re a fan. If the artist also plays the video game, you’re an even bigger fan.
You get to do special effects that you would never get to do in real life. To the artist, it’s a heightened version of what they should look like on stage. The artist gets involved in the creative aspect, because it’s the Marvel superhero version of what their concert should look like. They’re not giving that up.
They can release a nine-minute event and reach their worldwide audience, attract an audience, get mainstream news to cover the uniqueness of it. There’s a VR version, a PC version, a YouTube aftermovie version. If that artist was going to have an in-person concert, all it’s going to make you want to do is go to the concert. If their world tour is announced at the end of the virtual event, it would sell out in two seconds.
The technology is moving very quickly.
This past year, people were scrambling to figure out what to do to make new technology. This stuff by the end of the year was so much more exciting than the beginning of the year, and people know how to use it. In 2021, we’re going to ride a cooler wave of technology, avatars and music - make this really amazing year. As live returns toward the end of the year and into 2022, everyone is excited to go back, and you’ll see this technology carry over and change the face of live.
What’s really neat is, the vendor village and the little cool things you used to have in the middle of a festival that no one cared about become important. You can have a gaming area, an ecovillage and a cool way to get messages across. All this gaming stuff that festivals are doing and artists are doing doesn’t end when the world returns. It gets integrated into concerts, into marketing with gaming partnering with festivals.
How will you translate what you’ve done with music to wrestling?
My specialty was always finding the next thing for a client or connecting clients. It gets exhausting, and I’m giving all my ideas for other people to do. After 21 years of doing that, this is my brand. I can control it. I’m going to do my gaming, live events and music integrations, but retool it and concentrate it around one cool property—an iconic property I grew up with and idolized. Frankly, [it’s] humbling.
I was that full, buttoned-up lawyer. I was the music festival lawyer, then video games. Now, I’m the wrestling lawyer. When I was eight, I watched wrestling. When I was 14, I played video games. When I was 20, I went to festivals. My career has done the loopback. The older I’ve gotten, the younger the hobby that goes with it.