While helping run a record label wasn’t where Kim Umanoff imagined herself at the beginning of her law career, she realized it was exactly where she needed to be last year while attending an industry conference. “It was about twenty indie label executives talking about the industry moving forward, and I was one of two women,” Umanoff says. “Most were twenty to thirty years older than me.” The general counsel and chief operating officer for Los Angeles–based Blue Élan Records is no stranger to old boys’ clubs but is on the frontlines of working toward more equality and acceptance in industries so often dominated by men. Umanoff has found great success by “being the most prepared person in the room” and flipping the prejudicial script on the assumption that a young female lawyer lacks the experience to get hard jobs done.
Umanoff’s considerable litigation experience has transferred well to the entertainment space. She spent a large portion of her early law work in insurance litigation on the policyholder side, and she believes the sometimes tedious task of analyzing insurance policies has informed how she approaches contracts today. “I spent a lot of time interpreting and arguing the meaning of contractual language,” Umanoff says. “That sometimes meant arguing the meaning of a single word within the broader context of a hundred-page policy.” The experience means Umanoff is hyperaware of each and every word that goes into a contract.
It’s also warned Umanoff away from what she calls “overlawyering.” “We want our artists to be able to understand their recording contracts,” Umanoff says. “We’re trying to partner with artists, not lock them up in some ten-record deal.”
It’s a sentiment that’s often spoken but rarely backed up in the record industry, and Umanoff says that the goal of Blue Élan is to help redefine the role of record labels. “We’ve taken what used to be a hundred-page recording contract and condensed it to ten pages, written in plain English,” Umanoff says. “Our motto is it’s about the artist. It’s about the music. It’s about collaboration. And our priorities do follow that order.”
Blue Élan is unique not only for its outlook but for its internal team as well. Umanoff says that label founder Kirk Pasich makes it a priority to empower and hire talented women in a field that is often predominantly male. “I’m very fortunate the company that I work for doesn’t reflect that reality,” Umanoff says. The CBO, director of marketing, and director of business affairs are women at Blue Élan, which has a relatively lean staff. Umanoff says she tries to pay special attention to young project managers who often find themselves the only females working within artists’ all-male teams. “They need to feel supported in that role,” Umanoff says.
To help advance roles for women in the field, Umanoff works with both the Women in Music and She Is The Music organizations, the latter formed after the results of USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative highlighted the gross and pervasive levels of female underrepresentation in entertainment, from artists to engineers. “Once you can see how bad the problem is, you can start to change it,” says Umanoff.
Being the only woman in the room isn’t something new for Umanoff. It’s more of the story of her success. “I can’t tell you how many times I came into depositions where it was me as a second- or third-year associate and a male partner on the other side who had thirty years of experience,” Umanoff says. “I would sit down in that room and be prejudged on my skill set—and often underestimated.” Umanoff found that underestimation often played to her advantage, and by turning a negative into a positive, she was able to capitalize on the opposing counsel’s lowering his guard.
Umanoff says her role at Blue Élan has opened her up to a creative side that often goes untapped in legal practices. “We’re a small record label and pride ourselves on being artist friendly,” Umanoff says. “Being nimble is the most important part of my job.” At present, Umanoff is planning showcases for SXSW in Austin and Americana Fest in Nashville, negotiating sync licenses, conferring with a publisher over a cover song clearance, negotiating a producer agreement, and providing demo notes for an artist in the studio.
“I feel very fortunate to have fallen into this space, where I can mesh the sometimes mechanical legal practice with a full creative element,” Umanoff says. “It’s great to work on a project and have that creative mind-set and also see all of your hard work come to fruition and result in a tangible record release.”
Blue Élan Records:
“Kim walked away from a well-paying gig as a lawyer to join our label in its early days as COO and General Counsel. She is part of the fabric of our label. Indeed, we would not be who we are without Kim and her enthusiasm, drive, dedication, and intelligence.”