Pop Rock Artist 'Plays That Funky Music' As Entertainment Lawyer
Off The Beaten Path - Stories From Ohio's Legal Community - 1998
By Patrick M. Murphy

Mark Avsec - Entertainment Law Attorney

As a young boy, Mark Avsec thought that the only thing he ever wanted to do was to become a rock musician. Avsec successfully pursued that dream but later in life discovered that he had another calling as a lawyer.

The 44-year-old Avsec, while remaining active as a music composer, producer and part-time performer, practices entertainment law in Cleveland as an associate at the firm of Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff.

"I like doing both," smiles Avsec. "It gives me a nice sense of balance."

In 1977, as a member of the pop rock band Wild Cherry, Avsec received a Grammy nomination for "Play That Funky Music, White boy."

During the course of his musical career, Avsec has written over 200 songs and produced more than 25 sound recordings, working with pop rock artists such as Bon Jovi ("She Don't Know Me"), Donnie Iris ("Ah! Leah!", "Love is Like a Rock"), The Grass Roots, Cellarful of Noise and Breathless.

Pop Rock Career

A career in music was in the cards for Avsec from an early age.

Avsec explains that he started playing musical instruments when he was three years old and before long was competing in local and state-wide music competitions. As a youth, Avsec became a serious student of music, learning different instruments and studying the elements of music composition.

By the time he had reached the age of 14, Avsec recalls, he became determined to carve out a music career.

"All of the sudden, it became really apparent to me that I wanted to have a career as a musician," says Avsec. "I decided that I'd either be a failure, a bum, or I would succeed at it."

While Avsec had an insatiable appetite for acquiring knowledge about all aspects of music, he says that he decided that a formal education was not the best career path for him.

"I just didn't think college was for me," Avsec says. "I wanted the knowledge. But I just thought that I would end up being a high school band director. I wanted to be a session musician."

Although he plays the guitar and has studied a variety of woodwind instruments, Avsec explains that he mostly plays keyboard instruments - pianos, organs and synthsizers. He says that his main instrument is the B-3 organ.

Rather than going to college after high school, Avsec learned by playing with local musicians until he got his break as a member of Wild Cherry with the success of "Play That Funky Music, White Boy."

"I was doing sessions and all of the sudden Wild Cherry asked me to join the band," Avsec recalls. "All of the sudden I was going to the Grammys and playing in Madison Square Garden."

Twenty-two years old at the time, Avsec began touring the country with Wild Cherry. Avsec recalls that during the course of his performing career he has toured with such notables as the Jackson Five, Earth Wind and Fire, Hall & Oates, the Isley Brothers, Rufus and Chaka Kahn.

Despite his wealth of experience as a performer, Avsec admits that he doesn't particularly enjoy that aspect of the music business.

"I do not like performing," Avsec says flatly. "I really don't, even though I might have written all the songs in a live set. I just feel a little self conscious up there."

Avsec says that he is most comfortable and finds most fulfillment in the recording studio.

"I am a guy who likes to write and record," states Avsec. "I love being in the recording studio. On tour, I would just go out for months and I just thought it was a big waste of time. It just was not what I was about. But I love to record and write. Besides being more fulfilling for me, it just is more tied to some sort of monetary gain. You feel like you are making progress."

Disillusioned Defendant

Avsec explains that he became motivated to become a lawyer as the result of a frustrating experience he had as the defendant in a copyright infringement lawsuit in which he was accused of having copied another composer's song.

"It was frivolous, but I had to go through a jury trial. Even though I won the case, I lost lots of money," says Avsec.

Avsec says that he felt "raped" by the system.

"I really blame the plaintiff's contingency fee lawyer who was taking a shot, looking for a deep pocket," Avsec says. "But meanwhile, I was financing his shot. I was also financing a litany of exper witnesses who were earning their keep off of my misfortune. I just felt as though there were all these people just standing there with their hands out, including my lawyers. At the end of the day you win, but it is really like you lost."

Avsec says that the lawsuit cost him $100,000 to defend.

At the age of 33, motivated by a sense of injustice, Avsec enrolled at Cleveland State University to obtain his undergraduate degree. By 1994, he had obtained his law degree from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, graduating magna cum laude.

Upon graduation, Avsec joined Benesch, where he is currently developing an entertainment law practice.

Avsec says that he has no regrets that he did not enter the legal profession until later in life.

I never would have done it years ago," he says. "When I went back to school at 33, I was ready for it. I learned a lot and really enjoyed college. I really enjoyed law school at that age."

Avsec adds that he was ready for a change.

"To be honest, I had gotten a llittle fed up with the music business," admits Avsec. "I was very free. I did what I wanted, living off royalties. It is a very passionate way to live. But I was ready for a change. I had had some frustrations woring very hard on some projects and not having them turn out the way I thought they should have. I was ready for some positive reinforcement."

Entertainment Practice

Avsec says that he originally joined Benesch's general practice group before concentrating in the area of entertainment law. He explains that he had always intended, because of his earlier bad experience, to concentrate as a litigator, defending musical copyright infringement suits.

But after doing litigation for a year, says Avsec, he found that his entertainment practice was becoming largely transactional.

"It was a natural thing for me to get calls from my friends and colleagues in the music business who knew I had become a lawyer," he observes. "The gardenvariety litigation was far removed from that stuff. I don't know how good I was as a litigator, but I guess I just found that I liked to make deals more."

Avsec said that his current practice involves drafting publishing, recording and production agreements and clearing licenses for films. His practice also involves setting up publishing and record companies in addition to shopping for record deals, Avsec adds.

Even though Cleveland is a nontraditional entertainment market, Avsec says that he finds enough work locally while using his contacts in the music industry to draw clients from both New York and Los Angeles.

Frivolous Lawsuits

Avsec says that it still rankles him that composers such as himself frequently find themselves subjected to frivolous infringement claims.

"There should be less of these lawsuits not more," he says. "I am cynical because of what I went through. All you need to file a lawsuit is some sort of thread of [prior] access and something called 'substantial similarity' between the pieces of music. Substantial similarity is such a loose term. A skilled musicologist can compare any two disparate pieces of music and probably confuse a lay jury so that they might think that one came from the other."

Avsec attributes much of the problem to would-be songwriters.

"In point of fact, a lot of these cases are brought by amateur songwriters," explains Avsec. "I don't think these people typically know much about music. They write a song with the word 'love' in it that includes an A-minor chord. Because their hands happened to fall on an A, C, and an E note, they think that they have actually invented that chord. Then they send a song out to CBS Records. Six months later CBS comes out with a song with the word 'love' in it and an A-monor chord and they think they've been infringed."

Still An Active Musician

Avsec remains active in the music industry, maintaining a studio in his home.

"It is computer-based and I have lots of synthesizers and sounds," says Avsec. "I can pretty much do complete tracks by myself. I still do a lot of that."

Avsec explains that he and a partner run a 'pretty aggressive' publishing company, 'pitching tunes' to various artists and managers thoughout the country. A year ago, Avsec started a record company, Primary Records, that serves as a vehicle for Iris' music.

We've got a couple of Christmas releases coming up, says Avsec.

He also does ten live shows a year with Donnie Iris. A Carlos Santana release in 1999 will include a song of his, "Angel Love".

"I'll never give up my music," promises Avsec. "It's like breathing for me. It is still who I am and what I do."