ello, my name is Rick Siegel, and I'm a manager.
The "12-step" introduction is intentional. After all, if someone keeps doing something after they know it's bad for their well-being, it must be some crazy addiction. Who would stay in a profession after finding out that the person who hires you and is completely responsible for the success or failure of the endeavor has the right to terminate the relationship, then almost without exception get the state's approval to avoid paying the otherwise-owed commissions?
Though it sounds un-American, that is exactly what happens to personal managers again and again. An actor, writer, or musician wants to improve the quality and quantity of his or her career opportunities. However, instead of paying commissions once that objective is realized—whether it's a huge recording deal or getting a role on a successful series—the artist initiates a complaint to the California Labor Commission. The offense, one the Commission usually confirms, is that in doing what the manager was asked to do, he or she somehow morphed into an unlicensed talent agent.
Here's why that's an unfair determination:
In the business of entertainment, the artist is both the chairman of the board and the product; the artist is both Lee Iacocca and the Chrysler. Managers are hired to serve as the chief executive officer, supervising and strategizing with the agent(s), attorney, accountant, and publicist. The entertainment attorney is the vice president of business affairs, the publicist is the vp of public relations, the business manager is the vp of finance, and the agents serve as the vps of sales.
As you know, not every artist has a full coterie of representatives. It is the manager's responsibility to fill those gaps, whether it is helping with publicity, reviewing a contract, or helping the agentless client get a job. Just like in other small businesses where the CEO who occasionally empties the trash isn't the firm's garbage man, a manager who helps get auditions when needed has not morphed into an agent.
As defined by California's courts, personal managers serve "as a liaison between the artist and other personal representatives, arranging their interactions with, and transactions on behalf of, the artist" (Waisbren v. Peppercorn Productions, 1995). A manager might also "attend to the artist's finances" and even "frequently lends money to the neophyte artist." Further, that "the manager often serves as the artist's confidant and alter ego." Yet even though each of these occupations requires sophisticated licensing requirements, there have never been accusations that managers must follow FDIC [Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.] regulations to offer their clients financial assistance; or be a certified public accountant to "attend to the artist's finances"; or that they are unlicensed attorneys when they arrange the "interactions with, and transactions on behalf of, the artist.'"
Yet with even a single instance of procuring a client a job, the courts rule that the manager somehow becomes a talent agent. Respectfully, that conclusion confuses occupation and responsibility. No chief executive officer can abandon the sales responsibilities of his or her organization, whether the business is widgets or a guitarist with magical digits. Under the current interpretation of the law, courts penalize personal managers unless they abandon their procurement responsibilities: Managers must choose between breaching their fiduciary duty and becoming vulnerable to losing their commissions.
As it turns out, this enforcement may be erroneous. When the California Legislature created the Talent Agencies Act, it first drafted and then deleted legislation that would have demanded managers be licensed. And just like with any contract, once the Legislature considers and then rejects putting a group of people into a specific set of statutes—in this case, the TAA—no court has the right to later infuse them into those statutes.
Unfortunately for a generation of personal managers—including me—word of the state's legislative action exempting our profession never reached California's judicial arm. Imagine walking into your corner store, buying a six-pack of beer, getting arrested for violating liquor prohibition statutes, but the court system doesn't know that Prohibition ended in 1933. That's what happens to managers, only the dilemma is not about the legality of alcohol but perhaps the most basic right of a democratic state: to be compensated for one's work. The 13th Amendment's premise, that all men must be paid for their labor, does not include the addendum, "unless you are a personal manager living and/or working in the state of California."
Recently I won a partial victory: A state appellate court reversed a lower court ruling against me. The court ruled that TAA disputes must consider the legal tenet of severance. Severance allows the legal parts of my contract to stand while still penalizing people for their violations. The court did not rule what I did for my former client Rosa Blasi as legal or unlawful. Instead it directed me and my ex-client back to the Labor Commission for a rehearing.
I chose instead to petition California's Supreme Court, asking it to review whether the Legislature's inserting and deleting statutes about personal managers means that our profession cannot be insinuated into TAA disputes. And if so, isn't sending us back to the Labor Commission wrongfully applying the TAA against me?
My ex-client has also petitioned the Supreme Court. She wants the Court of Appeal's decision on severance to be reversed. No matter that severance is used in every other business-licensing scenario. My ex-client is focusing instead on how the change will hurt artists.
Which brings me to the reason for my letter: Though keeping the current enforcement of this law will allow a few individuals to avoid paying commissions, it will harm the majority of the actors, comedians, musicians, broadcasters, and other performers who are the members of your unions. Managers will no longer be able to represent the thousands of AFTRA and SAG members who cannot find agency representation. We will be limited to working only with clients who already have talent agents. But it will also end the representational partnerships managers currently have with agents. As both SAG and AFTRA bylaws restrict paying agency commissions to a cumulative 10 percent, a manager would no longer be able to partner with CAA, William Morris, and the like, but become their competitor. Some 80 percent of actors currently on prime-time series have agents and managers; it seems illogical that this optional benefit should be taken from those who can and choose to employ it.
In its letter to the California Supreme Court, SAG's general counsel noted, "The Guild acknowledges the valuable guidance and counseling services that managers provide to its members and prospective members. This guidance may be especially valuable to those performers who do not understand the ins and outs of the industry and career they have chosen."
If you agree, then I implore you to contact your leaders, by phone, email, or regular mail, asking them to help rather than compromise a personal manager's ability to continue providing these benefits.
Rosa Blasi and her attorney have been invited to respond to this letter. To read an analysis of Rick Siegel's lawsuit with actor Rosa Blasi, see page 3.