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The Big-Game Hunter's Big Gamble

Santa Barbara Attorney A. Barry Cappello and His Client, Courtney Love, Are After Some Very Big Prey--the Universal Music Group. They Could Really Score. Or They Could Be Eaten Alive.

July 29, 2001|Kathleen Sharp | Kathleen Sharp is a Santa Barbara-based writer whose next book is a history of Universal and its chairman emeritus, Lew Wasserman

The corporate decor at Universal Music Group is high-tech modern, but here, in the Santa Barbara law offices of A. Barry Cappello, it's the Wild West. To the left is a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike. To the right is a bronze statue of a bucking bronco. A muffled hysteria unspools as faxes, phones and modems transmit the breaking news about Cappello's high-profile entertainment case against UMG.

Overlooking all this is a striking William Koerner painting that depicts a stickup unfolding in broad, God-fearing daylight. A gunman stands in the doorway, a glint in his eye, six-shooter aiming at some well-to-do patrons, who reach for the sky. His accomplice, a comely maiden, collects the firearms and money from everyone inside this honky-tonk saloon. What's so striking is the audacious swash of the self-styled buckaroo, which in broad brush strokes is precisely how the $40-billion-a-year music industry sees Cappello. As one entertainment lawyer snorted: "He's never tried a music case, which is pretty clear based on his complaint."

Earlier this year, Cappello filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Universal Music Group on behalf of his client, rock and movie star Courtney Love. She and her grunge band, Hole, are suing the record label, the biggest in the world, for $30 million plus punitive damages. The trial--expected early next year--threatens to reveal some of the industry's closely guarded accounting secrets. Love claims the practices are fraudulent, and Cappello, who admits he'd never seen a recording contract until this year, accuses UMG of breaking its promises, withholding accounting records and rolling in "unjust enrichment." Furthermore, he says, UMG broke Love's contract when it acquired a slew of other music labels, then abruptly closed hers.

If Love and her lawyer can persuade a jury, they could push the entire merger-mad recording industry off its post. A Love victory would mean, conceivably, that any musician could walk away from a record company if the label with which it signed no longer exists and the musician is shuffled to another one. A verdict against UMG could hog-tie the entire industry, in which 90% of recordings are produced and promoted by five entertainment conglomerates, all of which share the same basic contracts, pipelines and policies. Such a ruling could open up the music business to new blood, more bands and lower consumer prices.

Of course, UMG doesn't see it that way. It accuses Love, her attorney and the horse they rode in on of creating "a new special constitutional right for wealthy rock stars." In court documents, UMG calls Love's suit an "irrelevant and scurrilous attack on the recording industry" and derides Cappello's legal brief for its "vague, catchall" allegations. But last month, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that Cappello could take his client's case to trial, based on four of the 15 original claims. Eventually, 12 everyday people will decide if Cappello and Love, a Golden Globe nominee for best actress for "The People vs. Larry Flynt," are two off-the-wall, half-cocked mavericks, as UMG claims, or if they have a legitimate beef.

UMG won't comment on the record, but Cappello doesn't mince words. "Universal needs a good knock to the head," he says. "It's gotten very arrogant lately, especially after the decision with Napster [which closed down the free music Internet site]. Universal feels high and mighty now, so it's time for their comeuppance."

*

The 59-year-old Cappello can be warm and charming. He has a publicist and a media packet that bulges with glowing profiles of him and his firm, Cappello & McCann. When asked about his career, he delivers a monologue that is impressive for both its significant achievements and its long-windedness. He recounts how he won the first toxic spill case against Big Oil in the 1970s; scored the first multimillion-dollar lender liability swipe against a major bank in the 1980s; how he now dogs corporate villains and is basically a rebel without a pause.

In this bougainvillea-choked town, there are far more attorneys than high-rises and few are better known than Cappello. In private practice since 1977, he's had some 30 lawyers pass through his revolving double doors, a large number for a small-town boutique firm. "I'm proud of them all," says Cappello. The ex-employees are now members of the unofficial Cappello alumni club, where they're inducted with a quip: "The fact that you worked for Barry means you're smart. The fact that you left him means you're smarter."

Cappello has been called a shark, a piranha and a barracuda, although he denies feeding that image. "It's a media thing, you know." Associates say he carefully cultivates that predatory handle. "He'll make a quick slashing attack, but if the aquarium glass is thick enough he'll go away," says retired lawyer Jeremy Hass. On the other hand, "the weak, the timid or idiotic will get slaughtered."

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