Bitter Lawyer sat down with Joe Escalante in 2008 to talk about his career as a lawyer, bassist, popular radio talk-show host, and record label maven. And amateur matador. Here’s the interview.
Current title and employer?
Host of the Barely Legal Radio Program on Indie 103.1 FM. Owner of Kung Fu Records, Inc.
What’s a typical day for you?
I wake up at 5:00 a.m. because I spent the last two-and-a-half years as a morning radio host on the air Monday through Friday from 6:00-10:00 a.m. It was such a jolt to my system that I can’t seem to get back to normal.
On Fridays, I review some copyright law and a few stories I’ve collected about entertainment law issues that might be interesting to my listeners—like infringement suits and right of publicity cases. Then I make the 15-minute drive to the station and tease the program at 8:45 a.m. with whoever the morning DJ is that day. I give out the phone number: 877-900-1031.
Then I slip behind the board and set up the system to do a talk show, which isn’t automatic since I give call-in legal advice on a rock station. This is why I have to engineer the show because it’s just not set up for anyone but the engineer to talk to listeners and pick suitable callers. There is a great screener named Stephanie in another booth answering the calls and placing descriptions of their legal issues on my screen.
I take calls for an hour and do two live commercial reads for LegalZoom.com who have been an invaluable sponsor of anything I do. The questions range from stuff like “What’s the best way to pitch my TV show idea?” to “How can I keep my former cellmate from exploiting the songs I wrote in prison while he’s on the outside?”
After the show, I go to lunch in Culver City. Probably at Tokyo 77. Then I do boring email stuff and see if there are any problems with the record label to solve, and then I play the bass for a while.
I go to 5:30 p.m. mass at St. Augustine’s in Culver City, and then I take my wife out to dinner in Culver City (Brunello’s, Rush Street, Ford’s Filling Station, Paco’s Tacos, Tito’s Tacos), go to a movie or someone’s game night or something. It’s a big victory if there are no plans and we can see a movie.
Law School? Law Review?
I went to Loyola Law School in Los Angeles (class of ‘92). It was a blast—what a great school. I wrote an article there called “ASCAP, BMI, and the Sherman Anti Trust Act: Are Today’s Top Stars In Bed With The Blanket License?” It was published in the Western State Law Review. It made people in the TV business think I was a music expert, which I really wasn’t, so I had to try to become one.
Where have you worked as a lawyer?
I got a job in the Department of Business Affairs at the CBS-TV Network right out of law school. I had interned there in the law department during my third year after showing them the fancy title of my article that no one ever read, most likely. I mostly negotiated talent deals for people like Chuck Norris and William Shatner for four years and made profit model projections for syndication and foreign sales.
On my first day, I was handed a file marked “Beverly Hillbillies Reunion” and was told to call them all at home (because they don’t have agents anymore) and make some deals. I was in heaven. As payback to the guy at Western State’s Law Review, I let him listen in on Ellie May’s negotiations. That is a true story. Other than some consulting for UPN, this has been my only real job. Although I had to take on a few music-related clients to make ends meet while getting my record label off the ground.
You’ve been part of well-known punk band, The Vandals, since you were 19. Is the name in reference to the Germanic tribe that assaulted Rome or did you guys just like to break stuff?
It’s a pretty unoriginal name for a punk band, and there have probably been hundreds started in neighborhoods around the world with it. Ours probably only survived because of the vigorous defense of the mark I’ve been engaged in for 26 years.
To answer the question, we just liked to break stuff. I was more into traditional Viking Age groups like the Berserkers rather than 5th century scrounges like the Vandals.
Aside from the obvious contract and IP stuff, has your law degree ever come in handy with the band?
Being a lawyer saves you a bunch of money on things, but three years of law school will sap your creativity and make it very hard to write any more music. The process takes so much out of your brain and replaces it with so much other stuff—you are left with a new brain really. Try writing punk songs with that thing. It’s not easy.
We hear you’re an amateur matador. What’s that all about?
Like many Mexican families growing up just 90 minutes from the Mexican border, the Escalantes were regular attendees at the bullfights in Tijuana during the ‘60s and ‘70s. My mom was Irish, but she was an even bigger fan than my dad. When I grew up and finally started making money, I discovered I could spend some of it at a place called bullfightingschool.com. I got kind of carried away with it, and soon I was appearing in festivals all over Mexico. How embarrassing, right? Well, my wife loved the outfit, which is not shiny in the amateur world. It’s more like a mariachi look.
After I started hosting the morning show, I couldn’t train for real fights anymore, so I haven’t killed anything in a few years. I still train however. If you’re white, be an astronaut, if you’re Mexican, be a matador. That’s what I’m saying.
What drove you to go to law school?
I wanted to be important when I was little, so I got the idea in my head about second or third grade, and it never left.
What was your best moment as a lawyer?
Convincing Chuck Norris to sing his own theme song on Walker Texas Ranger in Season 2, which I still get a kick out of hearing. It wasn’t very legal, but I did have to secure the rights to the song.
What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
Having the casting department blame me for ruining their relationships with Hollywood stars because I wouldn’t pay them what they wanted. This was a constant occurrence at CBS. It was the source of most of the stress associated with that job.
Describe your “I have to get the F*** out of the law epiphany?”
It was one of those moments where a casting person had just told the president of the network that I had screwed up everything for the network because I wouldn’t pay some guy something. And then she was totally okay with lying about everything to save her own job. I decided it wasn’t worth it to be at the mercy of people who were stupid. Eventually I left CBS and started my own record label where people didn’t treat me like I was a robot just because I had a law degree.
You host a radio show called “Barely Legal” where you provide information to callers with entertainment-related legal questions. What’s one question that really irked you?
Every week, two or three people call to try and ask if mailing something to yourself creates copyright protection. I don’t always put them on the air, of course, but I don’t know why people haven’t realized that you can mail unopened envelopes to yourself and seal them whenever you please.
A funny, related story is when I inherited my grandmother’s piano. The bench was full of songs in self-mailed envelopes from the ‘30s written by my great Uncle Baron Keyes, who had a big hit for Don Ho and some other stuff. Hilarious, I know. I’ll work on the ending next time I tell that one, I promise.
At any point in your career would you have considered yourself a Bitter Lawyer?
I walked around CBS all the time bitter about the dividing line between creative and business affairs. Only “creative” people were allowed in certain meetings and to attend certain conferences. I was thinking, “Hey, I wrote Anarchy Burger, people! Lady Killer! Ever heard of that? No. 1 on KROQ, people! What do you think about that, Mr. Creative?! You created Major Dad. You think that’s creativity? I would keep that quiet if I were you!”
You probably know a lot of former lawyers. What’s the most intriguing post-law career you’ve heard of?
Well, anybody can take their money and open up a vineyard, but I’m impressed with our collection of TV Judges. They work about three or four months out of the year, they have all the prestige of being a lawyer and they’re having a blast. Here’s to you, TV lawyer.
Any advice for Bitter Lawyers out there looking to make a career change?
You need to develop a holy detachment from material delights. That’s what is making you bitter. You have too much stuff. You are afraid you won’t get to keep it if you change careers to finally become happy. You are in a prison of vanity. You have to free yourself from that, obviously. That’s the key to being happy. I also hope you married someone who can also develop this detachment for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, we can’t detach ourselves from our loans.