Me and Julio
How Scott Jablonski ’04 climbed the legal ladder to the top of the pop charts
Quick: How many soccer-playing, Spanish-speaking attorneys have also crooned their way to the top of major U.S. music charts?
SJ — the artist formerly known as Scott Jablonski ’04 — can think of perhaps two: himself and Julio Iglesias, the balladeer who’s sold over 300 million records in a three-decade career. “I know a lot of lawyers who wish they could spend their time playing music,” jokes SJ. “I take things to extremes.”
Maybe you’ve heard SJ’s seductive acoustic single, “I Like You,” which has remained in top 20 rotation on Sirius XM Radio’s The Coffeehouse Channel since its debut there in February. Nashville fans might have noted his first-place award in the city’s 2011 International Songwriting Contest, judged by Latin megastars, for his first Spanish-language released song, “Lo Mejor De Mi.” You may be among his 15,000-plus social media followers or added his latest self-released album, “Coffee,” to your iPod.
While SJ may share Iglesias’ back story, the 34-year-old Pitt Law grad is charting a decidedly more independent approach. The young Miami-based singer-songwriter clearly sees himself as an entrepreneur shifting from an international legal practice to show business, applying legal street smarts to a business that’s changing even faster than the law.
If you’re new to the SJ brand of Acoustic Soul (which he’s trademarked), that’s part of the plan. SJ is methodically building his music career with the cheerful intensity he previously brought to his practice in international M&A firms before founding his solo practice in Miami in 2007. Building on relationships with Grammy Award-winning musicians and producers, a carefully-vetted concert schedule, and rigorous control of the rights to his music, he’s aiming to break big in 2012 with the release of his new album. His approach to his artistic career might be described as due diligence.
“Everybody loves the notion of a solo musician going around with a guitar on his back, but it doesn’t make sense unless you have a purposeful plan,” he says crisply. “You need merchandise in place, preferred vendor relationships, booking contracts. Are you building your brand? Do you have a budget for publicity during your tour? Are you ready to close a deal to license a song and do you know the deal points? Those things are critical.”
While performing on the road and writing new material, he’s still practicing law for Miami clients. “It’s a pretty domestic and general corporate practice now — inbound foreign clients starting businesses here, or just native Florida companies,” he says. “Right now it’s about half and half, law practice and music.”
Language, not law, was SJ’s choice throughout his undergraduate years at Gannon University. A political science and Spanish major (and NCAA soccer player) there, he increased his fluency while simultaneously earning a master’s degree in international affairs at GSPIA and a JD at the School of Law. He became “conversationally fluent” in Portuguese as well. “I worked very hard at [Spanish],” he recalls, “I picked up translation jobs, doing thousands of pages of documents. If you have a musical ear, it’s not too hard.” Being a bilingual musician has given him crossover potential that’s welcome in the Miami market.
Music was until recently an enjoyable afterthought. “I’d been playing about 20 years, and performing since college. But it was always secondary or tertiary. I never thought I could have a career in music.”
SJ joined the Miami office of Duane Morris LLP upon passing the bar. His next few years in the city revolved around billable hours and frequent all-nighters. After a stint at Hogan Lovells (formerly Hogan & Hartson) he set up his own Miami practice, SRJpl Law, in 2007.
“I continued to work hard on my own, of course. I traveled to London, Latin America and offshore jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands, but the life balance was better,” he recalls. Meanwhile Oxford University Press published the book on international law he wrote with his Pitt Law mentor and professor, Ron Brand, a partnership he describes as ‘a real honor.’
“I really pushed,” he reflects. “I saw how businesses run, how countries run, the politics of law firms. I was getting a good idea of what was going to be required professionally and personally to get to the top of all of that.”
SJ turned 30 as the world economy began to crash in 2008. Those milestones prompted some introspection. “I began to think about the purpose of what I was doing with my life and how I really wanted to spend my time. I wanted to be in an industry where I could explore my own creativity, work for myself and forge personal connections. Working as a lawyer alone did not cut it, for me at least. I thought, I connect with people through my music, more than anything else I’ve ever done, and I love doing it. So I made the decision to gradually transition my life to a new career.”
A chance encounter at a Pitt Law alumni event offered a bridge from solo practice to the new vocation. Linda Osberg-Braun, ’88, met SJ at a dinner hosted in Miami by Dean Mary Crossley. A partner in Bernstein Osberg-Braun & de Moraes, a South Florida firm specializing in immigration issues, she was immediately impressed with her colleague’s breadth of skills. She offered him a professional home base as Of Counsel to serve his clients while he expanded his performing career.
“He’s obviously brilliant, but what stands out is -creativity — that no-nonsense approach to getting the job done. It carries across his entire life,” she notes.
Many attorneys have found fame in artistic careers, most spectacularly John Grisham and Scott Turow. But after two years of touring and performing, SJ says he’s yet to meet another JD on stage. The folks he has met, however, have helped fast-track his new career.
After generating buzz with the “I Like You” demo with co-producer Derek Olds, SJ worked with Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer Carlos Alvarez to complete the commercial single. “At that point, I had a few demo releases, just learning how to get the music out there,” SJ notes. “With ‘I Like You,’ I knew I had a solid single. It turns out to be a universal message — pretty accessible, very acoustic, a light pop ballad, even though I wrote it from a very personal experience.”
“For the first several months, I checked on it every day!” he laughs. “It peaked in the top ten and stayed there a little while. And I learned that big-label artists have huge promotion budgets and entrenched contacts to do whatever they want on radio. You can’t live with them for very long on the charts unless you have those kinds of assets. But if you have a strong song and people respond to it, you can make a dent as an indie artist.”
A hit single doesn’t hurt, but SJ sees it as only one element in a business model he’s still refining. He calls it a strategic DIY music model: the digital age, rights-centric -successor to the former big-label system.
“The traditional record label model has collapsed completely,” he begins. “The old idea — ‘I write songs and have a good voice and I’ll give all my rights to you to promote me’ — is gone. You’ve got to take charge of your own career and be an entrepreneur. You can do it — if you control your rights, control what you give away, and align with the right partners and vendors under the right terms. Artists who are aloof from that are just not going to make it.”
SJ believes his legal clients have helped him develop the chops to be a solo artist. “You build your brand, your [song] catalog, up to a certain level before you’re attractive as a business investment. I have those tools. I’ve helped corporate clients structure raises for millions of dollars. I know how to comply with securities laws. I understand the proper agreements to protect copyrights and trademarks. I hope I’m creating a framework that can be useful to scores of artists in the future.”
Booking his own performances and hiring supplemental PR and marketing help, SJ is essentially his own manager. He calls his iPad “an extra appendage,” and claims he runs his entire life on cloud-based servers. He spent three months on the road earlier this year, targeting cities like New York City and San Francisco with existing fan bases. He relies on dozens of social media platforms to communicate with fans, from Twitter to Jango Internet Radio. He also just completed another portion of his master plan: a high-quality full commercial LP with top-flight artists. “Coffee,” released May 31, was engineered by Bob Rosa, whose credits include releases by Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Prince and other industry icons.
“I see progress, but there’s a long way to go,” he says cheerfully.
Fans and colleagues like Osberg-Braun are already predicting that SJ will reach his goals. “He’s following his dream, and his dream will combine musical talent and the law. He’ll help a lot of other artists.”
To read more about SJ and his music career, visit www.sjacoustic.com