Hal Kant: Lawyer for the Grateful Dead

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Only a halfwit could believe that the music industry always plays fair and straight. In days of old the business was a morass of bad practices and conflicts of interest and many musicians signed away their future to their record company or music publisher. It was even common for the record company's lawyer to represent both parties. The attorney Hal Kant redressed the balance. Through astute representation and legal positioning, he became a central force in the success of the Grateful Dead, turning the group's fortunes around.

Kant took on the San Francisco-based psychedelic group in 1971. He became the group's legal counsel and acted as their "tsar" – his job description on backstage passes – ensuring that even after their dissolution, on the death of the lead guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995, the money continued to roll in. During their 30 years together, the Dead consistently generated more income year in year out than acts such as the Rolling Stones, by dint of their continually touring. In 2001 Forbes magazine put their annual income at $30m.

Born in Queens, New York, Harold Kant grew up in the Bronx. By the time he fell into the Dead's orbit he had attended the City College of New York, the University of Washington and Penn State, where he obtained a masters in psychology. He then graduated from Harvard Law School. Crossing the continent, he joined a law firm in Beverly Hills. Next door was the William Morris Agency, which meant that entertainment artists joined his roster. At various times Kant's clients included Sonny & Cher, the Association, Captain Beefheart, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the New Riders of the Purple Sage and Hot Tuna.

Until Kant's arrival, the Grateful Dead had muddled through, with a vexed business history and a frictional relationship with their record company, Warner Brothers. In 1970 Garcia had spoken bluntly: "A record company is a vampire." Kant saw that the record companies were out-manoeuvring music acts at every turn. He supervised the Dead's reorganisation as a corporation, asserted their intellectual property rights (including artwork), controlled their brand and capitalised on public goodwill. On his watch, the band created a new, alternative business model – which was singled out in Sam Hill and Glenn Rifkin's 1999 book Radical Marketing: from Harvard to Harley – and made their fortune.

When the Dead signed to Arista in 1976, Kant ensured that they earned royalties above the going rate. When the ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry's created its Cherry Garcia flavour, the leader singer was initially unperturbed. Kant was not. He fired off a letter to the company which led to a revenue stream for the group's charitable wing, the Rex Foundation, and for Garcia himself.

Kant's relationship with the band was unusual. He did not negotiate a fixed percentage for himself and he was not a specialised music attorney. As the Grateful Dead's biographer Dennis McNally wrote, Kant was "a retaine0d attorney giving legal advice, but he had no financial interest".

Kant also had a notable sideline as a poker player.

Ken Hunt

Harold Sanford Kant, lawyer: born New York 29 July 1931; twice married (three sons); died Reno, Nevada 19 October 2008.