The Music Man

Peter Nussbaum proves that hanging out all night in rock clubs can lead to good things

Published in 2008 New Jersey Rising Stars — August 2008

1985, CBGB: The famous temple of New York City's punk rock scene swarms with fans, talent agents, roadies and musicians, a panoply of razor-sharp haircuts, busted knuckles, ratty Bermuda shorts and tough attitudes. If you look carefully you'll see a bright, friendly, lean kid, the son of a typesetter and a regular at the club's Sunday matinees. He's an unofficial roadie for some of the bands. His name is Peter Nussbaum.

2008, a federal courtroom only a couple of neighborhoods down from where CBGB once stood: The temple of law crawls with attorneys, police officers, clients and judges, a legal bazaar of expensive gray suits, fancy briefcases, visible perspiration and cocky grins. At the center of it all, you might see an athletic-looking guy wearing a suit and self-deprecating smile, a guy who looks like actor Fisher Stevens, only more solid. He's the first guy musicians and labels go to with an intellectual property dispute, and is one of the top trademark attorneys in the U.S. His name is Peter Nussbaum.

As a child growing up in Fresh Meadows, Queens, Nussbaum, now 39, would travel into Manhattan with his father to the typesetting shop.

"I'd go to his office and see all these different fonts on rolls, and I would see the logos, and I was into it," Nussbaum says. "I always thought Helvetica was a cool font."

As a teenager, he loved hardcore music, a genre of punk that emphasizes social and political awareness and eschews consumerism; the groups Cro-Mags and Bad Brains were among his favorites and CBGB his regular haunt. He was the smart, funny kid who could stay out at shows till the wee hours because school was easy for him. Yet he had no illusions about becoming a musician himself; he just wanted to help the bands he loved.

"It wasn't about being a rock star, it was the antithesis of that," says Howie Abrams, then a "partner in crime" and now an artists' manager and 23-year veteran of the music industry. "You were rooting for the underdogs, these bands doing everything for themselves. That's how we ended up doing everything for these bands, because they needed our help."

The spur-of-the-moment Nussbaum would lead Abrams on trips to Boston for shows. "He'd say, ‘Come on, it's only three and a half hours, we'll make it by the time [the band] goes on,'" Abrams remembers. "It didn't matter if it was a weekend or weekday, we would just go to the show and worry about logistics later."

Despite his night-owl tendencies, Nussbaum still managed to keep up in the classroom, graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo with a degree in psychology. Afterwards, he was accepted into the university's law school. It was during this time that he took an internship at the National Association of Sportscard Dealers and Manufacturers, handling licensing matters.

"I got the bug-I've been in trademark law ever since," he says.

Upon graduating in 1993 he took a job with a boutique firm in Bergen County called Weingram & Zall. After only two years, Nussbaum and another young lawyer named Michael Friscia decided to start a firm in Hackensack that specialized in intellectual property law.

"We were foolish enough to think we could pull it off, and we did," Nussbaum says. "It was the mid- to late-'90s, when the whole Internet thing started, and there was no shortage of work in that area."

Nussbaum's little sister, who was starting law school herself at the time, was impressed by her brother's audacity.

"It was so surprising how boldly he did it," says Leana Fisher, now a bankruptcy lawyer in New York. "But I never worried because he is the kind of guy who is going to be successful."

Matthew Miller of the Clae footwear company, based in Solana Beach, Calif., has known Nussbaum for years and hires him when he needs a trademark infringement litigator. Nussbaum's secret weapon, Miller says, is his genial nature.

"The litigation process unnerves me, irritates me," Miller says. "I don't have the right disposition because I personalize things, get frustrated at the inefficiencies. Peter's strengths work well with that. He relates to people."

That's one thing Nussbaum's wife, Gabrielle Stubbert, a photographer, musician and filmmaker, noticed right away. That and his outfit.

"He was dressed in his long skateboard shorts, standard white tee, short punky hair, and he just seemed like a regular guy," she says. "When I found out he was a lawyer, my mother was thrilled, of course."

In 1999, as general practice firms began realizing that IP law was a lucrative practice area, Nussbaum and his partner were courted. They accepted an offer with Wolff & Samson of West Orange; today, Nussbaum is head of its intellectual property practice group.

Nussbaum's ties to the musical community ran deep, and word quickly spread among musicians and industry figures that he could be trusted to protect their artistic output. His client list would grow to include Mary J. Blige, Fall Out Boy and New York radio personality Luis Jimenez.

"It's not just because he's a book-smart lawyer. It's that managers can appreciate that he comes from the same place musically," says Ray Garcia, in-house counsel for Roadrunner Records. "It helps that he can say, ‘No one's going to confuse an Irish folk band with a death-metal band.' He probably goes to more shows than I do."

A year after joining Wolff & Samson, Nussbaum took on a case for the heavy-metal band Machine Head, which was being sued for trademark infringement by a Los Angeles post-production music company with the same name. Nussbaum tried to settle the case, but the opposing counsel would have none of it.

"The other side was being very unreasonable, taking a slash-and-burn approach," says Scott Gerien, a trademark attorney in Napa, Calif., who acted as local counsel in the case. "It became clear that these guys weren't interested in a settlement, so Peter did what he had to do, and we prevailed. But from the beginning, rather than hunker down, he tried to settle it, because otherwise the client isn't well-served by spending money that could be avoided. It's typical of Peter to be looking for a resolution like that."

Nussbaum deftly navigated a convoluted case last year for Fall Out Boy and its bassist and chief lyricist, Pete Wentz. A Florida man had claimed the domain name petewentz.com, saying he was going into business with a friend with the same name. Nussbaum won the domain name for his client in a November arbitration decision.

"It was getting a little hairy for me, so I called in Peter," says Fall Out Boy's lawyer, Mike McKoy. "I just take him in for everything now. He's the legal version of Peter Grant, the legendary manager for Led Zeppelin. Except that [Grant] was cracked, and Peter's not like that. He's efficient and doesn't get angry. No, Peter's more like a Douglas MacArthur of law: He's out there, fighting the fight for us and taking care of business."

Nussbaum, who runs marathons in his spare time-eight just last year-waves off such lofty comparisons. "My life is pretty simple," he says. "I work, I run, and I spend the remaining time with my wife and dog, seeing bands." 

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