Meet the Lawyer Who Defends Brooklyn's Underground Arts Scene
From Teklife to a digital arts collective, Anibal Luque has made a career out of helping DIY artists and alternative entrepreneurs navigate the often-complicated legal snags that come with starting a business.
Lawyers are the lubricant greasing the wheels of business—that's true for Fortune 500 companies, it's true for bars and restaurants, and it's true for the countless tiny DIY and grassroots organizations that make up much of New York's art scene. Every weekend brings dozens if not hundreds of organized and semi-organized parties, pop-up galleries and shops, and miscellaneous happenings—but the ones that last the longest and have the most success generally hire someone with a law degree to read their lease agreements and file their LLCs. For creative young people working on tight budget, it's hard to imagine hiring an older lawyer at a traditional firm; they'll inevitably charge by the hour, which means it costs money to explain exactly how your bespoke 3D-printing app (or whatever) fits within the startup landscape.
Take POWRPLNT, a digital arts collective that functions as a gallery space and think tank. Last year the organization wanted to create an installation involving aquaponic farming tanks at a gallery in Bushwick, requiring the organization to get liability insurance clearance and, subsequently, a lawyer. Rather than pay an established law firm, POWRPLNT was in the fortunate position of having a co-founder who also happened to hold a law degree: Anibal Luque, the one-man force behind Anibal A. Luque, PLLC—a firm that sports the tagline "creative law for creative people." Artist Angelina Dreem initially conceived the idea for POWRPLNT, but the Brooklyn-based Luque saw the value of the project and became its first director while donating his legal services pro bono to handle everything from incorporation and lease negotiations to the aforementioned liability insurance clearance to eventually earning the collective 501(c)(3) status as a tax-exempt organization.
For the past few years, Luque has been representing artists, musicians, alternative businesses, and various startups. A few of his notable clients include the pioneering footwork producer crew Teklife (home to the late, great DJ Rashad); the sweaty, lascivious rave Club Shade; and the niche techno festival Sustain-Release. If you're the type of person who enjoys left-field arts and nightlife events, chances are you've probably been to something Luque has helped keep running.
"I realized there were a lot of opportunities that more established lawyers would pass over because they didn't see the potential in it," Luque tells me over beers in his Bushwick apartment, which seems to parallel his balance of DIY Brooklyn creative and young urban professional. The living room is filled with expensive-looking furniture (gifted from photographer friends who used them on shoots) and giant speakers that sit on the floor and are regularly used for parties.
"I've always gravitated towards the underdog, towards the independent. I see the potential in my clients."
"For me, where social enterprises and the arts intersect is the perfect overlap, people somehow advancing culture, somehow creating some kind of impact," he continues. "I think there's a way to profit and do good. And there are some companies doing that.
"I've always gravitated towards the underdog, towards the independent. I see the potential in my clients. They are becoming very well-respected brands. I think the other attorneys who are working in entertainment might have vast experience in the world, but they're not from the same generation, whereas I am my clientele. The demographic I'm involved in is who I am as a person."
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Born in Paterson, New Jersey, Luque grew up listening to hip-hop, going to all-ages Jersey Club DJ sets and driving into the city to buy techno records for his cousin, a Peruvian DJ living in South America. "I was always obsessed with music, but I had no idea there was the potential to have a career in it," he says. "All I saw was the artists and I had no understanding of the business side of the arts." While studying business and political science at Montclair University, Luque began hosting parties at high-end Manhattan clubs filled with bottle service-buying bankers and gaggles of models. "My parents have always called me a contrarian," he says with a smile.
After graduating, Luque enrolled in New York Law School and began interning at the booking agency Windish, where he witnessed firsthand how "you can take something from obscurity and evolve it into something of top-tier success." He saw many bands blow up, and claims it educated him in "how scenes developed, how artists bubbled up and rose to the surface. I learned how long it takes for them to get to another point in their careers."
When he passed the bar, Luque worked for a few months at a boutique entertainment firm that specializes in A-list celebrities and legacy clients—often branding deals that had nothing to do with what the clients were famous for. "It was at a different level than the people I wanted to spend my time working with," he remembers. "I really respect the legal work that was required, but there was this disconnect between what was going on and what they were working on."
The tipping point came when one of his cousins who worked at another entertainment firm reached out because a popular DJ (whose name Luque asked me not to mention) needed some help getting out of a contract. Luque didn't feel comfortable handling something like that on his own yet, so he brought it to his bosses. "They were like, 'Electronic music is cute, but it's not going to pay the bills.'" The firm brushed off the opportunity, and it ended up being the deal for a song that went viral and has since gone platinum multiple times and has YouTube views in the hundred millions. And even though it was a missed opportunity, his superiors at the firm didn't care—it wasn't a market they were interested in.
"Trust me, my bosses didn't lose sleep over this," he tells me with a laugh. "That was all I needed to realize we had different understandings of where the industry was going and it became the impetus for me to figure out other alternatives."
In November 2013, Luque met a lawyer named Jess Hoffman at the defunct DIY venue 285 Kent in Brooklyn. She was working as a lawyer in the startup world at the time, and they bonded over being the "only lawyers at a Night Slugs party." Hoffman liked the idea for the firm he was formulating and soon after a friend who Luque knew from the city's techno scene asked them for help establishing a video game portfolio company. They decided to form a firm together, dubbed Hoffman Luque LLP, so they could take this job and deposit the check. Their business grew gradually and organically from there. "We had clients from day one, which is something very rare. We were very lucky," Luque says. "It was right timing kind of thing because we never even formally announced that we were going to start the firm. We had so much work coming in that we kind of never got to it."
Hoffman eventually branched off to work in-house for one of their early clients, but she crystalized the firm's lean business model, and Luque continuing to think of his cases as long-term business relationships. "We wanted the firm to help good people and cool people advance and solidify their careers and businesses, from idea to ideation. I choose business relationships knowing that I want to work with people for the next 20, 30 years."
"I'm in my own lane because I'm not thinking about just right now, I'm thinking about the long game."—Anibal Luque
Luque says he looks up to people like Richard Grabel, a veteran entertainment lawyer who used to write for NME before representing bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Guided by Voices, and other influential rock acts. "I've got like 45 years to be someone like Grabel and I'm not in a rush," Luque says. "I'm in my own lane because I'm not thinking about just right now, I'm thinking about the long game."
While much of the work he does for clients is case-sensitive, Luque says that he is hired for a whole slew of legal work. For example, many business owners will contact Luque as their brands are starting to do well and they find themselves wanting to acquire copyrights, trademarks, or negotiate work-for-hire agreements.
Luque says that people often hear things through the grapevine about the legal aspects of running their own business, but they are regularly misinformed. He recently spoke with a client who had created a BDSM- and occult-inspired jewelry line, including a trendsetting collection of metal chokers, but didn't file the appropriate business documents to the state. In other words, the company wasn't a real company until two years after it was actually founded.
Other times, artists will come to him and say they've invented something or were the force behind some type of trend, but are facing copycats and competitors who are taking credit. "There's a lot of bad information out there, and business owners will find out they didn't have the right legal framework in place, and now have to try and backtrack to get something they deserve," he says.
This is not unlike what happened to acclaimed footwork crew Teklife. On the day famed producer and Teklife mastermind DJ Rashad died, someone unconnected to the artist filed a trademark under the Chicago collective's name. Despite being an established brand, "Teklife" didn't belong to the remaining artists who were trying to sustain Rashad's legacy. Delphine Ettinger, Teklife's day-to-day manager, was recommended Luque through Tripletrain, an associated Teklife act who had worked with Luque in the past, and he was put on retainer. Over the next ten months, Luque negotiated to get the rival company to abandon its copyright application, eventually succeeding and preventing a costly trial. Ettinger told the lawyer was the right fit for Teklife because it's important that a legal rep "understands not just the business, but the artists, the lifestyle, and how we operate. It helps save time, and makes the relationship more trusting." She says Teklife will keep working with Luque, especially since the crew plans on starting a record label and will likely need more legal help.
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"I think everyone needs legal work," Luque says. "People would be much better off if they had the advice that an attorney would give from the beginning. People think DIY means mismanaging yourself, but you can do it yourself the right way."
"It's good to be set up properly," Ettinger says. "We want to protect ourselves, and being legitimate doesn't threaten being grassroots. Think about it this way: Corporate organizations aren't always legitimate."
Ultimately, part of remaining DIY is about being able to navigate the system and market you're operating in on your own, sustaining under larger models (and sometimes subverting them) to make your individual project survive. Running a creative or arts-minded business often requires a business savvy that includes keeping an eye open for loopholes or potential risks. Having a lawyer is just one way to help facilitate that shrewdness. And on the flip side, a lawyer like Luque is focusing on specific types of creative businesses that have roots in the underground, but are innovative in a way that could break through to the mainstream or even disrupt it.
"That's why I love what I do," he says. "It's always been my dream to help influence culture, be a part of it, and even be responsible for the culture of my generation."
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