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Malcolm James Prentice Black, 1961 - 2019

By Nick Butcher

Mention the name Malcolm Black in New Zealand music circles and people might say "wasn’t he the guy in the Netherworld Dancing Toys?".

Malcolm Black who was 58, died on 9 May. Back in the 1980s he was a Dunedin musician while studying law. Along with his band Netherworld Dancing Toys he wrote that infectious soul and pop hit song, ‘For Today’, which reached number 3 on the singles chart in 1985.

The song also earned Mr Black and co-writer Nick Sampson the Apra Silver Scroll award that year.

Black the entertainment lawyer

But Mr Black was also a lawyer and Law Society records show that he was admitted in 1984 in Dunedin.

He studied law at the University of Otago and after the band folded when he was just 24, the law called and Malcolm answered. Mr Black was passionate about music and wanted to ensure artists were treated well and received a fair deal for their creative work and therefore make a living. That’s what many say was at his core. Fairness was one of the things he cared about most, so the kind of law he wanted to practise lay in the insecure entertainment world, where the dreams of musicians were often discovered and sometimes extinguished in the same day.

Malcolm Black’s legacy lies in much of the work he did, particularly with contracts and protection for artists. That’s something people in the music world talk about when they think of Mr Black, the entertainment lawyer.

APRA AMCOS is an organisation with 87 thousand members across New Zealand and Australia who are generally songwriters, composers and music publishers. Its job is to licence organisations to play, perform, copy record or make any of their member’s music available. And it distributes royalties.

APRA head pays tribute

The head of APRA's New Zealand operations, Anthony Healey, is also a trained lawyer and knew Malcolm Black well.

“His career as a lawyer started when he was young. The band had broken up. He was working as a law tutor at the university for a while. His first job in law was with Russell McVeagh in Auckland. My understanding was they [Russell McVeagh] had been lawyers for the band. In those days there were almost no specialist entertainment lawyers,” he says.

Mr Healey says mostly entertainment lawyers dealt with film and television, not music.

“So music was his passion, and he quickly realised there was opportunity and rather than sticking with Russell McVeagh, he decided to develop his own music law practice and go out on his own,” he says.

Mr Healey says Mr Black had also been approached by an Australian lawyer, Shane Simpson, nowadays a well-known entertainment lawyer but he was keen to do his own thing.

The partnership signed with a handshake

So Malcolm Black went into partnership with another lawyer, Mick Sinclair and the firm SinclairBlack was born.

“When we met in the 90s, it was by pure chance as he casually walked into my office. We both realised that we had a bit in common. There was not a formal written partnership agreement. We shook hands and that created SinclairBlack. When Malcolm left to work for Sony, we did the same, shook hands and remained great friends,” Mick Sinclair says.

SinclairBlack was probably one of the first boutique firms that dealt with entertainment. There are a few more nowadays but most do have to stretch their business further than just entertainment as the market isn’t big enough in New Zealand.

Mick Sinclair says Malcolm Black’s work as a lawyer affected and influenced the careers of many now well-known New Zealand musicians.

“He acted for the Flying Nun stable of musicians [an independent record label], all of the Dunedin bands. Other artists such as Dave Dobbyn, the Exponents and Shihad too,” he says.

Mr Sinclair says Malcolm Black also managed Neil Finn’s career until recently, and he did some work on the career of Don McGlashan too.

“He handled the royalty of New Zealand music for a quite a few years,” he says.

Mick Sinclair says while Malcolm appeared a very casual person, he was also ambitious.

“When you’re dealing with the American entertainment industry for example, you almost have to package your act or film up and go through an agent, manager or entertainment lawyer and Malcolm did some of the first bits of work on this - that is packaging bands up for overseas signing. He was one of the pioneers of it. He created opportunities that might not otherwise have been available for different bands. He was on the road quite a lot doing that during his career,” he says.

The final album

Before he died after a battle with bowel cancer, Malcolm Black was making a final album entitled ‘Songs for My Family'. Black who was known by many for his selfless outlook on life, wanted to leave a musical story behind after his death.

Many would struggle to have faced the inevitable as he did, but Anthony Healey says Mr Black loved Dunedin dearly and that’s why he made the album there.

“He’d recently written these songs and they were for his family. He had four daughters - two from a first marriage and two from his second marriage,” he says.

Moving counsel for his daughter’s admission

He also held a practising certificate for a brief period while he was ill so that he could be moving counsel for one of his daughters who was admitted to the bar last year.

Malcolm Black was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, in recognition of his tireless work for the music industry, in the 2019 New Year Honours.

But Mr Healey says it should also be for his services to entertainment law, as that’s where his legacy will be for years to come.

“He’s responsible for a set of contracts that now exist for every artist. They’re all derivatives of Malcolm’s contracts. He was the one that wrote them, designed the template. Everything he always did was very much from the artist’s perspective.

“There were no proper contracts for artists before Malcolm came on the scene. I was disappointed that the Order of Merit didn’t mentioned his work in law. I had asked for it to say music and the law because his impact on the law has been enormous in the music industry. He is one of the most important people in New Zealand music over the past 30 years,” he says.

Malcolm Black's funeral was held this week in the Cathedral at Parnell Auckland. As you’d expect, there was a music soundtrack to it with artists such as Annie Crummer, who say in the Netherworld Dancing Toys back in the day, and Bic Runga, also performing.

“A beautiful version of ‘Amazing Grace’ by Annie and ‘Bursting Through’ by Bic,” says Mick Sinclair.

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Last updated on the 15th May 2019