Before he became the youngest executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and before he quit the orchestra business to become a lawyer, Ari Solotoff worked in the classical music section of Tower Records in Berkeley, California.

It was 1999, and Solotoff, an oboe player and undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley who was interested in a career in music, picked up the record-store job to learn the retail side of the business. The classical music section was on the second floor, and Solotoff walked through the hip-hop section, the country music section and the rock section to get there.

After his shift, he went back to his dorm, where his peers downloaded for free on Napster – an early online music-sharing service – the CDs that Tower was selling just down the street for $15 or more. “You could see the tension of music, technology and the industry at play,” Solotoff said. “I did not grasp the full scope of it at the time. CDs were the primary means of getting music out, but we all know what became of Tower Records.”

It seems that everything in the music business has changed in the two decades since. Tower Records closed, Napster was shut down for copyright infringement, and the business models that bands and musicians used to deliver music to fans look nothing like they once did.

Today, Solotoff, 37, works as an entertainment attorney at the Portland law firm Bernstein Shur, where he helps composers, songwriters, filmmakers and other creative people avoid the legal pitfalls of the music and entertainment businesses. He doesn’t make art himself anymore but plays an important role in much of the art that gets made in Maine, standing up for budding and established musicians, entertainers and artists by helping to negotiate contracts and licensing agreements, navigate copyright laws and protect intellectual property.

Among his clients are the songwriter and musician Spencer Albee, opera composer Daniel Sonenberg and Dan Crewe, president and chairman of the Bob Crewe Foundation and a 50-year veteran of the music business as steward of his brother’s music and art. Bob Crewe, who died in Maine in 2014, wrote songs for The Four Seasons, including many hits that led to his inclusion in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Solotoff is working with Dan Crewe and his Los Angeles-based legal team to renew his brother’s songwriting credits, which expire soon. Having someone in Portland working on behalf of the foundation makes a difference, Crewe said, because it gives him immediate contact with a lawyer directly involved in the process. “I’ve been in Maine 27 years and never encountered anybody locally who can help me the way Ari can. This is definitely a path forward. This just might be the answer to what I consider a problem,” he said. “Ari is a talented lawyer who comes with a great deal of knowledge of the music business. That’s a gift to me. His understanding of the business is critical to me.”

Solotoff came to Portland at age 26, taking over the Portland Symphony when the orchestra began its search for a music director that resulted in Robert Moody coming to town. It was also a time when the orchestra entered a financial crisis that forced a hard internal review of how it was doing business and how it needed to change to survive. He left Portland in 2010 for a job with the Philadelphia Orchestra and was part of that orchestra’s difficult decision to file for bankruptcy and undergo a reorganization.

GETTING DOWN TO CASES

Negotiating a contract with Moody and guiding two orchestras through financial turmoil, including one through the tangled legal process of bankruptcy, made him realize how a law degree would help him. “I worked primarily through a team of attorneys in Philadelphia to sort through each of the underlying legal and contractual issues that were at stake throughout the bankruptcy process,” he said. “I recognized a gap in my knowledge base that would be best filled by going back and getting a law degree. It wasn’t clear to me at that time what that meant, but I knew that gaining that knowledge would be invaluable.”

That decision brought him back to Maine and back to Portland, where he lives with his wife and 6-year-old son. He enrolled in Maine Law, graduating in 2015 and joining Bernstein Shur soon after.

In an interview at his sparsely decorated office in downtown Portland, Solotoff is quick to note that Bernstein Shur has a long history of working with artists and that “helping artists is part of the DNA of the firm.” One of the firm’s founding partners, Lenny Nelson, has served on the boards of both the PSO and Portland Museum of Art, and his son, Judd Nelson, is a Hollywood actor.

Solotoff adds to the firm’s depth, said Frederick L. Lipp, a Bernstein Shur shareholder and co-chair of the firm’s business industry group. Lipp is also a legal mentor to Solotoff and accompanied his protege on a recent trip to New York for a meeting with violin maestro Itzhak Perlman. Soon after, he joined Solotoff for a bowl of chowder in Maine with a rock ‘n’ roll band, which they wouldn’t name, that retained Solotoff’s services.

“In the same way Itzhak Perlman was respectful of Ari and his work in classical music, so too were these fellows who were experts in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s unusual for someone to play in both realms,” Lipp said. “For us to be able to bring in Ari Solotoff, who in his own right has already had a career in shepherding orchestras forward, it creates a new dimension for our legal team, for which we are grateful.”

TIME TO PLAY BALL

Solotoff’s first client was Sonenberg, an associate professor of music and composer in residence at the University of Southern Maine. Sonenberg wrote an opera, “The Summer King,” about Negro Leagues baseball star Josh Gibson. Portland Ovations performed a concert version of the opera, and Pittsburgh Opera expressed interest in producing it. Gibson was from Pittsburgh, and the opera company was seeking a contemporary opera to engage local audiences.

Sonenberg was thrust into a conversation and negotiation that he was ill-equipped to have on his own. He asked Portland Ovations Executive Director Aimée Petrin for advice.

“I remember having coffee with Aimée and telling her that I felt out of my depth as an unrepresented composer dealing with a major opera company. I didn’t feel I had the knowledge or even inclination to speak up for my own best interests,” Sonenberg said.

Petrin connected Sonenberg with Solotoff, and the three had lunch at Green Elephant on Congress Street.

“Ari enthusiastically agreed to help me on a limited-term pro bono basis,” Sonenberg said. “I think this gave him a great opportunity to further his knowledge about this end of the business, and it was incredibly great for me. Ari navigated me through negotiating an agreement with Pittsburgh Opera, and also with securing the copyright to my opera and working out collaborator’s agreements with my several collaborators – something I was not looking forward to dealing with on my own.”

Since the opera premiered in Pittsburgh last spring, Sonenberg has retained Solotoff’s services, though no longer on a pro-bono basis – “but worth every cent,” he said.

Solotoff helped negotiate an agreement with Michigan Opera, which will present “The Summer King” this year, and with Opera Maine, with whom Sonenberg is collaborating on a project that also involves the Telling Room and USM. “In many cases, Ari has spoken directly with these organizations, and that is a huge relief to me. It enables me to be the artist and not the businessman, a hat I don’t wear well,” Sonenberg said.

WELCOME TO PORTLAND

Solotoff had never been to Portland until the PSO board recruited him to become its executive director in 2006. He moved to Portland from Louisville, Kentucky, where he worked as chief operating officer of the Louisville Orchestra. Before Kentucky, he graduated from the American Symphony Orchestra League’s rigorous Orchestra Management Fellowship Program and worked as executive director of the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra in Florida.

The Portland orchestra’s size and reputation and the responsibilities of the position made it a logical next step on his career path. He arrived during a time of transition for the PSO. Its longtime executive director, Jane Hunter, and music director, Toshiyuki Shimada, both departed the previous season. Solotoff’s first task was finding a new music director, which he did in Moody, who will leave the orchestra this spring after a 10-year tenure.

His second task was saving the orchestra. He led a long and difficult community conversation about the role of the orchestra in Portland and why it was important to support it. The number of concerts was reduced, and the orchestra had to rethink its outreach and balance what it wanted to be with what it could afford to be. “We had to re-evaluate every line of business that we had,” Solotoff said. “It was a critical process to setting the orchestra on the right path to fiscal sustainability.”

Solotoff learned on the go how to negotiate contracts with musicians and sponsors, how to raise money and how to respond to community interests in order to sell tickets. He learned how to balance art and business.

“It was a critical time in my developing a very deep understanding of what it takes to bring music or any other art form to life. It starts with an idea, but how do you go from an idea to actually realizing it with an audience that is willing to buy tickets?” he said. “So much of that time was focused on understanding the importance that there is no art without a way to pay for it.”

That lesson, which he first began learning while clerking at Tower Records, came fully into focus in Philadelphia. He was hired as the orchestra’s chief of staff and director of planning, and soon found himself wrestling with the same issues he worked through at the PSO in Portland, but on a larger scale. “This was an excellent organization with an international reputation and an amazing product, but we still had to answer the question, ‘How do we pay for it?’ That issue was central to my time in Philadelphia.”

As it went through bankruptcy, the orchestra never missed a performance, reaffirming Solotoff’s faith in the art-making process and the importance of finding a solution to the orchestra’s financial problems. That’s when he realized the best way he could help artists was with a law degree.

KEEPING IT LOCAL

Like Dan Crewe, Spencer Albee wanted a local attorney. The songwriter and musician had been getting his career on track after being a hermit for the better part of a decade, and needed legal help. He ran into Crewe at a party, and Crewe gave Albee what he wanted most: the name of his attorney.

Albee connected with Solotoff soon after. “I had never heard of this guy,” Albee said. “I didn’t know there was a music attorney in Maine. Throughout my career, all my attorneys have been in New York. It never occurred to me there was someone locally.”

Solotoff will be essential to Albee as he works toward a publishing agreement for his songs, he said. He considers his lawyer an important part of his creative team. “I have a great band, and for the first time in a long time, I feel like I am surrounded by a competent and trustworthy team. I have a great manager, a great booking agent and a great attorney, whose goal is to help me,” he said.

Solotoff’s sixth-floor office at Bernstein Shur on Middle Street looks nothing like the rest of the firm’s offices, which are colorful and splashy with contemporary art. Other than his diplomas, the only thing notable on the walls of his small office is a poster from “Peter and the Wolf,” a musical fairy tale with narration produced by the San Francisco Youth Orchestra when Solotoff played oboe for the orchestra. Actress Sharon Stone, who narrated the program, signed the poster. The piece includes a challenging oboe solo that requires interplay between soloist and narrator.

The poster is still important to Solotoff, not because Stone is a celebrity and he’s proud to have performed with her. The poster is important, he said, because it’s a daily reminder of how hard it is to make art, how much guts it takes to get up on stage and put yourself out there, and how gratifying it feels to succeed.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes