Where's there's a hit there's a writ: A rock star's guide to staying out of court and in the money

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Clause 1

Get Yourself A Good Manager

It is a jungle out there in record contract land, with clauses and sub-clauses to entangle the naive and entrap the unwary. You need a guide. Unfortunately, most of the guides need guides, too. Peter Jenner, Billy Bragg's manager, confesses: 'I went to Cambridge, I got a first in economics, I've been looking at rock contracts for 25 years, and every day I'm still learning about the slippery stuff they put in them.'

Clause 2

Once You've Found A Manager, Don't Trust Him

When he first started in the music business, Billy Joel signed up with a character called Artie Ripp. The terms of his contract were so severe that jokers in the industry used to allege this was the Ripp referred to in the phrase 'a complete rip-off'. 'Everybody is sleeping with everybody else in this business,' he claims, 'but the artist is the only one that's getting screwed.'

Clause 3

Don't Get A Manager At All. Get Yourself A Lawyer

If you ever go to these Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinners where they induct old R&B acts, these old guys come out, they don't have a nickel,' says Billy Joel. 'And the heads of the record companies stand there and chuckle about how little they paid them.'

That was the way of early rock 'n' roll: it was a process by which the white folk in the offices vied with each other to exploit the black folk with the tunes. Since those grim old days, artists have won the right to legal representation. No recording contract can now be signed without a lawyer offering independent advice.

Clause 4

Once You Have Hired A Lawyer, Don't Necessarily Take Their Advice

Independent does not mean impartial.

Remember,' said one record company head, 'the advice received may not necessarily be in your best interests. There are lawyers who have made a handsome living from fomenting trouble and destroying working relationships between artists and their representatives.'

Billy Joel kept a lawyer on hand for years.

'This attorney was supposed to be looking after my interests in the music business, but he knew I was being ripped off and he didn't tell me,' he says. 'So now I've made enough money to hire another attorney to keep an eye on him. That would be my advice. Get an attorney. But as soon as you can, get another one to watch over him.'

Clause 5

Don't Sign Anything At Backstage Parties

This was Pete Townshend's failing. George Michael went for cafes. In spite of independent legal advice not to do anything in a hurry, Michael signed, in a dash, in a cafe in the Holloway Road. His first record contract, it brought him pounds 40 a week while his hit was number one.

The nature of artists when they're 18 is to ignore advice. When presented with a contract, they tend to sign it. Record companies know this, and devise strategies that involve pressure, speed and a physical environment that is not conducive to sensible thought.

'No deal is better than a bad deal,' Peter Jenner cautions. 'But is a kid going to listen to that? No. They just go with Megacorp because they know they are the only people who have the clout to make them an international superstar. And that is all they want.'

Clause 6

Once Signed, Do Not Believe The Record Company Knows Best

According to Ed Bicknell, Dire Straits' manager, the band's record company didn't want to release their first album in Germany: 'They said 'trust us: it won't sell there,' ' he remembers.

The band argued the case and won: the record has subsequently sold two million copies there.

Clause 7

Even If You Are A Success, Don't Expect To Make As Much As They Do

As Tom Waits sings in a track on the album Small Change: 'The large print giveth, but the small print taketh away.'

There are myriad six-point ways of ensuring an imbalance in any financial split between record company and artist: on virtually every recording contract, for instance, is a clause stating that records sold on military bases recoup only a half-rate royalty for the artist.

'You have to give the record industry 11 out of 10 for sheer imagination,' says Ed Bicknell. 'The manner in which they can find new ways to keep the artist at the very bottom of the financial totem pole for as long as possible never ceases to astonish.'

Clause 8

Remember, The Record Company Is Not On Your Side

'Ninety per cent of any contract is a list of what you can do for the record company,' says Ed Bicknell. 'Ten per cent is what the record company can do for you.'

A record company can, for instance, not release a piece of work. This happened to Rick Wakeman, the cloaked ivory tinkler, in 1977, when punk hit the scene.

'I was with a company for whom it would have been very uncool to release a Rick Wakeman album at that time,' he remembers. 'I produced, as by contractual requirement, an album. They said, thank you very much. I said, are you going to release it? They said, no. I said, can I buy it back and release it myself? They said, no: you're under contract to us. I said, can I buy myself out of my contract? They said, no. Go away.'

And then you wonder why he took to drink.

Clause 9

The Future Is An Important Profit Centre

'Your copyright is your pension policy,' says Peter Jenner. 'Pop's longevity has meant you must never give your royalties away. I made a terrible mistake when I was representing Pink Floyd in the Sixties. I noticed a clause which said the company wouldn't pay royalties after 25 years. Well, I thought it wasn't an issue. I thought, Christ this takes us to 50, no one will still be listening when we're 50.'

Even if a song makes little money at the time, it might one day. The man who wrote 'My Boy Lollipop' gave away the rights to it as collateral during a game of poker in 1956. It seemed a good idea at the time: the song had not been a hit. In 1963, sung by Millie, it became a worldwide monster and his opponent at the card table made a few unexpected bucks.

This still happens. The Bluebells' song 'Young At Heart' was a modest success in 1984. In 1993, it was used on an advert for VW cars, was re-released and became the biggest-selling single of the year. The band, now split, thought they were in for a windfall. They weren't. Their royalties were knocked off against advances given 10 years earlier. In a Kafkaesque twist, after five weeks at number one, they received a royalty statement indicating they were now only pounds 80,000 in debt.

0

Give Up

'That's what I tell everyone who comes to me,' says Ed Bicknell. 'Seems like the best advice.'

(Photographs omitted)

Comments