One upon a time, at the tender age of 23, I found myself in a recording studio working on record with no less of a personage than Herbie Hancock. This recording was meant to mark the end of Herbie’s tenure as an artist with Columbia Records and although no one wanted to say so, instead of a being a swan song, it was more of a “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out” kind of affair. Due to a series of catastrophic failures, Herbie had become Sony’s red headed stepchild.
The following year, I found myself sitting at The 26th Grammy Award ceremony watching Herbie accept an award for one of the songs we had collaborated on, which was aptly titled “Rockit”. In the interim, “Rockit” had been quite successful, broken a few records at Columbia and put Herbie back on the map. It also kick started my career as a producer.
As I had not only co-produced, but co-written “Rockit”, I began experiencing the many perks of being the writer of a successful song. Life changed drastically- my co-producer Bill Laswell and I started receiving production and writing offers from every direction and staggeringly enormous airplay royalty checks began to pour in.
I also experienced the unforgettable sting of having my cherry broken, ie- being royally reamed business-wise. Within the year, I was edged out of Material, the production collective I’d co-founded, by Laswell. Additionally, I never saw dime one of my writer/publisher royalties. This was due to an incredibly sketchy publishing contract I’d signed with the notorious Jean Georgakarakos (who ran Celluloid Records), at Laswell’s insistent urging. Karakos (as he as called) had proceeded to abscond with the publishing income from “Rockit”.
Eventually, I took the matter to court and due to a combination of serendipity, negligence and blind larceny (mainly on the part of Karakos, who subsequently fled the country and thereby, defaulted on the settlement we agreed to out of court), wound up at one point with the controlling share of the writing and publishing for this song, as Karakos had owned Bill’s share and because of the default, Bill’s share passed through to me.
Fast forward to about 2003. “Rockit”’s glory days were well behind it, however, it had retained a certain cache and was still regularly requested for usages in moves and commercials.
There was just one problem. That problem was Sony Music, the corporate entity which owned the master recording for “Rockit”.
Every time anyone makes a request to use a song in a movie, TV commercial, etc., they need approval from both its publisher and the owner of the physical master recording in order to do so. Since Herbie and I controlled the song publishing, but not the physical master, we only had partial say in the matter and Sony, as owner of the master, could determine or override any deal at their discretion.
Their discretion, in this case, was a fixed master rate of fee of no less than $150,000.
This, of course, meant that whoever wanted a usage would have to pay the $150,000 to Sony and then, even more money to the publishers/writers, which would then be divided appropriately. In other words, a single usage for this song could cost upwards of $250,000.
Suffice to say, we were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, due to Sony’s intractable stance regarding the master fee. A multitude of offers were coming in for the song to be placed but Sony was passing on all of them because no one could come up with the astronomical figure they demanded.
They were the gatekeepers to this song. We were screwed.
Fortunately, a very forward thinking individual named Gregg Brock was handling my publishing. One day, after Sony had just passed on yet another prospective movie usage, Gregg suggested a workaround to our dilemma.
Gregg’s idea was this- why not redo “Rockit” and create an alternate master version? This way, we could offer a near-perfect replication of the track and undercut Sony on every offer. In addition, we wouldn’t have to share a dime with anyone who didn’t participate in the creation of the song and definitely not Sony.
What a brilliant idea. Why didn’t I jump on it immediately?
Because I, like so many other creative types are world-class procrastinators. Here’s a big lesson for everyone in a similar position to the one I occupied- if someone presents you with an idea that has absolutely no downsides and is completely laden with upsides, do not procrastinate. Consider it carefully, deliberate all you need to, but move the instant your mind is made up.
In my case, it took Gregg a few years before he could crack my reticence (er…laziness) as to how vitally important this could be. And even after the light bulb in my brain became alit, I dragged my feet finding someone who could actually pull something like this off.
Another close friend, Fred Maher was a very talented programmer and the job to create the new “Rockit” master eventually fell upon him. He was both enthusiastic the task and nicely compensated for his efforts, working on it in between other projects and whenever he had free time. Because of these impedances, the process took a very long time, but finally, the new version was completed.
The year we were done, we managed to undercut Sony on several movie and television placements. Everyone who heard the new master could barely distinguish it from the original. We had scored a major victory and employed a practical workaround to a problem that is plaguing many artists who don’t have control over their own recordings.
Generally speaking, “Rockit” is a relatively high-end usage and no longer has the volume of requests it previously did. In spite of this, it is, figuratively, real estate. A copyright is a viable commodity and, for individuals who rely on royalty income in order to subsist, this commodity is potentially priceless.
And that is why it is absolutely imperative for anyone who owns a copyright to have complete and outright control of it in every possible form. It is absolutely inexcusable that a record company should maintain ownership of any master recording for more than a few years- even if they completely underwrote its creation.
It amazes me even now to think about how a company like Sony could have rejected all the usage requests it received for our one song, simply because they couldn’t arrive at the onerous rate being demanded. It begs the question- especially at this moment in time where revenues from record sales have dropped across the board well over 50% in the past 10 years- don’t these guys need to make money, too?
With this in mind, if fairness or ethics could ever be variables in the recording business, there would be limitations to the power a record company could have regarding the masters they do control. Otherwise, record labels that own the master rights to songs are cutting off an important source of revenue to very individuals they’re meant to be subsidizing.
Of course, putting into this perspective the mentality and absolute greed that governs them, no major label in the world would be amenable to helping artists in any way- unless they can somehow profit massively and on their own terms by doing so. For this reason, I recommend to every artist- own your masters outright. If they are someone else’s property and irretrievable, do yourself a favor and recreate them.
It isn’t an easy undertaking, but it is possible and with the current technology, 100% doable. You will be glad you did.
As I write this, I think of countless recordings that were made by artists who had promising careers and were ardently courted by major labels. These artists were subsequently signed and made records, only to have them shelved and never see the light of day (the artists being speedily dropped by said label, not long after). How many potential pearls are sitting warehoused and gathering dust because of the whim of some power-mad nabob at a record company who made some casually ill-informed statement, like “I can’t hear the hit?” What if people began rerecording their projects that had been shelved for any number of arbitrary reasons and, as owners of the copyrights therein, started exploiting their work to movie and ad production houses?
The future is rife with these and other possibilities.