Take the Money When You Can

Bob Dylan has sold his songwriting portfolio for somewhere in the neighborhood of $300, maybe $400, million. That means that whenever “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Blowin’ in the Wind” or any of six hundred other Dylan songs is sold, streamed, played on the radio or used in a commercial, the songwriting royalty payment will go to the Universal Music Publishing Group, not Bob Dylan. This includes songs covered by other artists, such as “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds or Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower.”

Could it be that Mr. Dylan, now seventy-nine years old, decided it was time to take the money? With nobody buying CDs or records any more, and no live performances in this era of COVID 19, and Spotify and other streaming services paying infinitesimal royalties, an upfront lump-sum payment is the reverse-mortgage of the music business.

For sixty years argument has attended the relationship between Buddy Holly and his producer Norman Petty. Holly and his band The Crickets recorded their formative rock ’n’ roll hits (“That’ll Be the Day”, “Peggy Sue” et al) at Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico. Petty also was listed as co-writer with Holly on songs that became part of the rock ’n’ roll canon.

February 3, 1959, the “day the music died,” a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “Big Bopper” Richardson crashed onto a snowy Iowa cornfield. Holly had chartered the plane to avoid another ride on the frigid “Winter Dance Party” tour bus.

Buddy Holly was twenty-two years old. He left behind María, his wife of six months. María suffered a miscarriage a week later. Holly had signed on to the tour because he needed money. Although he and the Crickets had several hit records, the royalty payments came in trickles. Petty’s detractors blame him and also dispute what, really, were his contributions to Buddy’s songwriting.

Artists being cheated out of royalties has been part of the music business from the beginning.

The Beatles took inspiration from Buddy Holly and named their band in tribute to the Crickets. (Beatles — get it?) John Lennon and Paul McCartney had their own problems with signing away rights to their music. McCartney struggled for years to regain publishing control.

“Colonel” Tom Parker exercised smothering authority over Elvis Presley’s career. For Elvis to record a song a composer had to surrender publishing rights and sometimes songwriting credit. Songs listing Presley as co-writer are financial arrangements; Elvis did not compose anything.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller would not play Tom Parker’s game. Already established as songwriters and producers (“Love Potion No. 9”, “Stand by Me”, “Hound Dog” and many more hits), Leiber and Stoller composed songs that became hits for Elvis Presley, including movie titles “Jailhouse Rock” and “King Creole.”

They were lined up to provide songs for an upcoming Elvis picture. Parker sent a contract that was obviously a mistake: it had lines for signatures, but the rest was blank. Jerry Leiber telephoned Tom Parker who replied, “There’s no mistake – just sign it. Don’t worry. We’ll fill it in later.”

Leiber and Stoller did no more work for Elvis.

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