Louie Louie - Go Home!

Louie Louie - Go Home!

The great punk rock’n’roll swindle continues:

Back in the 50s/60s it was pretty commonplace for most so called recording artists to get soundly fleeced by the record companies. Many a top sellin’ wailin’ bluesman or duck-tailed rocker never ever got a single royalty payment in their lives – and even the high profile greats like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry were bewildered, dismayed and disgusted to discover mysterious co-writers credited alongside ‘em on their biggest and bestest hits - thus losing out on huge chunks of publishing cash (Uh oh! It’s payola time!).

One of the most legendary cases involved the unfortunate tunesmith, Richard Berry, who penned the much covered multi million seller ‘Louie Louie’. The poor guy hadda suffer the indignity of seeing most every band who crawled outta the primordial ooze back in the 60s cover his chewn – yet he made zilch after signing some dubious paperwork! Thankfully that story had a much belated happy ending and the suave and elegant Mr Berry (a guy with a penchant for a pipe, fashion fans!) did get some financial redress shortly before his death a few years back (check out his spiffy back catalogue courtesy of the folks at Ace Records UK!).

But what does all that have to do with ye olde punk rock, I hear ya ponder? Surely that sorta exploitation is a dim and distant memory? Well, sadly that ain’t the case - the sad truth is that most old school punk combos were - and are - being ripped off even as ya read this. See, what most folks don’t realize is that long-term any real money a band makes is through publishing – i.e. the money they get paid for airplay and people covering their songs, etc. Unless they are wildly successful, any other money a band makes from record sales and/or touring will all be eaten up paying back their advance. It’s a vicious circle - but all those flash limos, spiffy videos and designer drugs on demand all cost cash money - y’know?

As publishing goes to the happy sap who actually wrote the songs - he or she soon find themselves earning big (big) bucks – while their fellow band-mates get zilch! In a nutshell - that’s why so many bands split up (and also explains why you’ll find the tone deaf drummer of popular combos getting to perform a token woeful self penned ditty on some top selling albums. Hi, Ringo!). But again, none o’this ain’t exactly brand new to ya I’m sure - and didn’t all those egalitarian punky waver combos make a big deal out of crediting their songs to the whole band in the spirit of idealistic jingoism and camaraderie?? – thus avoiding such old fart money wrangles.

Looked good on paper - but unfortunately it never quite worked out like that in practice (check the credits on your fave 45s fer starters!). Sure, the Pistols credited the whole band -but the Clash and most others didn’t! Democracy, it would appear, doesn’t begin at home! The Damned originally credited everything to Brian James as he was the only group member registered with the PRS - and thus the only one eligible to collect royalties - on the understanding that he would split the money equally. That worked fine until the money started to pour in after the band split - and Guns N Roses covered ‘New Rose’ - leaving Mr James laughing all the way to the bank - whilst his erstwhile chums fumed. Look at the pathetic hoo-haa that continues to blight the Ramones legacy? Or the MC5?

Again, that’s all pretty much old news. Any band that signs to a major knows that unless they sell millions they’ll be in debt forever - paying off huge advances and every dodgy expense/cost under the sun. It’s not uncommon for these bands to find their material being reissued time and time over, selling very well indeed – and never ever make a penny piece out of it - for example, the Starjets CD reissue won’t make ‘em a penny piece unless it sells zillions – as they owed so much to the record company. The band may have split - but that debt ain’t ever cancelled! And dry those crocodile tears too – ‘cos they did spend that advance – and the record company can always produce the books to prove it! What more can ya ask?

What really sickens me, though, is not the fate shared by the major label punksters (they deserve all they get in my book) - nah, what really churns me up is the sad fate shared by all too many of those bright eyed young hopefuls who recorded for the much celebrated punk independent labels.

But surely these labels were run on gung-ho idealistic lines and treated their bands fairly and honestly? Well mebbe 25 years back when the records were selling and the bands were still able to keep a close eye on things that was the case - but all these years down the line it’s a whole ‘nother story.

I guess when labels sold a few thousand of any particular 45 it was easy enough to split the proceeds fairly – if there were any! Costs were cheap - and in 90% of cases - everything was agreed without formal contracts. We were all on the same side and fired up with the wide-eyed idealism of youth. Who knew or cared about contracts, mechanical rights, publishing, etc? We sure as hell had no intention of worrying about what happened 25 years down the line (more fool us, I hear ya chortle!).

But what did happen was that the indies were crushed by the majors using fair means and fowl. Most, if not all, of the indie labels folded due to cash flow problems. For the most part they were run-by-fans-for-fans - and had no idea about how to keep proper accounts, organize distribution and keep on top of the mechanics needed to run a successful business. More disturbingly, most, if not all the main indie distributors, were squeezed out of the game by the majors by decidedly underhand means. Without the money coming back from the distributors to pay for more records - the labels were truly Donald Ducked.

Meanwhile, the majors tightened the screws even more by pulling every dirty trick in the book; free 45s, chart rigging, buying airplay, press, etc. To add insult to injury - they used the indies as freebie A+R departments - shamlessly plundering the best labels with promises they had no intention of keeping - tying ‘em up in contractual knots and watering ‘em down for mass (non) consumption! But hey - the bands got to go on TOTP - so everything was right with the world. Punky waver passion became nothing more than a fashion - bub! And you better believe it!

But all of this meant zilch - until 10/15/20/25 years later - when the punk nostalgia trip kicked in. First off - the CD revolution proved that you can fool all of the people all of the time – by selling folks the records they already owned on a shiny new (sonically inferior!) format – often as many as two or three times over. Then the repackaging era kicked in - and even the reissues were reissued - with added bonus cuts/DVD extras, bonus extracts from the singer’s personal tour diaries, etc. Originally, this phenomenon was confined to the usual dull major label acts – the wrinkly cash cows like Bowie/Beatles/Stones, etc - but what nobody expected was the huge upsurge of punky waver nostalgia as a nation of flabby balding middle aged ex punkers rushed to recapture the heady days of their misspent youth (and that was just the gals!). Now affluent middle-aged wage slaves, these folks gaze fondly back at their glue sniffing peroxide glory days - before they got tied down to the 9 to 5 grind, families & mortgage repayment rat race – with milk-bottle-thick rose-tinted contact lenses. Only now they can afford to try and track down those spunky 45s that they’d pogo’d to all those years back. And so the majors dusted off the usual big leaguers - unleashing shoddy crap like ‘The Best Punk Album In The World’ - and watching the bucks roll in.

But – and it’s a big but - increasingly bored with the same old watered down slop - folks started to hunt out the spunky local indie 45s by local punk combos which they’d cherished all those years back but long since wrecked, lost or binned. Lets face it - no matter how many times the Boomtown Prats and their feeble showband punky pals were on TOTP - they could never match the excitement of that tattered local glue-bag combo who sold all 100 copies of their only 45 to their pals - and then promptly blew the proceeds on cider! But supply couldn’t meet demand - as most of those bedroom labels had folded - and apart from the rip off prices at record fairs and on Ebay - the records were impossible to find. Besides, how many of these ex-punks still even had a turntable to play em on? And so enterprising entrepreneurs started looking at reissuing those old 45s - and that’s when things got lowdown and dirty.

And with great zeal and gusto, the very same majors who had crushed the vibrant punky indies now set about gathering up and reissuing this very material. A prime example of what went wrong has to be the ‘1234 Box Set’ – a celebration of punk independence issued by (wait for it!) media giant, Universal! Uh? Did nobody spot the glaring inconsistencies there? Or am I truly naïve? Sure, the music still sounds great (for the most part) - but this is punk as quaint coffee table nostalgia - and nothing more.

And that’s only one example amongst many – sure they are ‘compiled’ (I use that term loosely!) by half-diligent folks - and often are well packaged with passable sleeve-notes – but does no one else ever wonder how come the major labels (which punk set out to smash) now own, manufacture and market most ALL of the vital and spunky punk platters that were unleashed by the vibrant punk independents? Boy! Is that a sickening contradiction and fucking tragic state of affairs - or what!

Tragically - it’s all totally legal too. Immoral, unfair and despicable - fer sure – but not illegal by the letter of the law - as if any of us could afford to find out!

But how did this come about?

Well, tragically, most punk bands never signed contracts and the actual legalities of who owns what are a minefield (I speak from experience here!). See, gentleman’s handshake agreements don’t hold up 30 years on - and increasingly - I’ve noticed less scrupulous ex-label owners flogging the rights to those old records for a quick backhander – always gambling that the ex- band members either won’t be interested and/or won’t kick up a stink (It often helps that some of them are dead – thus well past caring). The oft-quoted lie is that whoever paid for the recording owns the rights. Forever! That simply ain’t so - but most everyone is too chicken or too apathetic to contest it. Time and time again many ex-punky-wavers have to suffer the indignity of watching their best work being rehashed – usually on shoddy safety-pin-festooned identi-punk compilations - with some spotty mohawked idiot glaring out of the garish daylgo covering through yet more clichéd cut n paste lettering. I’ve been there, bub!

And what’s even more disturbing (to me anyways!) - is that most times nobody ever even thinks of contacting the band members who wrote and recorded these songs - either to ask for their permission to use the songs (which they wrote, after all!) - or to actually pay ‘em (perish the thought!)! Worse still, if you want a copy you’re gonna have to pay for it - the ultimate indignity!
But surely they’ll get paid for the use of their material, you insist? Rarely! And as for publishing income (what publishing??) – well, don’t even go there!!! Speaking from my own experience - we signed away the publishing rights to our most popular song without even knowing it! SAD. BUT. TRUE. And that was to a supposedly ‘above board’ indie publisher. And we weren’t the exception – check out the publishing credits on those punky comps fer proof.

But surely all the reissue companies aren’t fly by nighters - what about the punk reissue specialists? Well, the sad truth is that even if they do everything by the book and lease the cuts from whoever - the band still won’t get a penny piece as they either still owe thousands on paper or else the ‘agreed’ royalty rate is pitifully low! And if the material is leased from an indie - any money invariably goes only to the label owner - not the ex-band members. Is this fair? You tell me! In fact, if the rumours are true, many of the folks who run/ran the indies are much less scrupulous than their major label buddies. SAD. BUT. TRUE!

So where does that leave us? Well – speaking from hard won personal experience – the only alternative is to sort out who actually owns what! That ain’t always easy - but persevere! If you do get lucky - then either lease the stuff yourself to whoever makes you the best offer – or release it yourself (if you can afford it/be bothered with the hassle). Alternately, have some enterprising quasi-bootleg label handle the job for ya. All those ways you retain some creative control and you might just get paid. Don’t bury your head in the sand either – cos if you don’t do it yourself - then with the current feeding frenzy for all things punk - some unscrupulous scumbag will beat ya to it with a shoddy half assed poorly mastered bootleg LP (check out the raft of unofficial NI punk LPs fer proof!). If you don’t get the stuff out there - then someone else will. A cheaper option is to run off CDRs and flog them yourself on Ebay – a common practice now, it seems?

Yep – what punk oughta have taught us was: never trust anyone - not just the hippies! And if ya wanna do something right - then do it yourself! Oh - and if you all stop buying those garish punk reissues then mebbe - just mebbe - they’ll stop - and people who know what they are doing might just take up the slack!

Don’t hold yer breath!
Brian Young – tMx 20 – 06/05
Contact: wastebin@trakMARX.com   trakMARX.com - Punk Rock …and Roll