Tuesday 22 October 2019

Imagine writing one hit song and living off the lucrative royalties for the rest of your life. It's not as far-fetched as it might seem. Rock critic John Meagher reports

Will, the protagonist in Nick Hornby's About A Boy, does not have a job, but he is able to live comfortably. His late father wrote a Christmas song many years before, and Will lives off the royalties.

Will, the protagonist in Nick Hornby's About A Boy, does not have a job, but he is able to live comfortably. His late father wrote a Christmas song many years before, and Will lives off the royalties.

It sounds like pure fiction, a plot device that's too good to be true, but it's rooted in fact. The most unlikely of songwriters have been able to enjoy an attractive living long after the song was first written.

Take Gerry Rafferty, who found himself in the headlines this week after arriving in Heathrow from LA too drunk to depart the plane.

The songwriter who penned the 1978 song Baker Street, earns ?110,000 in royalties from it every year. He's paid every time the song is played on radio. He also enjoys regular cheques for Stuck In The Middle With You, a song he wrote with his old band, Stealer's Wheel, and which became popular 20 years after it was written when used on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.

In the music business, this is where the real money is to be made. Often, famous performers of other people's music only make a fraction of the earnings enjoyed by a little known songwriter.

Brendan Graham is a key example. The Tipperary songwriter penned You Raise Me Up, which has been covered by more than 100 acts, most notably Westlife and Josh Groban.

"He's made millions from the song," according to Westlife manager Louis Walsh. "That's where the serious money is to be made. Look at the ABBA guys, they own all their songs and pull in more money every year from royalties than some of the biggest acts in the world today, despite the fact that ABBA split up 25 years ago."

Songwriting royalties, not to be confused with recording royalties, come in four varieties: mechanical (eg: CD sales); performing (radio airplay); synchronisation (film soundtracks) and print (sheet music). Tot them all up, deduct the publisher's cut (often 50pc), and you have a tidy sum - up to $5m for a hit.

'We always call the songwriting royalty 'the pension'," says Ann Harrison, a legal consultant and author of Music: The Business. "If you write a song that's recorded umpteen times, the income will last your lifetime plus copyright, which is 70 years."

The percentage royalty rate that an act can command varies wildly. Emerging acts usually command somewhere in the region of 10pc. U2 are rumoured to have one of the best deals in the business at 25pc.

One of the first things any emerging musician learns is to sign a publishing deal which gives them the rights to their songs. Often this will happen before a record deal is inked.

But if the songs take shape in the studio, over late nights and conceivably the odd spliff, how do you decide who has written what? Most songs are a collaborative process. Follow the Take That model and there is one songwriter - that's Gary Barlow - who takes sole credit.

"It's old-fashioned," says Harrison. "It can be tricky when the songwriter is doing well and the band are not seeing any cash because the record company are still recovering recording costs."

Take That have a new record deal and, significantly, the writing credits will be shared four ways.

The tactic adopted by the Beatles saw the two main songwriters share credit on any song that either of them wrote. Lennon & McCartney often means one or the other. This means that Yoko Ono makes a packet from Yesterday, even though McCartney wrote it alone and was the sole Beatle to play on it.

Only George Harrison and Ringo Starr ended up with solo credits for their few songs. Even with such equitable distribution, disputes are still possible; Sir Paul notoriously tried to change Lennon & McCartney to McCartney & Lennon.

Royalties are evenly split among the members of Coldplay. Chris Martin writes the songs and shoulders the fame, but shares all royalties with his three mates from university, who get the best of both worlds: virtual anonymity accompanied by large cheques. This approach differs slightly from that of U2 who have an even split on the tunes only ("music by U2, words by Bono").

Other more unconventional models have been tried, but don't always work. Spandau Ballet had one songwriter, Gary Kemp, who took the credit but not all the proceeds.

"He paid the others a share of his income for a certain time," Harrison says, "and when that came to an end, three of them (ie: everyone except his brother) sued him. They lost because the judge said he had the right to end the agreement. The court does tend to take a traditional view."

Roxy Music, meanwhile, had different credits for each song: Ferry/ Mackay, Ferry/Manzanera, etc. "The manager and lawyer will tend to steer young bands away from that," Harrison says, "because it's a source of tension all the time." This may explain why Roxy took a sabbatical from 1982 to 2001.

But pop history is littered with examples of artists signing away ownership of their songs. Early on in their career, the Beatles' struck a disastrous deal with their record company Apple, effectively giving away a huge chunk of their songwriting rights.

It would come back to haunt them 20 years later, when Michael Jackson purchased the rights of the entire back catalogue and subsequently licensed Beatles songs for use in TV and radio commercials.

Just two weeks ago, the last remaining Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Star, launched a ?17m lawsuit against EMI (owners of Apple) for unpaid royalties and ownership of master tapes.

There is much contention over which song has earned the most royalties ever, but it is thought that Candle In The Wind - written by Elton John and his long-term songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin - in 1972 has been the most lucrative ever. It was a big hit on initial release, and a re-worked version after the death of the Princess of Wales enjoyed phenomenal sales.

Other contenders, are Paul McCartney's Mull of Kintyre (he had clearly learned his royalties lesson after leaving the Beatles), Andy Williams' Can't Take My Eyes Off You and Don McLean's American Pie. Each pull in an estimated ?300,000 a year for those compositions.

Gerry Rafferty may lag some way behind that lot, but the reclusive singer doesn't need to write another song in order to live comfortably.

A bit like Nick Hornby's character.

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