Cast Off Characters
Ambiguities of Agency, opaque as a veil of tears. Contractual ebonics, requiring unaccountable billable hours of legal decoding, have plagued singer-songwriters since the invention of the wax cylinder. Past the handshake, a hardship with averted eye contact, sealing the deal. "Trust me!" he lied. I did. Now I understand more fully, why Randy Newman's agent Mike Gorfaine, is his best friend.
What had I learned from my early trials of legal representation in my music affairs? Doubtless, less than Newman.
Collusion in legal practice, as in film score agency, is the rule of thumb in Hollywood. "Double-dipping" levies create a heavy tax on the creative talent pool that provides the central content. Industry attorneys eagerly finger what's left of the creative pie. Now, music "supervisors" outrank composers in the new film-music biz. The tail wags the dog, and we've heard the results in film theaters. And talk about loud? It's now the norm for audio levels in movie trailers to reach peaks of 130 decibels (the statutory limit, at which eardrums start to bleed). It doesn't stop there. New usurious concepts in the record-business-as-usual include inventions like the "controlled composition clause". Egregious corporate legal stooges use that term to get around the ethics of statutory rates for songwriters. The mice are now guarding the cheese. This was the case in 1971, by which time I'd learned all I wanted to learn about contract abuses at Warner Brothers' Records.
That was a benchmark year in my life, when I produced the exquisite Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band. Their "manager" (Seymour Heller) popped a frivolous lawsuit on me, my (soon to be) ex-wife, and WB Records, of $2.6 million, simply for directly paying each of the men union scale. The trumped-up charge? "Fiduciary breach". The fellows had met Heller's client Liberace, while both played at the World's Fair in Montreal, in 1967. That group was overqualified for the bourgeoise milieu Liberace served up, and he severely underpaid them. WB was their last hope for a fair shake.
"Fiduciary"? I paid those twenty-six Trinidadian men directly, so they'd be able to pay their own hotel bills, buy food and medicines. My good deed did not go unpunished. WB's execs did nothing in the face of an ethical dilemma. My boss, Mo Ostin, when alerting me of that protracted lawsuit, was all smiles when I told him I could count on Abe Somer. Sez Mo: "Abe? He told me that he wasn't about to put his hands in that garbage disposal!"I viewed Seymour Heller as a modern Simon Legree. He was an old soldier from the big-band era, with management dating past the Mills Brothers to the Andrews Sisters, with Vegas connections that intersected Mo's own Sinatra social swirl. Way in over my head, suddenly Yanked up, I twisting in air. I was now the steel band's only visible support, on a secretarial salary. Their bivouac, a Hollywood hotel, just around the corner from the Musso- Frank Restaurant, where I'd first had lunch with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness, in June, 1955. That didn't last long, as two cataclysmic events erupted: the touring steel band's bus crash, near Philadelphia; Seymour Heller's law-suit against me, for $2 million, 6 hundred thousand dollars. Heller claimed I was guilty of "fiduciary breach" (coming between brothers). It was during that siege that I first heard the term "frivolous lawsuit".
Warner Brothers quietly settled, out of court. Dickensian pay rates were better than those of today. That's entertainment. Still, I labored on musically in '71, producing such albums as Discover America and The Mighty Sparrow (the latter with Andrew Wickham, WB's in-house Brit). I also headed up a pioneering office I titled "Audio Visual Services". Of those several ten minute documentary musical shorts, I know of only one that survives — 'Ry Cooder'. Ten minutes was the maximum length I could employ, without having an extra projectionist in first run neighborhood theater release. All this sounds dullsville at this juncture, but it indicates my immersion into exploring ways to support the singer-songwriter. As Director of Audio-Visual Services, I was exhilarated to meet Bill Hendricks. When I met him, in 1970, he occupied an un-air conditioned office on the Warner Picture lot. By then, he was head of the lot's "Animation and Commercial/Industrial Division". Yet, he hearkened back to another Golden Age, when he'd served as Jack Warner's personal secretary. Bill Hendricks was kind to me. When I sought the WB logo, to shoot it for our videos, he brought over the original corporate seal, for me to have and hold for the time. Another longer promo documentary of the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel band is available through Bananastan.
Although I'd intended these videos as a new income stream for artists, plagued by the narcotic pace of touring (guaranteeing them 25% of net profits after production cost recoupment), it soon became evident that Ostin et al were of a different mindset as to the profits from videos. I reached the expiration date in that video endeavor all too soon.***************
Abe Somer was fresh out of USC law school when he joined the law firm of Mitchell, Silberberg and Knupp. Sadly, Abe now may be most famous for sexual harassment (front page, LA Times, 1991). Yet, if ever there was heat behind the beat in "the '60s", Abe was it. His, an incendiary career in a large rotation of artist signings. From behind the legal curtain of non-disclosure affidavits and cross-collateralized diminishing returns to the artists of the '60s, he bloomed while the Biz blossomed as an unprecedented growth industry.
T'was a mighty time! In terms of the rapidity of cash-flow, the sale of music outstripped even munitions manufacture then, second only to the legitimate sale of drugs.
Terms & Conditions — Let's go back, and consider the comps in commercial music returns over a century's cycle: By 1890, Mark Twain was a champion of copyright protections. He railed against "pirating". Then, at the apogee of his fame, he used his super-stardom to railroad the joint Houses of Congress into setting a statutory term of 47 years for such authorial protection. Suddenly, it was pure Pennies From Heaven, when music reproduction was on perforated piano rolls or sheet music. Then, publishers (whom Twain despised) and the author(s) would split ten cents down the middle on a tune. Then, a loaf of bread cost less than a nickel, a phone cost $1.50 per month. Incomes averaged 22 cents per hour, or $200-400 per year. A dentist, CPA, or mechanical engineer could make ten times that.
Soon, broadcasting created a new income stream, and with the invention of the triode in 1904, ships' operators on Atlantic waves were astonished to hear music on their radios. ASCAP jumped in it feet first. Recorded music proved to be a lucrative business as royalty rates rose incrementally.
Whence the term "broadcasting"? In 1767, it was agricultural. Then, a good broad could cast a handful of seed in a straight line in a long furrowed brow, far afield. By 1922, David Sarnoff (who insisted his employees call him "The General", though of no military rank) applied the term to commercial radio.
The Titanic's sinking in had provided public propulsion to the significance of the wireless, when Sarnoff was neatly positioned at The Samuel B. Morse company. He determined to tap into that market. It was his concept to pro-rate a station's worth on its audience size. Commercial radio "networks" audience ratings created standards for music royalty collection.
Let's get ack to that dime for a tune in 1905, and compare that to current pay rates (now fractional of a cent per "download", when not pirated).
Twain must be twirling in his grave. A grave matter for the grey matter. In 2012: a loaf of bread averages about $2.50; a month's phone service $60; median yearly wage hovers at $45 K.***************
At this writing, Abe Somer's focus is on representing just two major "players" (Neil Diamond and Jack Nicholson). I met Abe through his USC classmate Dave Anderle. We were promising talents. He delivered, smoothly.
I was his first legal contract adventure with "The Industry". For my MGM contract in 1964, I received $500. For that, Abe's fee was $350. I figured I'd better stick with such a wily talent. I knew he was a comer.
I will be forever grateful that Abe stipulated (in my 1968 contact with Warner Brothers' Records' rider, clause 5 D): "Van Dyke Parks shall receive AF of M Union leader scale on every recording session Lenny Waronker performs while under contract to Warner Brothers' Records."
I'd just escaped from a tutorial eight month tenure, working with an unstable Brian Wilson on Smile. At WB, they wanted to osmote all they could of his brilliant studio technique. I was the conduit.
Had that contract provision in Rider, Clause 5 D been honored, now I'd be (like Lenny Waronker) a very wealthy man, with a home or two owned outright. My art collection, beyond the common man's imagining, in excess, and in storage. Such is not the case.
Rather, due to Abe Somer's "conflict of interest" (i.e. collusion with The Biz), that provision was waived. I continued to serve Mo Ostin and Warner Brothers Records at a secretarial salary from 1968, for the next five years. One day, over lunch at WB Pictures' Green Room, Mo asked me what I thought about "nepotism". Right off the bat, I connected the dots, as I'd met his sons. It was "An Empire of Their Own" — dynastic and exclusive. I was out.
After all, knowledge is power. I learned a good deal during that time. I'd been directly under Mo, on what suits call an "org. chart". Organization charts outline pecking order, and are graphed similarly to family trees. I'd learned enough about contract abuses, that eventually collapsed the industry I served faithfully. I understood where Bette Davis was coming from, when under employ to Jack Warner: "Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?"
The Internet and pirating were, to my way of thinking, secondary causal factors to implosion of the music business. Requiescat in Pace.