HOLLYWOOD—Songwriters these days are struggling as well. Struggling for fair treatment. Back in 1974, Dolly Parton was on a winning streak. She had just scored her two number ones on the US country chart with the songs “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.” As she crossed the mainstream pop audience. It was soon after that Elvis Presley had called-he had heard the song, “I Will Always Love You” and wanted to record a cover.
Imagine the excitement, one of the greatest things that could happen to a songwriter. To have a huge star sing their song. So why didn’t Elvis record his version? We all know about Colonel Tom Parker, well, the night before the recording session, he called Parton and told her Elvis wouldn’t record the song unless she handed over half of the publishing rights. Parton, reportedly told him, that she couldn’t give half the publishing, she was leaving that to her family.
Dolly cried all night. Things always happen for a reason, and most always the reason is that something better will happen. However, Parton had the last laugh, when Whitney Houston recorded her blockbuster version of “I Will Always Love You,” for “The Bodyguard” soundtrack in 1992. Parton still owned the rights and she earned enough money to buy a house. She made $10 million in royalties in the 90s alone.
Dolly wasn’t the only writer to clash heads with Colonel Parker, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, wrote dozens of Elvis hits, from “Hound Dog” to “Jailhouse Rock,” they originally agreed to share a percentage of their publishing with the star-on the understanding that they would make more money from 50 percent of an Elvis song than 100 percent of a track that didn’t feature his smooth vocals.
According to published reports, Parker had given them a blank document to sign, only leaving room for their signatures. Certainly, they weren’t going to sign an agreement that was left blank. They never worked with Elvis again. Stories like this have been part of the music industry.
Such bullying tactics are evident even today, hence a group titled “The Pact,” in which they vowed to stop giving away publishing or songwriting credit to anyone who didn’t contribute to the music, unless they received equivalent meaningful compensation. Their clients include people like Justin Bieber, Harry Styles, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Michael Buble, Lorde and Sam Smith.
The campaign was organized by writer Emily Warren, after she became tired of writers being bullied into giving up a share of their royalties. Warren, who recently received a Grammy nomination for her work on Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” says that demands for co-writing credit start with a 1 percent share, rising as high as 20 percent, with an average of about 15 percent. Writers who object are told their song won’t be used, or it will be relegated to an album track, harming their chances of making money. According to published reports, artists have started demanding a share of the publishing 99 percent of the time.
Justin Tranter, a co-writer for Selena Gomez, Britney Spears, the Jonas Brothers and Lady Gaga, says the demands frequently defy belief. Tranter, co wrote the single “911” from Lady Gaga’s most recent album, “Chromatica.” Since The Pact launched two weeks ago, more than 1,000 people have signed the open letter; the strategy of not naming and shaming artists is deliberately designed to elicit solidarity. Certainly, that’s a more palatable approach than going to court. In recent years, writers and performers have been racking up millions of dollars in legal fees as they fight to prove ownership of a song.
The two highest profile cases have been Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven,” the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy California unsuccessfully claimed the band had stolen the riff from him and Katy Perry’s “Dark House,” the case which is still ongoing centers around a four-note motif that appeared in an earlier song by the rapper Flame. Lauryn Hill was also accused of stealing songs for her Grammy-winning solo album. The case was settled out of court for a reported $5 million.
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