Bledsoe: Music sleuth works to get musicians their due
There is so much money to be made from music in so many places, but for an artist to get paid it sometimes takes the skills of the cast of "CSI."
Royalty tracker Jon Hichborn, who runs the company Records on the Wall with his wife, Lisa, is an investigator for the performers and songwriters. His clients have included everyone from one-hit wonders the Music Explosion, Wild Cherry and Spiral Starecase to superstar Eric Clapton and soul legend Solomon Burke.
Sometimes what Hichborn finds is little. Often it is in the tens of thousands of dollars and sometimes more.
While it's easy to assume that money is being intentionally hidden from artists, Hichborn says that's rarely the case.
"Ninety-five percent of what I (investigate) has nothing to do with outright thievery," says Hichborn. "Most of it has to do with companies being understaffed or not being qualified for their jobs."
A good example is Hichborn's work for bassist Carl Radle. Radle, who had performed with Derek and the Dominoes and in Eric Clapton's band, also played on George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass." Harrison gave all the musicians songwriting credit, but Radle had never received songwriting royalties.
"They didn't have his address," says Hichborn. "Two weeks later he had a check for $50,000."
In doing research for Radle, Hichborn found that Clapton hadn't been paid for having one of his songs used in the movie "Twister." The song "Motherless Children" had been erroneously listed as "Motherless Child," a song that was in the public domain. Hichborn contacted Clapton's publishing house. They contracted him to recoup the royalties.
The Music Explosion had a hit in 1967 with "Little Bit O' Soul." The song has become a pop classic, but members of the band had never seen any profits from it. While the company that originally controlled rights to the track went out of business, Hichborn was able to get money for the musicians from the song's use from 1993 to the present - and its use in the future.
"It took three or four years to get a response," says Hichborn, "but next month, for the first time since 1967, these guys will receive a royalty statement."
A former executive with Universal Music, Hichborn's entry into his current business began when he was hired by the estate of Robert Johnson to track royalties from Johnson's works. Sony Music made plans to release a boxed set of Johnson's music and expected the set to sell 10,000 copies. It sold hundreds of thousands. The music had long been considered to be in the public domain. However, as it turned out, Johnson's heirs were entitled to royalties not only for the boxed set, but for when Johnson's songs had been recorded by major artists, including Clapton.
Hichborn can't always guarantee that he'll be able to recoup money owed from decades past. Sometimes the trail is too old.
"I tell clients, 'From this day forward you will get all the money due to you and we'll see what we can do about the rest.' "
Hichborn says there are certain cases where it's absolutely clear that a record company or manager intended to cheat the artist. In one case a lawyer returned Hichborn's letter asking incredulously, "You expect us to pay to the client everything he's owed?"
In that instance, a two-year fight resulted in an artist receiving $60,000 of the $70,000-plus Hichborn had calculated the artist was due.
Hichborn negotiates fees for his work with each artist depending on how much work and how much of a payoff he estimates the project will result in, but he doesn't charge anything unless he actually gets the artist some cash.
"Every business is here to make money," says Hichborn, "but we try to really help people. These people are the ones who actually created this music. It seems like the ones who deserve it the most sometimes get it the least."
Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or email@example.com. He is also the host of "All Over the Road" midnight Saturdays to 4 a.m. Sundays on WDVX-FM.