April 14, 2005


Following the money helps get artists paid

By Chris Morris

In 1990, Robert Johnson didn't care too much about money: He'd been dead for 52 years, murdered by a jealous husband in a Mississippi juke joint.

But Steve LaVere, the agent for Johnson's estate who controlled the bluesman's publishing and recordings, didn't know how to begin dealing with Johnson's money. Checks were rolling in from the sale of a new boxed set, and the late musician's compositions -- 29 of the most frequently covered blues songs ever -- was generating revenue at a record clip.

LaVere placed an ad in Billboard seeking help with the morass of Johnson's assets. Jon Hichborn, a former music supervisor at Universal, answered the ad. Thus began Records on the Wall, a firm that comes to the aid of musicians facing the toughest problem in the business: getting paid.

"There are a lot of writers and publishers who are not getting what they're due," Hichborn says. "Just when I think I've heard every story, I hear a new one."

To deal with the tangle of Johnson covers, Hichborn developed a royalty tracking database that encompassed the 4,000 titles that contained versions of Johnson's tunes. (Records on the Wall maintains a database for all its clients, but Hichborn says that some might use it to track just one song or copyright.)

For eight years, the Johnson estate was Hichborn's only client. But Records on the Wall became a business in earnest after Hichborn was approached by a second client.

"It was not something I was interested in," Hichborn says. "(But) I realized that especially in blues music, there are a ton of old blues artists who are just being raped by publishers and record companies."

However, he is quick to add that in most cases, "it's not usually outright thievery." Artists fail to receive their money because of inattention on the part of labels or publishers or because of tangled rights and licensing agreements that have become an impenetrable thicket as the music business has consolidated over time.

When Exeter, N.H.-based Records on the Wall takes on a new client, Hichborn says, "I'll start at the very beginning ... (and) I follow the path of crumbs that have been left."

In the case of Solomon Burke, an inquiry about unpaid royalties for the reissue of the R&B singer's "Soul Alive" album led to the revelation that Burke had not been paid writer's royalties for several medleys on the record. Bobby Whitlock, co-author of the Derek & the Dominoes megahit "Layla," was due a couple of hundred thousand dollars from co-writer Eric Clapton's rendition on his "Unplugged" album.

Disco champs Wild Cherry, who had received nothing for their hit "Play That Funky Music" since 1980, are finally starting to receive checks. New Orleans piano man Dr. John learned that he was due to be paid for a number of movies that had used his music. The estate of Van McCoy, who died in 1979, started getting royalties from the singer's disco hit "The Hustle" that had gone unpaid since 1983.

Hichborn says he doesn't assume his role as an artist advocate lightly: "It's really, really sad, and I take this stuff more personally than I should. It eats me up."


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