Surely not a £500,000+ music biz rip-off? How a hit record made “no money”

(A version of this piece was also published by Indian news site We Speak News)

Bobby Valentino – when Young at Heart

This morning, Bob Diamond of Barclays Bank resigned because of the interest rate fixing scandal, which most ordinary people might consider fraud. Apparently it was not legally fraud and, of course, I would not dream of implying that anything illegal was done by anyone. Clearly, in the case of Barclays Bank, everything which was done was done in a perfectly legal way – even if, to ordinary people, it was amoral and arguably immoral.

Amorality and lateral thinking where money is concerned, of course, is not limited to the banking industry. The movie industry and the music business are notorious for creative thinking where money is concerned.

Last week, I was chatting to the superb violinist Bobby Valentino in London.

I think I first saw Bobby perform when he was part of the Hank Wangford band in the mid 1980s. He is arguably most famous for his violin intro to The Bluebells’ 1993 release of their song Young at Heart.

This resulted in a 2002 court case in which Bobby claimed he had composed the very distinctive violin intro and that it made a significant enough difference to the song to be considered an original contribution. He won the case and won 25% of the writer’s royalties, backdated to 1993.

You might think that would have made him a lot of money.

Last week, though, he told me it had not.

“How much do you reckon you are owed?” I asked.

“Maybe between half a million and three quarters of a million pounds,” he replied.

“But you won the court case,” I said.

“You like surreal comedy,” he said, “so you’ll like this.”

“Mmmmm….” I said.

“I won the court case,” he told me. “The publishers were ordered to disclose their statements and PRS (the Performing Right Society) volunteered their statements. But they are, to be charitable, surreal. Young at Heart seems to have been the only pop song in history that didn’t earn anywhere near the expected royalties. On average, the figures are about 5% of what you’d expect them to be.”

“How do people calculate the expected royalties on a song?” I asked.

“By comparing it with other songs which sold similar amounts and had roughly the same amount of radio and TV play,” he replied. Bobby studied Mathematics at York University.

“There was a very high-profile TV ad for VW,” he explained, “which should have made about £80,000 for the song on just one run, from 14th February to 31st March 1993. The PRS statement for that first run shows less than £2,000 to the writer. And there was a second run of the same ad from 5th October to 4th December 1993. That should have made another £70,000.

“So how much did that second run make?” I asked.

“There are no royalties shown for that at all,” said Bobby. “None.”

“They claim there were zero royalties from the transmission run of a high-profile VW ad over two months?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Bobby. “And zero royalties for the song from America. It wasn’t a hit in America. It was only a ‘college hit’, so there would not have been a lot due. But there should have been something. Plus there were a load of British TV shows which used the song and which played in America – Midsomer Murders, all that sort of stuff. But there’s absolutely not one penny from America on the publisher’s statements or the PRS statements.”

“But Young at Heart is like Blur’s Song 2,”  I interrupted. “The sort of song where TV shows and promo & ad makers use the opening and not the song itself. Song 2 has the Wooo-Hoooooo! opening bit and Young at Heart has your violin intro.”

“Yeah,” agreed Bobby. “The number of times they use the Young at Heart opening – Diddle-diddle diddle-diddle diddle-yup-de-yup – in You’ve Been Framed!… When people are falling over, they use the violin’s Diddle-diddle diddle-diddle diddle-yup-de-yup.

“People have said to me,” Bobby laughed. “Surely there must be something dodgy with the figures that are being provided? and I tell them: Well, YOU may say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

“PRS’s excuse is that every UK radio station failed to report to them correctly, every UK TV station failed to report to them correctly and every overseas rights society failed to report to them correctly.”

“Who’s saying this?” I asked.

“PRS.”

“What’s the explanation?”

“Well,” said Bobby. “Someone suggested to me that the upper management at PRS has no idea what the lower echelons are doing. But that can’t be true, can it? I’m sure PRS are honourable guys. But the lower guys have come up with these statements of literally 5% of what you’d expect. You can only laugh.

“I get a bit of money. But what I should have got was the money backdated to 1993 and these statements are surreal: 5% of what you’d expect.

“In fact, I’ve got paperwork that contradicts the PRS figures, but apparently that paperwork is ‘in error’.”

“Where’s the paperwork from?” I asked.

EMI Publishing,” Bobby replied.

“PRS is saying the EMI paperwork is in error?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yeah. And they claim the whole song made £25,000 in the first year. In that first year, it should have made about a third of a million pounds. And it would have made £2 million over ten years.”

“It’s PRS who are due to pay you the money?” I asked.

“No,” said Bobby, “it’s the publishers and the main writer who are due to pay me the money. The publishers did not disclose their performance statements. You get statements for Mechanicals (which is sales), for Synch (when something is part of a TV ad) and for Performance. Hit records usually earn considerably more in Performance royalties than they do in Mechanical royalties. And the publishers did not disclose their own Performance statements.

“So they (Clive Banks Music, Anxious Music (Dave Stewart’s publishing company) and Universal Music) relied on the PRS statements. They said The PRS statements are good enough, because PRS is supposed to be Blue Chip. But, like I say, the figures read like they are from some obscure surreal comedy.

Young at Heart was a hit in Denmark. You’d expect maybe £25,000 in writer royalties for a hit in Denmark but the writer supposedly only earned £185.

“It was a hit in Portugal. The writer supposedly earned £141 – and the VW TV ad was also shown in Portugal which made the song No1 in the air-play and sales charts!

“It was a big hit in Italy. PRS claimed the writer was only due £31. There was a friend of mine in a bar in Italy and he asked about the song and the whole bar just started singing it – in English.

“When you average out all the amounts that are missing, it works out I got about 5% of what you’d expect.”

“And you reckon you might be down maybe £500,000 to £750,000 on it?”

“Yes,” said Bobby, “Of course, there are always cock-ups. It didn’t help that the publisher changed on 4th March 1993. Maybe, in that year, what might have happened is that we got shown the statements for money due before 4th March instead of for the whole year, but the odd thing is that PRS have matched the publisher’s statements to the penny. And that is weird. Statements never match each other to the penny. They might up a fiver; they might be down a fiver; it all evens out. But, in the real world, they never ever match to the penny.

Bobby Valentino smiles at surreal figures last week

“PRS claim that the sub-publisher changed from MCA to EMI on 31st Dec 1993 but I have a statement from EMI Music which shows them collecting royalties in July 1993 because, in fact, the change happened on 4th March 1993.

“This thing where the figures match exactly despite all those complications is just plain weird.

“I’ve done calculations on lots of other songs in the past and they’re never quite right. They can be a fiver or a tenner out each time. It’s up and down – swings and roundabouts – but these ones match to the penny. That never happens normally. If you don’t know the system, you might think the fact that they match seems reasonable: Well, they’re supposed to match, you would think.

“But not in the real world. For them to match to the penny is bizarre.”

I certainly have to admire Bobby’s ability to face the bizarre and the surreal.

What is even more bizarre is that I know someone else in the music business who tells me that there was a meeting of the Music Publishers’ Association shortly after that 2002 court case in which the judge (who was musically-trained) awarded Bob 25% of the royalties on Young at Heart.

“They were up in arms,” my friend told me. “They were going: We can’t have musicians getting royalties as writers! The world will fall apart if musicians get royalties as writers! And their whole vibe was: The judge got it wrong. So maybe someone decided to ‘put it right’.

“Someone told me PRS really stands for the Publisher’s Rip-off Society and not the Performing Right Society.”

But surely she must be wrong.

I believe that, like the movie distribution business, the music publishing business is an honourable world filled with honourable people.

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Filed under Crime, Music, Record Industry

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