The Detroit Free Press has picked up the story out of Florida, about the coffee shop that had to stop live music because of publishing fees. Understand, that it is not the copywrite of a song that is in question, it is the ownership of the publishing that is in question. I explain this in detail a little lower in the post.
The story that the Detroit Free Press picked up starts out the same for the first three paragraphs, but the rest of the story is new. I think it is an important story to read, to understand just how hard it is for bands trying to find a gig. I ran into to this a lot in Des Moines. I would book a house gig at a nice little bar, and within two weeks the publishing guys showed up demanding money.
Here is what makes this a racket. First lets take the biggest and greatest example of an artist being screwed over by loosing the rights of their publishing. The Beatles never owned the publishing rights to their songs. They had the copywrite, but not the publishing. It is a long and drawn out tragedy, that was captured in the book, Apple To The Core, by Peter McCabe, and Robert D. Schonfeld. They still have a few copies of the book at Amazon so click here.
What is sad, is that every time the Beatles catalog of songs would come available, the Beatles, or in later years the surviving Beatles, would have to bid on catalog like everyone else, and while McCartney and Yoko have tons of money, it wasn't enough to outbid Michael Jackson.
So why is this important. Let me explain, If I play Yer Blues a Lennon and McCartney song from the White Album, in my band, or if a restaurant, or bar owner plays that tune from a CD, or Radio, then the one who owns the publishing gets paid each time it is played. SOOOOOO, who gets the money every time I sing Yer Blues. Not YOKO, not Paul, or Ringo, its Micheal Jackson! It isn't fair is it. However, don't cry for Paul McCartney! Every time I play a Buddy Holly tune HE GETS THE MONEY! Why??? Because he owns the publishing! The sad thing is that as a young artist, you have no clue what you are doing, and people are willing to publish your songs. You think wow, that's great, because you have the false idea that by owning the copywrite you get the royalty, but that's not how it works. I have to admit that over the last 30 years a lot of musicians learned from the mistake of the Beatles, and they own their own publishing, but not all are that savvy.
That brings us to the blues. A lot of the great delta blues masters are long gone, but their publishing lives on. For instance Robert Johnson's music was owned by Road Island Co., which picked up the publishing rights in 1978! That is 40 years after Robert DIED!! Also they owned the rights to ST. James Infirmary in 1978! This was a song made popular by Cab Callowy in the 30s.
I do know that some royalties make it to the families. Robert Johnson has a son who is a truck driver who is getting money, and certainly some of the Smithsonian reissues are making it to the families of the performers who are no longer with us, but you wonder about the ton of reissues that are now out. I suppose the answer is to follow the money, and see where it goes.