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Divided Royalties

SoundExchange seeks out artists to give them money earned from digital transmissions

Michael Northrup
Bill Holland might be looking to give you some royalty money.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 6/9/2010

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Nowhere is this tired adage more true than the music business, with its legacy of rip-off contracts and penniless musicians with big hits. But these days if a guy named Bill Holland calls with good news about unclaimed royalties, the wayward musician may want to hear him out.

Holland freelances for SoundExchange, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit performance rights organization that collects royalties for the use of artists' creative work from digital media such as satellite or internet radio. Lately he's been on the cold trail of Damita Jo Deblanc, a lounge singer/actress who died in Baltimore in 1998. In the 1960s, she had some chart success with what were then known as "answer songs," which played off of already-established hits. Her 1961 song "I'll Be There" was an answer to Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," and rose to No. 12 on the Billboard charts.

All that Holland knows, thanks to the internet, is that Deblanc was married to James "Biddy" Wood, a Baltimore resident and former editor for The Afro-American who could be next in line to inherit royalties collected on behalf of Deblanc's 1961 hit. Holland declines to reveal the exact amount, saying it's not enough to buy a new car, but it could buy a used one.

Holland has tracked Wood to the Baltimore area thanks to a City Paper article about historic Pennsylvania Avenue and its once-thriving music community ("Street of Dreams," Feature, Feb, 2 and Feb. 9, 2005). He has since been able to track down Wood's grandson, and now Holland is waiting as the grandson passes the news through the family.

"The most fun is connecting with these folks, but it's not as much fun as the investigation--that's the thrill," Holland says by phone from his home office in Hyattsville. "The thrill is in the chase."

And chase he does, mostly from the chair in his home office, using the internet and making phone calls that are often received like a prank--or, worse, a scam. "That's always the first concern, that we're legit, that we're not a Nigerian e-mail scam," says Laura Williams Anderson, spokesperson for SoundExchange, which in 2003 was appointed by the Library of Congress as the sole collector and distributor of these digital royalties.

The Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act of 1995 allowed performers and copyright holders to get paid for music consumed over the internet or satellite radio. And according to Sound Exchange, $417 million has been handed over to musicians and song rights holders since the organization started. Artists would never have received this money if conventional radio had not been up-ended by the digital revolution.

Talk about a forward-thinking piece of government action. "The digital rights that were passed were fairly accepted practices at the time--the fact that the exemption of broadcast radio has survived to this day, that is the aberration," Williams says.

The Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act of 1995 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 were passed when the internet's role in the distribution of creative work was still emerging. Then, a library was still a better source for seeking media and information. Napster didn't hijack major-label's hold on the music distribution until the summer of 1999. And in the business world of broadcast radio, musicians rarely see any income from airplay. Only the publishing company and the songwriter gets a piece of that action; if you don't own the work, you don't get a royalty check.

Now for every track that is played on, say, Pandora, two sets of payments are made. One is the old-fashioned copyright payment administered through ASCAP and BMI. The performance royalty gets administered through SoundExchange, which pays 50 percent of that amount to the song's copyright holder, 45 percent to the featured artist, and 5 percent to the backing musicians--such as the people making the "ooo"s and "ahhh"s.

Take the song, "Respect," the R&B classic written by Otis Redding in 1965 and immortalized by Aretha Franklin in 1967. Every time Franklin's version gets played via digital distribution, a songwriting royalty goes to the Otis Redding estate. The performance royalty goes to SoundExchange, which pays 50 percent to Atlantic Records (which owns the masters) and 45 percent to Franklin. Five percent goes to her backup band.

When SoundExchange first started in 2003, it distributed $6.3 million to artists. Last year, it doled out $155 million.

Even so, the old way of doing business in the music industry is so ingrained in musicians that despite over 45,000 artists being registered with the organization, according to SoundExchange, a good segment of artists still have no idea that they have money sitting in escrow. "We have a huge problem with artists and managers," Holland says. "You can tell them that they have money sitting here, and they still don't register."

While SoundExchange has made headway in getting the word out--it sets up booths at conferences such as the South by Southwest Music Festival, and it has a presence on Facebook and MySpace--many musicians remain clueless of the nominal remuneration that could await them.

Lisa Mathews fronts the Baltimore-based children's music outfit Milkshake, which has become one of the better recognized children's bands in the country, thanks in part to satellite radio airplay. She got a surprise call from Holland this past April. Holland told her that her previous band Love Riot has been getting digital airplay.

"He found money for us even when the band was defunct," Mathews says by phone. "All these albums--we get royalties that we wouldn't have gotten all because of SoundExchange."

Being a musician himself, Holland has a soft spot for what is known as "heritage artist" musicians. In the early 1970s, Holland played with the roots/blues outfit the Nighthawks and then formed his own band Rent's Due. He went on to be a writer and editor for Billboard magazine until the record industry collapsed and he was laid off in 2005. A year and a half later, he was working for the "noble cause" of hunting down heritage artists.

"I am well versed in American music history," Holland says. "I know a little bit about a lot of genres--I had reporting skills, investigating skills--I could search through the weeds and find these artists."

In the music biz, sleuthing skills are a plus, because weird things can happen to old songs. Take the case of Damita Jo Deblanc. Turns out Katherine Jackson, the family matriarch of that famous family, admired Deblanc back in the day and gave her youngest daughter, Janet, the middle name Damita Jo. Six years after Deblanc's death, Damita Jo was the title for Jackson's 2004 album, released the same year as her infamous Super Bowl appearance. The album was considered a disappointment after a strong release--arguably due to Super Bowl fallout--but it eventually sold 1.2 million copies in the United States alone. Damita Jo also helped Deblanc get some digital airplay, and over the years her songs racked up some royalties.

For Holland, the search is as quirky as the groups or musicians. Sometimes, groups may misspell their names over the years, such as the doo-wop band the Sixteens, who charted in 1956 with "A Casual Look" and listed five different ways to spell its name in written documentation. Sometimes, musicians share the same name: there's Chuck Brown the go-go godfather and Chuck Brown the new age guitarist. And there are musicians so jaded they refuse to believe that someone on the phone is really offering them money.

One female saxophonist Holland called told him to "cut the crap" and hung up. It took two days of phone calls just to get her to look up the internet site.

Sometimes, artists don't parse the fine print of their original contracts. The late New Orleans R&B singer Joe Jones, who had a hit with 1965's "You Talk Too Much," lost federal court cases over songwriting authorship. He spent the rest of his life as a producer warning young black musicians to read those contracts; he passed in 2005. When Holland got hold of his widow, she was primed for him. "She thought it was jive, she thought it was BS," Holland says. "Finally, finally she came round. You didn't mess with her."

Holland doesn't mind the hassle. In fact, if Congress passes proposed legislation that would allow featured artists in on-air recordings to get paid in the same manner, there would be more work. This proposed bills, H.R. 848 and Senate 379, are still pending, but similar bills have been routinely shut down for 80 years, putting the United States with Iraq, North Korea, China and Rwanda as countries that don't pay musicians for radio airplay.

"I've always been an advocate of artist rights," Holland says. "And I think that many musicians have been screwed and bamboozled for decades."

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