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The story of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and the 70 years struggle to get the writer, Solomon Linda credited.

I’m sure you’ve heard at least one of the versions or adaptations of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. It has been re-recorded or adapted over 150 times since it was first recorded in 1939, yet it took until 2006 for the writer Solomon Linda to be credited as a writer.

Who was Solomon Linda?

Solomon Linda (far left) & The Evening Birds, holding 3 of their trophies for singing contests.

Solomon Popoli Ntsele, also known by his clan name “Linda”, was a South African singer known for what is now called Isicathamiya, a type of South African a capella singing later made world-famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In fact, the style is also known as Mbube, named after Solomon Linda’s most famous song, it’s that song that is the basis of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.

Solomon Linda was born in 1909 in Pomeroy a small town in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. In 1931 he left Pomeroy to look for work in Johannesburg. He took a job in a furniture shop during the day and sung in a choir called The Evening Birds at night. The choir took part in local singing contests that were a big part of the community, often the prize would be a goat or some other livestock. Solomon’s group were regular winners of these contests.

The group was originally managed by Linda’s two uncles, Solomon and Amon Madondo, and they disbanded in 1933. Solomon Linda found work at the Carlton Hotel and started his own choir using the Evening Birds name. They developed their act performing at weddings and entering choir competitions. In 1939 he was discovered by Griffith Motsieloa, a talent scout working for Gallo Record Company.

Gallo Record Company

Gallo Record Company is South Africa’s largest independent record label, founded in 1926 by Eric Gallo it now owns 75% of all the recorded music from South Africa. It was originally set up to distribute recordings imported from Brunswick Records in the USA, but Gallo noticed that despite a wealth of local musical talent there was no recording studio in the entire country.

Gallo had previously sent artists to London to record with sound engineer John Hecht at The Metropole Record Company. So, when the company shut down in 1932 he acquired the recording equipment and shipped them to South Africa, he even convinced Hecht to move too and help set up recording and production for Gallo in South Africa.

Setting up this studio not only gave the country its first professional recording studio, but it also enabled the local industry to continue to grow and thrive when imports of records from the UK stopped during World War Two.

Gallo Recording Studios was not only the first and only studio in South Africa, it was the only studio in the entire sub-Saharan area. However, the first studio they built was on a busy road and traffic noise forced them to relocate. In 1938 it moved to the corner of Troye and President street where it remained for the next three decades.

It was in this studio that Solomon Linda and his group The Evening Birds went to cut their first record. They chose to record one of the songs they regularly sang at weddings, their own version of a Zulu folk song that Linda had added his own words and melodies to.

Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds “Mbube” Recorded in 1939

Hit Record

“Mbube”, meaning Lion, was recorded in just three takes. The first 2 takes were duds but on the third take on the final chorus, 2 minutes and 22 seconds into the recording, Solomon broke from his usual melody and improvised 13 notes that went on to earn an estimated $15 million in songwriting royalties.

Soon after the recording was finished Gallo Records paid Solomon Linda 10 Shillings, about 65 cents, for the rights to the recording and the song. Solomon also took a job in the record company’s warehouse and worked there until he died.

The song is based around the chant of “Mbube, I Mbube, I Mbube, I Mbube” with Solomon Linda singing a melody, partly in falsetto, over the top. The record was released and was a huge hit, eventually becoming the first South African record to surpass 100,000 sales.

The sheet music for “Mbube”

By 1948 copies of “Mbube” had been shipped all around the world, and it came to the attention of Alan Lomax who at that time was the director of folk music for Decca Records.

Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax had been collecting and archiving folk music from all around the world for many years. His father John Lomax was also a respected musicologist, they collected and catalogued music for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

In 1942 when Congress cut funding for the folk song archive, Alan Lomax continued independently. Travelling the world and even making hundreds of his own recordings of traditional music.

Lomax passed the record on to his friend, folk singer Pete Seeger, who was in the folk group Almanac Singers with his sister Bess Lomax. He liked the song and wanted to perform it at his gigs but didn’t have the sheet music to learn it from. Instead, he had to transcribe the song entirely by ear. He was an accomplished musician and had no problem working out the music but he struggled with the words.

Pete Seeger

Wimoweh

He knew the song was called “Mbube” but had no idea what that meant, how to pronounce it or that it was this word that was being chanted throughout the song. Instead of hearing “I Mbube”, pronounced Iyemboobay, he heard “ah-wimoweh” so this is what he sang when performing it.

In 1952 the song, now titled “Wimoweh”, was recorded and released by another group founded by Seegers, The Weavers. It was the b-side of their single “Old Paint (Ride Around Little Dogies)”. It was no longer a South African style A-Cappella song, as a rhythm section and horn arrangement had been added. It sounded more like big band jazz than Zulu folk music, but Solomon Linda’s unmistakable melody still stood out. In The Weavers arrangement of the song the melody that only appeared at the end of the original version was now repeated throughout.

Pete Seeger was keen to make sure that the writer of the original song was credited on this new version so he had his publisher call Gallo Records in South Africa to find out more about “Mbube” and it’s origins.

What happened on that phone call kicked off a chain of events that meant Solomon Linda would never be credited or paid what he deserved for his song in his lifetime.

When asked about the origins of “Mbube”, they were told it was a traditional Zulu song, and little mention if any was made of Solomon Linda’s contribution to the composition. It’s also likely at that time they were told how to pronounce the word but still went with “Wimoweh” as it would be much easier for English speakers to pronounce.

Paul Campbell

Now, when a song is said to be “traditional” it generally means the song is so old that the writers are either unknown or have been dead too long for their works to still be protected by copyright. In most countries, the copyright term for creative works is the lifetime of the writer plus 70 years.

This meant that as far as the US publisher was concerned there was nobody to credit and they were free to register The Weavers’ arrangement as a new composition in its own right. Which is actually how a lot of The Weavers songs came about.

This is taken from The Weavers songbook.

“In the highly complex realm of recording and publishing of 1950, The Weavers found little precedent for processing material produced through our accustomed modus operandi. In this book are pieces which are enlargements of fragments of otherwise forgotten songs. There are songs which are the result of combining elements of several songs. Sometimes our contribution is no more than a unique arrangement, an added verse or a line or two, or the simple restatement of the story or melody as we originally heard it. There are others which are totally the creation of one or another member of the group, edited and reworked by the others. To those songs which were published during the period between 1950 and 1953 we assigned the name ‘Paul Campbell,’ as representing both the combined efforts of the four people then known as The Weavers and the concept of musical work to which they were committed.”

So, “Wimoweh” was credited to “Paul Campbell” and 13 years after that recording in Africa’s only studio was made, “Mbube” was renamed and introduced to the USA.

Folkways vs Gallo

In January 1952 The Weavers’ publishers, Folkways, registered the copyright of “Wimoweh” in the United States. It clearly didn’t take long for somebody at Gallo Records to realise their mistake as in May 1952 they registered their own copyright claim for “Mbube” in the US.

Gallo then contacted Folkways to let them know that “Mbube” was in fact an original composition written by Solomon Linda that they owned the rights to. This meant that now “Wimoweh” was an infringement of the copyright in “Mbube” so Folkways and Gallo came to an agreement for an undisclosed amount for Gallo to forgo any infringement claims in the USA in return for the rights in South Africa and a few other African territories of little interest to a stateside publisher like Folkways.

The deal was incredibly bad not just for Gallo but also for Linda as it effectively transferred ownership of “Mbube” (in the form of “Wimoweh”) to Folkways. Gallo could no longer claim Wimoweh infringed on Mbube, therefore, any future versions of Wimoweh would also be free of such claims.

Why did he do this?

Well at the time in 1952, most of the developed world were signatories to the Berne Convention of 1886. This old European law enshrined the rights of creators, it granted the inalienable right to be credited (moral rights) and clearly stated that copyright existed as soon as the work was “fixed” which could be done by simply writing it down or making an audio recording.

South Africa signed the Berne Convention in 1928 so under this law the moment Solomon Linda recorded the song back in 1939 it was protected by copyright and his moral rights were established.

However the USA had not signed the Berne Convention in 1952, in fact, it wasn’t until 1988 that the USA finally did…over a century after it was first conceived.

At the time under US copyright law, it was necessary to register copyrights before any protections commenced. Folkways had told Gallo that their copyright of “Mbube” in South Africa was not recognised in the USA so they had no legal recourse when it came to “Wimoweh”.

In fact, that was only half the story. It’s true that in the USA they made their own rules for copyright but as a publisher, in a Berne Convention country, Gallo’s copyright was valid pretty much everywhere except the USA so their bargaining position was much stronger than Folkways had them believe.

Given what they were lead to believe it’s likely they thought they had done well to get rights to “Wimoweh” in parts of Africa.

At some point in the ’50s, Pete Seeger found out about Solomon Linda and felt bad about not giving him his proper credit and royalties. He wanted to do something about it, so he wrote a cheque for $1000 but getting money into the hands of a poor black man it what was now apartheid-era South Africa was not going to be easy. He knew if he just sent it to Gallo Records they wouldn’t give it to Linda so instead, he got in touch with anti-apartheid campaigners and they helped him hire a local lawyer to get the money to him.

He also informed his publisher he no longer wanted any of the money from “Wimoweh” instead, it should be sent to Solomon Linda.

“Wimoweh” became a very popular song in The Weavers’ repertoire and inspired a myriad of cover versions. However, The Weavers version fell out of popularity after Pete Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer for his previous support of Soviet Communism.

The Lion goes from strength to strength

Between 1952 and 1961 countless cover versions were released, Jimmy Dorsey, Yma Sumac, Bill Hayes, The Kingston Trio and Scottish singer Karl Denver (known for his yodelling) all cut their own versions of The Weavers arrangement. Karl Denver’s version reached No.4 in the UK charts.

In 1960 South African singer Miriam Makeba, signed for RCA Victor in the USA and included a version of “Mbube” on her debut album, the version was true to Solomon Linda’s original 1939 recording and credited “J.Linda” as the writer.

In 1962 she performed her version of “Mbube” for JFK at his famous birthday party, moments before Marilyn Monroe took the stage.

Miriam Makeba didn’t receive any royalties for that album as RCA had to buy her out of her contract with her South African label….who was of course… Gallo Records (trading as Gallotone). Gallo received $45,000 in the settlement, the amount was recouped from Makeba’s share of the revenue and meant she didn’t get a cent. It’s also unlikely that Solomon Linda received anything from that release either.

In 1961 another RCA Victor act, The Tokens, were in need of song for their next single. They had some minor success prior to this but nothing like what was to come.

The Tokens

The Tokens

The Tokens lead singer Jay Siegel knew “Wimoweh” from hearing The Weavers version on the radio and taught it to the rest of the band.

It was decided they would record the song, but RCA felt the song needed more lyrics to work with The Tokens doo-wop style so they hired lyricist George David Weiss to rework the song.

When he found out they were going to record a version of “Wimoweh” Jay Siegel wanted to know what it meant. He visited the South African consulate and found out that wimoweh didn’t mean anything at all…its wasn’t even a word. He discovered the word was Mbube and it meant the lion. He told his producers what he had found out.

Using Solomon Linda’s improvised melody as a guideline Weiss penned the words “In the jungle, the mighty jungle the lion sleeps tonight”. He would later claim he himself had researched it and had been told it was a Zulu hunting song for on the way to the hunt… or from…. he wasn’t sure.

Now aside from any cultural inaccuracies its worth noting that lions don’t actually live in the jungle, they live in the savannah…anyway, I digress.

The words Weiss had written didn’t quite fit the melody from Mbube/Wimoweh so Siegel had to adapt the melody further to fit the new words and added a slight variation in the second half of the chorus. A small yet not insignificant change like that would still by today’s standards warrant a writing credit in itself. “Change a word, take a third”, as the old music industry adage goes.

So from Mbube to Wimoweh and now “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. 22 years after it was first recorded, Mbube wasn’t sleeping at all.

The producers of The Tokens version, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, were not unfamiliar with the practice of claiming obscure and/or public domain works under an alias. They had done just that with countless songs including “Pop goes the weasel” and “The first noel” despite both songs being from England and popular in the 1850s!

They either recognised Paul Campbell as an alias for The Weavers or found out with a little digging. Either way, they felt that they wouldn’t have any issues with creating a new version.

To say that they treated this song as an insignificant novelty is a stark understatement. They literally phoned-in the mix, not even bothering to go to the studio in person to finish it. RCA then put it on the b-side of the wholly forgettable song “Tina”.

The single bombed, the a-side was so awful people didn’t even bother to give the other side a listen. Like countless other hits in pop history, it took for one DJ to flip it over and play the other side. In this case, it was Dick “The Derby” Smith a DJ from Worcester, Massachusetts.

Dick Smith put the b-side on heavy rotation and after becoming a local hit it began to climb the national charts.

Folkways vs Token Music

Inevitably it wasn’t long before Howie Richmond at TRO-Folkways heard the song on the radio and recognised it as a reworking of “Wimoweh”.

It took just 14 days for Folkways to hear about it and notify the publishers, Token Music Publishing, that they had infringed their copyright. Token registered their claim to copyright on October 17th, 1961 according to documents filed in a later court case Folkways notified Token on the 31st.

The situation was a bit awkward, Richmond wanted to exercise his rights to Wimoweh and this new version but didn’t want to jeopardise his working relationship with Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, whom he was on first name terms with…. Huge and Luge he called them.

So they came to an agreement. TRO-Folkways would keep the publisher share of what would be referred to in court as “the lion version” and Hugo and Luigi would get 100% of the writers share, after all, Pete Seeger didn’t want it, right?! There was no mention of Mbube or Solomon Linda in this discussion.

On December 18th, 1961 the agreement between the two parties was signed and a week later the song was number 1. Solomon Linda did get to hear this new version shortly before his death in 1962 but never received his share of profits and died in poverty with about $20 to his name. His family were unable to pay for his tombstone until sometime in the 80s.

The agreement for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” assigned all rights in this new version to Folkways who registered the copyright. Folkways also drafted an agreement providing royalty distributions from BMI, their performing rights society.

A New Deal

Over the next 20 years, the new version took on a new life, again. The Tokens version was a big hit and a number of other cover versions were released around the world. Each version earned performance royalties for the registered owners, Folkways.

In 1972 Robert John’s version went to number 3 on the US charts and was Gold Certified (at the time Gold Certification was 1,000,000 copies). Another 10 years later and the song sold 1 million copies in the UK.

It was released under the name Tight Fit, a pop group fronted by male model Steve Grant and 2 female back up singers. None of them actually featured on the recording, the session singer was Roy Ward from 70s British rock band City Boy and the Steve Grant fronted line-up was formed after the release became successful.

Tight Fit gained worldwide fame for their version of the song that they didn’t actually sing.

Copyright renewal

In the 50s and 60s the copyright term in the USA was 28 years, in 1980 Gallo’s original copyright of “Mbube” expired, it was renewed and the rights were apparently signed over to Folkways by Solomon Linda’s window.

Folkways’ copyright in “Wimoweh” also expired and was renewed in 1979 by Folkways under the name Paul Campbell and thereafter assigned to Folkways.

The original copyright term for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” expired in December 1989. Just prior to that in October 1989, Weiss had contacted Folkways on behalf of the writers of “the Lion version”. He told them they believed the agreement they made was only for the initial copyright term and that they intended to renew the copyright without any provision to pay Folkways a share.

Naturally, Folkways refused, so in 1990 Weiss and the other songwriters filed a demand for arbitration. They wanted a declaration that they were “The sole and exclusive owners of all rights in and to the (Lion Version), including the worldwide copyright since the composition entered its United States renewal term of copyright”.

As well as demanding all the revenue received from December 1989 onwards Weiss and the other songwriters wanted to compel Folkways to notify all its licensees that it no longer has any interest in the copyright in the Lion Version.

TRO/Folkways vs Weiss (Abeline Music)

In April 1991 the arbitration panel ruled in favour of Weiss and Abeline music, they dismissed Folkways’ claim that since the end of the initial copyright term “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was an infringement of their copyrights. They made the slightly odd ruling that the copyright had “reverted” to Weiss and Abeline music after the initial copyright term.

This is odd because, for something to revert to someone, that person had to previously have owned it. As Weiss and Abeline had never owned the copyright in either “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, “Wimoweh” or “Mbube” then how can it “revert” to them?

Even more strangely they ruled that in future “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” could be exploited free from infringement claims pertaining to “Wimoweh” or “Mbube” (the underlying works).

Folkways appealed this decision, of course, they argued that only the original parts added to Mbube/Wimoweh to make “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” could revert to them as that is all they ever had rights to. They also argued that in granting the right to exploit free of infringement claims they had exceeded their powers.

Unfortunately for Folkways, the grounds for vacating an arbitration award are extremely narrow and as the challenging party, the burden of proof lay entirely with Folkways. So in 1993 after 2 unsuccessful appeals, the 2nd Circuit Court upheld the decision of the arbitration panel.

So after a 4-year legal struggle, Weiss had won full rights to the song he had just added words to. The panel had granted the right to exploit the Lion Version free from copyright infringements of the underlying works which means Solomon Linda’s contribution to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was no longer recognised.

The Lion King

The 1993 decision could not have come at a better time for Weiss and Abeline, as the following year the most lucrative use of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” occurred.

Timon and Pumbaa sing “Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for just under 30 seconds

On June 15th 1994 Disney released its 39th feature-length animated motion picture, The Lion King, which remained Disney’s highest-grossing movie until Pirates of the Caribbean in 2006 and was their highest grossing animation until Toy Story 3 in 2010. The movie grossed just shy of £1billion.

“Wimoweh” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” had been steady earners for the writers and publishers for decades, it had been used in at least half a dozen movies before but this small usage in a Disney movie sent the earnings into overdrive.

The license fee paid for the use of the song would need to account for each copy made and sent to each cinema, how long that cinema run would be and then copies sold for home viewing. Later when it gets shown on TV it would generate even more money. Adaptations like the musical stage show that would include the song too, would also earn money.

The earnings would likely be well into the millions and would continue for decades more.

As Folkways had tried to use Solomon Linda’s right to a share of the song as a way to retain their own interest, when ruling against them the arbitrators added a proviso that a small portion (reportedly 10%) of the composition’s performance royalties be sent to South Africa for Linda’s family.

Rian Malan

In 2000 South African journalist Rian Malan published an article in Rolling Stone, detailing the story of Solomon Linda and Mbube.

“This one’s for Solomon Linda…” he wrote, “…a Zulu who wrote a melody that earned untold millions for white men but died so poor that his widow couldn’t afford a stone for his grave.”

He visited Solomon’s daughter’s to find out if they had been receiving their court-mandated share. He exchanged messages with Weiss and other key characters in the saga, he revealed some alarming details of the story to the world.

If the name Malan seems familiar it’s because D.F. Malan, Rian Malan’s grand-uncle, was the Prime Minister of South Africa in 1948 when apartheid was introduced.

Rian Malan gained prominence after his memoirs My Traitor’s Heart, published in 1990, became a bestseller around the world. He has said that his family heritage is a source of great guilt for him and that drives him to do what good he can for the indigenous people of his adopted homeland.

True to that, Rian went through every scrap of paper Adelaide, Elizabeth, Delphi and Fildah Ntsele had given him relating to their late father’s music. It seems they did receive some money over the years since the court ruling, a total of $12,000 between 1993 and 2000. Less than $2000 per year, which seems very low for 10% of a song used in a Disney movie.

Solomon Linda’s four daughters Elizabeth, Adelaide, Fildah and Delphi

They seemed satisfied with the money, $1700 a year is decent money for them and they were happy that their father’s music was living on. Then Rian told them what the song should have been worth, he tells them about Wimoweh and Pete Seager, they laugh out loud when told about Weiss’s “research” into the song’s meaning and his assertion that it was a hunting song. They insist its a nonsense song meant to build confidence, “you are a lion, you are a lion” the chant goes. They say it’s their father saying that to himself.

The sisters also brought up a concerning point, their father was illiterate, he couldn’t read and was unable to even write his own name. They don’t believe the document that assigned the worldwide rights to “Mbube” for $2 to Gallo Records was signed by their father at all. They claim whenever asked to sign documents he would simply make a mark on the dotted line, on the document Gallo has his signature is written is full.

They also believe that even if he did sign it he would not have understood what he was signing, what it meant and what it should have been worth. Until Rian Malan arrived in their lives neither did the Ntsele sisters.

Adelaide, Elizabeth, Delphi and Fildah all believe that his lack of education and the racial power dynamic in South Africa at the time would have made him feel obligated to sign anything presented to him without question.

They didn’t dwell on the legitimacy of the documents and instead focussed on reclaiming some of the earnings and get their father the writing credit he deserves.

Follow the money

Malan contacted Raymond Tucker, the lawyer who was the conduit for the payments. Tucker had been contacted by Pete Seeger’s representatives decades previously and claims he had been depositing money into an account in the name of Mrs Regina Linda (Solomon’s wife) for many years. Solomon’s daughters say the money didn’t start coming until the 80s.

Elizabeth and Fildah look at a picture of their father with his group, The Evening Birds.

They remember being so poor in 1962, when their father died, that they couldn’t afford to buy a gravestone. Their mother brewed beer illegally to make ends meet but they all still went to school barefoot. When the money started coming sometime in the 80s they were then able to finally add a headstone to their father’s grave.

When Rian Malan asked Raymond Tucker to see his files to get to the bottom of this discrepancy Tucker accused Malan of being a troublemaker and slammed down the phone. He had no reason to withhold the information, despite citing client confidentiality, as Malan had a signed letter from the sisters authorising him to discuss the matter.

Refusing to accept he had hit a brick wall, Rian Malan contacted TRO/Folkways to see if they would tell him how much money they sent. He never heard back from them other than an initial response saying it would take time to answer his questions.

He contacted David Weiss, who at that time was President of the Songwriters Guild of America (perhaps an odd position for someone involved in plagiarism?). Weiss claimed he sends money regularly to “Mrs Linda” and has done for decades. At the time of making that claim, Regina Linda had been dead for 10 years.

Despite not getting all the answers he wanted Rian Malan did manage to work out that Soloman Linda’s family were getting 12.5% of “Wimoweh” (Pete Seeger’s share) and 1% of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. He decided he would publish the story as it was and hope that it would inspire someone else to take up the fight and perhaps they would succeed where he failed?

Cash flows

Shortly before the article was published the Ntsele sisters received 2 large payments totalling nearly $12,000. That was almost equal to all the payments they had received since the death of their mother almost 10 years previous. They were overjoyed and called Rian Malan to let him know.

After a bit of digging, they found out the money came from Pete Seeger. It turns out that his publisher had not been sending all the money from “Wimoweh” after all. According to Seeger he only found out when the song was used in an advert and earned around $6000, that prompted him to check other accounting statements to see if “Wimoweh” was on them. It was, so he added up all the money he had received for Wimoweh and sent another payment to South Africa.

Perhaps what Pete Seeger said is accurate or maybe Malan’s digging had prompted Seeger to make sure he was doing the right thing. Either way, he shook the tree and some fruit fell.

Adelaide Ntsele died in 2001 of AIDS-related tuberculosis, as they couldn’t afford the medication when she fell sick and was beyond treatment by the time the money arrived from Pete Seeger. Aside from losing their sister, for the 3 surviving daughter’s of Solomon Linda the next few years proved to be a lot more positive.

Rian Malan’s article did inspire others to take up the fight, journalists from various publications around the world came to interview them, it became a big story all around the world. South African filmmaker François Verster, who had previously made a TV documentary about the story of Mbube, made a feature-length documentary called “A Lion’s Trail” that was aired in the USA on PBS and eventually won an EMMY Award.

New legal team

After Malan’s run-in with Raymond Tucker the 3 sisters took on Hanro Friedrich as their lawyer, he collected what paperwork there was from Tucker and did his best to manage the income that was being paid and handle enquiries from the press. Friedrich did what he could but he was not a copyright lawyer, or an entertainment lawyer so he didn’t have any specific experience or expertise in these matters.

The attention from Malan’s article also leads to Gallo Records getting inundated with phone calls demanding they take action, so they enlisted the premier copyright lawyer in South Africa, Owen Dean. He literally wrote the handbook on copyright in South Africa.

Handbook of South African Copyright Law by Owen Dean

Owen Dean’s mission was clear, “Well we want to get recognition that he was the composer of the original version of the song, that’s important to them and it’s important to South Africa as a country because it is actually a bit of South African culture this song. The next important thing is to actually get income for the family because we feel that they are entitled to enjoy the benefits of the very successful song their father wrote all those years ago.”

As Solomon Linda had assigned the copyright in the composition and the recording to Gallo Records, who had then assigned it to TRO/Folkways, there wasn’t much Dean could do. The situation was definitely unfair, arguably immoral but it wasn’t actually illegal.

When it seemed there was no hope for Solomon Linda’s daughters, Owen Dean remembered an old law dating back to the 1911 British copyright act. Prior to that act copyright duration was the lifetime of the author plus 25 years, they decided to amend the law to help the family of one of Britain’s most celebrated authors, Charles Dickens.

Dickens died suddenly from a stroke in 1870 and although he left an estate worth £80,000 (about £6,000,000 in today’s money) as the copyright in all his works expired in 1895 anybody that wanted to could print and sell his books without having to pay anything. By 1911, with no income from the books, Dickens’ family was close to financial ruin. The matter was considered so serious it was debated in parliament.

The copyright law in the UK was due to be updated anyway, certain aspects of the Berne Convention needed to be written into law and there was the brand new medium of audio recordings to legislate too. One of the significant changes was copyright duration being extended to the lifetime of the author plus 50 years. They added an additional provision that stated that any agreements the author made in their lifetime would end 25 years after their death meaning the remaining 25 years would go to the heirs of the author. This meant that in 1987 the rights to Mbube should have passed to Solomon’s Linda’s family.

As South Africa was a British colony when the law was passed it was made part of South African law.

On a side note, Charles Dickens had his own copyright issues, also with Americans copying and selling his work without having to pay him as the USA was not part of the newly established Berne Convention. His feelings on the matter found its way into his books, he wrote this in Nicholas Nickleby about a man printing and selling books without paying the author “show me the distinction between such pilfering as this, and picking a man’s pocket in the street“.

Dean delivered his conclusion to Gallo Records in a 20-25 page essay laying out the basis for the case and how a law nearly a century old would be their secret weapon.

For Gallo Records, what Owen Dean had uncovered was “heart-stopping”. They decided they would fund Dean to take on the case.

Gallo Records contacted Hanro Friedrich and Solomon’s 3 surviving daughters to tell them the news. Friedrich and Dean began comparing notes and compiling all the information in order to prepare for this landmark copyright case.

Hanro Freidrich and Elizabeth, Delphi and Fildah Ntsele.

To give them the best chance against the Americans they needed the case to be heard in a South African court. However, the South African court only has jurisdiction if the defending party has assets within South Africa. Abeline Music had no assets in South Africa. There was a company using “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” that did have very valuable assets in South Africa. The Walt Disney Company.

In July 2004, Owen Dean obtained a Pretoria High Court order attaching 240 Disney trademarks, including Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and The Lion King movie, pending the outcome of the family’s claim against the company. Which meant If they won damages and Disney refused to pay, Solomon Linda’s family had the right to sell those trademarks in South Africa.

It took Disney just 4 days to respond, they appealed for the attachments to be set aside. Owen Dean and Hanro Friedrich were off to court much sooner than expected.

The appeal was denied and the trial date was set for February 21, 2006. Disney must have changed tactics and applied pressure on Gallo Records because with the trial date fast approaching they informed Owen Dean they were pulling out of the case. They felt it was too risky to take on a company the size of Disney.

Once again the situation appeared hopeless. It wasn’t just the money to pay Dean that Gallo provided, they also gave the case some added weight. It was the largest South African record company fighting the case not just the family of a poor Zulu songwriter.

No good story is complete without a “chance meeting” and that’s exactly what turned this tale. Hanro Friedrich was in the departure lounge of the airport in Johannesburg when he recognised Pallo Jordan, the South African Minister of Arts and Culture.

Dr. Pallo Jordan

He introduced himself to the minister and explained the case they were trying make against Disney. Jordan had heard about the story of Mbube and agreed to help.

“How much do you need?” Jordan asked Friedrich. “A lot” was the simple reply. Pallo Jordan didn’t baulk at what was needed. He liked the idea of fighting to bring a small but significant part of their culture back home, beating the Americans would just be a bonus.

With the South African government on their side, the chances of winning seemed even stronger. Disney evidently agreed as shortly before the scheduled trial date they made an offer to settle out of court.

There would be a lump sum of money paid as damages and to account for unpaid royalties. It would also acknowledge that “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is derived from “Mbube”. Solomon Linda would be given a writing credit and allocated a portion of the future publishing revenue, which would be paid into a trust on behalf of Solomon Linda’s family.

The settlement offered almost everything they had hoped for. Almost. The sum that they were originally suing for was around $2million. The settlement was “considerably less than that”, the exact amount in the settlement has never been disclosed and each of people involved signed a non-disclosure agreement so we cannot be sure how much was offered. There may also have been legal fees and taxes that needed to be deducted too, so there’s no way of working what Solomon Linda’s family would actually receive.

They agreed to the deal and the trust was set up, but it wasn’t really a happily ever after moment. When Rian Malan revisited Solomon’s Linda’s daughters 10 or so years later, for the Netflix documentary series ReMastered, he found that while their basic living conditions had greatly improved, they were still far from enjoying the sort of wealth that usually come from a hit song.

According to the sisters, the money took a long time to arrive and when it did they were treated “like children” when they asked for some of their money. They were never even told how much was actually paid into the trust in the first place.

Originally it was agreed that Hanro Friedrich, who had been working for the family for free since 1999, would receive 20% of the settlement and the rest would go to the family. Owen Dean would be paid by the South African government’s Department of Arts and Culture.

However, once the settlement arrived Owen Dean and his law firm sent the bill for the legal fees to the trust. According to the family, the Trust paid a large sum of money for legal fees.

Glenn Dean, the accountant for the trust, claims that on one occasion “one of the sisters” called him to ask for money just a short while after she had received some when he asked where the money went Dean claims the unnamed sister replied, “I drank it out”. An odd story that I find hard to believe, not least of all because only one of the sisters speaks English and he doesn’t speak Zulu. Also, 2 of the 3 sisters are tee-total.

Owen Dean repeated the same sentiments in an interview with City Press, he said the money they were given was “blown on alcohol” and later, in the Netflix documentary, accused the daughters of “dreaming up the problems” and lamented their lack of “gratitude”. When pressed for more detailed accounting all 3 trustees resigned.

Rian Malan did his best to review the financial details he was provided and could find no evidence of fraud or mismanagement within the trust but he did find that some statements were missing and he isn’t a forensic accountant.

In the future, the family will still receive royalties for “Mbube” and “Wimoweh” but will no longer receive anything for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, so will not get a cent from Disney’s recent live-action remake of “The Lion King” despite the song being included once again.

The researchers for the Netflix documentary estimate, based on the information they had, that the 3 sisters were given around $250,000 each by the trust over the 10 years after the settlement. Which may not be a fortune, but it’s certainly more than the 10 shillings their father was paid for the song.

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The rise and fall of Milli Vanilli

30 years ago today, during a “live” performance for MTV the playback device failed and began to skip. Not only did it halt the performance it triggered the beginning of the end of one of the biggest scandals to rock the music industry.

This is the story of Milli Vanilli…

Milli Vanilli was put together in 1988 by German producer and songwriter, Frank Farian, but we have to go a little bit farther back to truly understand how Milli Vanilli came about.

Frank Farian

Franz Reuther was born in Kirn, Germany in 1941. He began as a trainee chef before starting out in the music industry. Initially, he saw himself as a solo artist and in 1967 released a cover of Otis Redding’s “Mr Pitiful” under the name Frankie Farian, with a cover of Donnie Elbert’s “Will You Ever Be Mine” on the other side. The single didn’t really make an impact.

His next single featured 2 songs he had written himself, “Gypsy” on the A-side and “Wenn Alle Wünsche In Erfüllung Gehen” (If all your wishes come true) on the b-side. These were not in the Soul/Beat style of the previous single, they were in the style known in German as “Schlager”, the German language is famously full of obscure words with oddly specific meanings and as a result, there is no direct translation.

Schlager Lad

Schlager is a type of pop music designed to be simple and catchy, often with happy-go-lucky or sentimental lyrics. The most literal translation of the word is simply “hit music”. The closest musical reference would be easy listening or the type of songs you hear at the Eurovision Song Contest. Schlager style music influenced the early songwriting of Benny and Björn from ABBA.

Farian said the change of style was not his choice. “No one wanted my music, It was better from America. A white singer singing black music wouldn’t work. The record companies sent me back to German music.”

Over the next 5 years, Frank Farian released a dozen or so singles for various labels, all with little on no success. In 1971 he had a minor hit with “Was Kann Schöner Sein?” a cover of Solomon King’s “When You’ve Gotta Go” sung in German. By this time he was now producing his own records. He released another half dozen or so singles, again garnering little attention.

In 1974 he wrote a song based on Prince Buster’s 1967 hit “Al Capone” called “Baby, Do You Wanna Bump?”, mixing the jaunty ska tune’s horn lines with his schlager style pop vocals and some hints of disco. His vocals were pitched low and processed in the studio to sound deeper than usual, and he also sang backing vocals in falsetto

He didn’t think the song really fit the style of the other Frankie Farian songs as they were now more rock-influenced schlager pop songs. He decided not to release this under his own name and instead took the name of a detective from an Australian TV show called Boney. He added an M as he thought it had a better ring to it.

Boney M

“Do You Wanna Bump?” didn’t chart in Germany but reached number 14 in the Netherlands and number 8 in Belgium. Soon there were requests for Boney M to perform the song live. The cover of the single didn’t feature Farian’s face like his other releases, so nobody actually knew what Boney M looked like.

He decided instead of fronting the song himself he would hire models and dancers to appear live and mime to his vocals. First to join the line up was Maizie Williams, a model from Monserrat, raised in Britain and now living in West Germany. She was approached while sitting in a restaurant with her friend Sheyla, and although her brother Billy had told her she had a “terrible voice” and should “keep working as a walking clothes-hanger” she didn’t say no when asked if she could sing.

Her singing ability didn’t actually matter because all that was required of her was to look good on the stage and mime along to the falsetto backing vocals. So Maizie along with Sheyla, another girl and a guy hit the road to promote Boney M.

They toured discos and did a few TV performances with that line up before Sheyla decided that miming to someone else’s voice was not for her and she left with aspirations of being an actual singer, the other 2 also left. Maizie stayed while other members came and went until eventually Farian discovered dancer Bobby Farrell working as a DJ and he joined the group along with Jamaican singer Marcia Barrett. By 1976 another Jamaican singer, Liz Mitchell had also joined Boney M.

Boney M: Maizie Williams, Marcia Barrett, Liz Mitchell and Bobby Farrell

Inspired by the success of “Do You Wanna Bump?” Farian began working on an album for the group. Marcia Barrett and Liz Mitchell recorded all the female vocals and Farian continued to record the male parts with the same pitched down and processed sound. For the live shows, Barrett and Mitchell would sing while Bobby Farrell would mime to Farian’s vocals.

Bobby Farrell’s live performances became one of the groups defining features but when it came to the recordings he was barely involved at all.

By the time Bobby Farrell left the group in 1981, his total contribution to all six Boney M albums was a rap on “That’s Boonoonoonoos (Train to Skaville)” and a spoken introduction for “We Kill the World (Don’t Kill the World)”.

None of the label copy or liner notes on the early Boney M records credit Bobby Farrell as a vocalist. It simply credits “Boney M” with the performance, by the time they were listing individual performing credits Farrell had left the group and been replaced by Reggie Tsiboe, who did actually contribute to the recordings.

The reasons for Farrell’s departure vary depending on the source, Farian’s camp says that he became “unreliable” while his family say he was upset at the lack of opportunity to perform on the recordings and he wasn’t earning as much as some group members. He was reportedly paid 100,000 DM when he joined the group but wasn’t entitled to any royalties for the majority of the tracks as he hadn’t performed on them. His main source of income was from performing live.

When Bobby Farrell rejoined the group in 1984 he did perform vocals, and all the members of the group now performed live. There are a few youtube videos of Farrell in the 80s, singing songs he previously would have mimed to.

The first album released after Bobby Farrell left, “Ten Thousand Lightyears” faired badly compared to previous releases peaking at #23 in the German album chart and failing to break the top 40 anywhere else. The first single did so badly it was dropped from the album line-up and the album was reworked around a completely different theme with the album and many of the songs being renamed.

Farrell rejoined the group in 1984 and they released their final studio album “Eye Dance”, which faired even worse than the preceding album. They disbanded in 1986 shortly after their 10th-anniversary celebrations.

Far Corporation

It’s clear that Farian had lost interest in his most successful project to date, even before they eventually split in 1986. He formed the group Far Corporation, mostly using members of Toto, and released a cover of “Stairway to Heaven” late in 1985. It became the first version of the song to chart as Led Zeppelin never officially released it as a single, in fact, it’s still the only version to make it onto the Billboard chart.

Far Corporation released an album, “Division One” shortly after “Stairway to Heaven” that did well enough to prompt them to record a second album “Advantage” due to be released in 1987. However, both the first two singles failed to chart and the album was scrapped. One the tracks recorded for the second album, “Big Brother” would turn up a few years later on a Milli Vanilli album.

Farian continued to work as a songwriter, producer and mixing engineer over the next few years. He mixed the 1986 Meatloaf album “Blind Before I Stop”, and provided vocals for one of the tracks. It wasn’t long before another of his creations was centre stage.

Girl You Know It’s True

In 1987 Sean “DJ Spen” Spencer, Kevin Liles and Rodney “Kool Rod” Holloman AKA DJ crew Numarx from Annapolis, Maryland, released the follow up to their minor hit “Rhymes So Def”, a rap track that had received national airplay in the USA. The new track was based on music written by local musician, Bill Pettaway, who worked at a gas station to get by. He developed the song with the other members of Numarx who produced the beat adding sampled drums and stabs, giving it a similar sound to “Rhymes So Def”.

Another local musician, Kayode Adeyemo the keys player and vocalist in Maryland R&B group Starpoint, later added keys and a catchy “ooh ooh ooh” to the hook. Liles and Holloman provided the rapped verses with Spencer doing backing vocals. The hook was sung by Charles Christopher, a mutual friend of Pettaway and Adeyemo.

The finished track “Girl You Know It’s True” was released on Studio Records and although it didn’t have the same success in the USA as “Rhymes So Def” it became a hit in the clubs in Germany.

It wasn’t long before Frank Farian heard the track and began working on his own version. He started by copying the drum beats hit for hit. His studio was equipped with all the latest drum machines, synthesizers and audio processors so by the time he had finished copying the music it sounded much bigger and heavier than the Numarx original.

Next, he hired Linda and Julie Rocco, twin sisters from America now living in Germany, to start laying down the vocals. He played the Numarx track in the studio for the Rocco twins to copy. Brad Howell and Charles Shaw were brought in to record the other vocals on the track. Charles Shaw performed the rap for “Girl You Know It’s True”, and Brad Howell sang the chorus.

Brad Howell and the Rocco Twins, Julie and Linda (far right)

Farian finished the track off and he knew he had a hit on his hands, but he didn’t think the session singers had the right look to front the project.

For 10 years he had sung vocals for Boney M and Bobby Farrell had mimed them, they sold tens of millions of records and played concerts all over the world with nobody ever scrutinising them. The only objections came from Farrell, who went along with it for most of that time, so Farian decided he would try the same formula again.

He instructed talent scouts and model agencies to find him suitable candidates to front his new project much like when he was recruiting for Boney M.

Finding people to front the project was only half the problem. Farian also had to deal with the session singers whom he had largely kept in the dark about his plans for the project.

Brad Howell was 45 when the song was recorded and was already an accomplished session and touring musician who had played for an array of major artists like Madonna, Lionel Richie, Cher, Tina Turner, George Michael, Janet Jackson and Bruce Springsteen to name just a few.

Howell had no objections to somebody else fronting the project and miming to his performance, Charles Shaw, on the other hand, was just 28 years old at the time and had aspirations of being a pop star in his own right…he would prove to be a problem later.

Rob & Fab

Robert Pilatus was born in Munich in 1965, his mother was German and his father was an African-American soldier. He spent his first few years in an orphanage before eventually being adopted, aged 4. His adoptive sister Carmen was a keen singer who liked to sing Elvis Presley songs, often while Rob strummed away on the guitar. 

Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan

Fabrice Morvan was born in Paris in 1966, his parents were from Guadeloupe a French territory in the Caribbean. He moved to Germany in 1984 and soon became a regular in the club scene. When he met Rob Pilatus in Munich sometime in 1988 they clashed initially as they had “dated the same girls”, as Fab put it, but they eventually decided to “join forces” and bonded over their love of music and clubbing.

Many of the stories about Milli Vanilli describe Rob and Fab as models and/or dancers prior to becoming Milli Vanilli, but that doesn’t really paint an accurate picture. According to Fab they did a few catalogue modelling jobs but were not full-time professional models. They saw themselves as musicians first and foremost. Rob had already had a taste of performing as the guitarist in Wind, a German band who came 2nd in the 1987 Eurovision song contest with their song “Laß die Sonne in dein Herz”.

Rob knew a bunch of musicians who did sessions for Frank Farian, he and Fab would play football with them from time to time. It wasn’t long before they were all jamming, with Rob and Fab on vocals. They got together for a live performance at Fasching, a Bavarian carnival that takes place around the end of February or early March. It’s through this performance that Frank Farian apparently heard about the duo.

He either saw for himself personally or someone had told him about the high energy performance that would later become the Milli Vanilli trademark. Either way, he came to the conclusion that Rob and Fab would be perfect to front his new project. He arranged a meeting with the duo to discuss his plans.

They met him at his studio, a state of the art facility on the outskirts of the city, just a few years earlier Stevie Wonder recorded his #1 hit (and best selling song to date) “I Just Called To Say I Love You” in the same studio. It would have been hard for the two young aspiring pop stars to have not been blown away by the surroundings. Gold and Platinum disks lined many of the walls, and the gigantic SSL and Neve mixing desks would have seemed like something from a sci-fi movie.

Stevie Wonder in Frank Farian’s Rosbach studio

Frank played Rob and Fab the track he had been working on or at least the instrumental anyway. He gave the impression the vocals still needed to be recorded, despite the track being finished already, it’s likely the vocals were simply muted on the mixer while he was playing them the track.

After hearing the instrumental Frank Farian had made for “Girl You Know It’s True”, Rob and Fab didn’t take much convincing to agree to a deal, pretty much on the spot.

Signed up

Farian signed them to a “production deal”, these types of deals were very common in the 80s and 90s. The producer would agree to use their resources to make recordings and then when those recordings are released and monetized the producer would receive a share of the income. The income they receive can be structured in a few different ways. In the case of Frank Farian, as the person funding the project, he would own the master recordings and have the right to transfer the ownership or license the recordings, to a label.

He was also a writer or co-writer of many of the songs he produced so would also have a sizable chunk of the publishing for the songs.

They were given around $4000 as an advance and they signed the agreement without fully understanding what they were agreeing to as they had no legal advice. As far as advances go, $4000 was not a lot of money by anyone’s standard, but for 2 aspiring pop stars in their early 20’s it seemed like a decent enough amount and the opportunity seemed too good to refuse.

Farian told them he would be in touch when he needed them, they assumed this meant recording the vocals for the track they had just heard. They left the studio excited about what the future would hold.

New look

Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan before the braids

They used their advance money to buy new clothes and get hair extensions, I always imagine it like a scene from a movie with a montage of them trying on various outfits until they settle on jackets with huge shoulder pads and cycling shorts.

According to Fab, they chose the long hair extensions after watching a documentary on pop culture icons like Elvis, Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe. They noticed that all the biggest icons had very recognisable images with the hair often being the focal point.

So with their image sorted they reported to the studio, assuming they would be recording the vocals. They were told by Farian that the vocals had been recorded, and all he needed them to do was lip-sync the words in a music video and do some promotional shows.

They were horrified and flatly refused, they wanted to sing not just dance around and mime.  Frank Farian told them they had signed an agreement that committed them to the project for 3 albums, and they were contractually obliged to do all of the promotional work associated with those albums. He said if they wanted out of the deal all they had to do was repay the advance they had been given and they would be released from their commitments.

The truth is the contract was “voidable”, as it could be argued that Farian had misrepresented the contents of the agreement by leading them to believe they would be singing on the tracks, and wasn’t clear about his intentions until after they signed. Any half-decent lawyer could get that contract voided. They didn’t have a lawyer or anyone advising them, at all.

Unable to pay back the money, as they had spent it all, Rob and Fab agreed to do the promotional work for “Girl You Know It’s True” and then once they had paid off what they were advanced they would go their own way. Well, that was the plan anyway.

Farian had released Boney M and some of his other projects through German label Hansa, Boney M was the most successful band they had ever had so it was easy for Farian to get them on board for this new project. Hansa Records were owned by Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG), who also owned a few other labels like RCA, Ariola and Arista.

The project was given the name Milli Vanilli. It comes from Frank Farian’s girlfriend Ingrid Segieth, who’s nickname was Milli, the Vanilli was added to end to make it sound better and is reminiscent of another band of that time Scritti Politti.

Debut Release

On the 25th June 1988 the debut Milli Vanilli single, “Girl You Know It’s True” was released by Hansa records in Europe. It was a smash hit in Germany (at the time is was West Germany), reaching the top spot in the German charts.

Despite the success of the single, at least one person wasn’t satisfied. Charles Shaw had been paid around $6000 for the rap on “Girl You Know It’s True”, a pretty decent session fee for what seemed like either a demo or a faceless throwaway club track. Neither Charles nor the other vocalists had been told of the actual plan up to this point, so a smash hit across Europe was the last thing anyone involved expected.

Shaw began threatening to go public, it’s not clear if he wanted money, more recognition for his contribution or his own project. Either way, Frank Farian was not going to stand for it and he removed Charles Shaw from his future plans. He drafted in John Davis to record the raps for the rest of the album, but this was not the last they would hear of Shaw.

As well as replacing Shaw, Farian also tightened the reigns. He prohibited the voices of Milli Vanilli from ever meeting the faces of the group and reminded everybody that the deals they had signed all contained non-disclosure agreements. There would be severe repercussions for anyone breaching it.

Meanwhile, Rob and Fab were seemingly no closer to returning their advances, it wasn’t just the $4000 now as they had been receiving regular money from Farian for their living expenses. They were caught in a sort of vicious circle, they needed money to pay rent and other day-to-day costs but then needed to do more shows and more promotional work in an attempt to pay it off and get out of the deal.

It’s also likely that the thrill of performing to large audiences of adoring fans, and the regular income that brings was hard to walk away from, for whatever reasons Rob and Fab continued to go along with it. 

In November 1988, with “Girl You Know It’s True” still topping charts around Europe and steadily climbing the Billboard chart in the USA, Hansa released the Milli Vanilli album “All Or Nothing” across Europe.

8 of the 13 tracks on the album were written or co-written by Frank Farian, which means he would receive just over 60% of the publishing. To put that into $$$, the mechanical license royalties (paid by Hansa to the writers of the tracks) just in Germany alone would be worth over $20,000 to Farian. These royalties are paid when the records are manufactured before a single unit is sold, he would later also receive royalties from the sales of the records and radio airplay.

It’s unclear what, if any, royalties from record sales would be paid to Rob and Fab. Thier actual contribution to the audio recordings is nil, they are merely props so aren’t actually entitled to anything.

At least 9 different vocalists are credited with performing on the album, and that doesn’t include the gospel choir The Jacksons Singers who also feature on the record. On the European release, Rob and Fab are not among the many people credited as vocalists. In fact, their names don’t appear on the record at all, just their pictures

Rob and Fab’s name’s don’t appear in the credits to the album

By now, the success of the first single in Europe and its growing popularity in the USA was getting the attention of another BMG owned label, Arista. Instead of licensing “All Or Nothing” from Farian and Hansa, they signed Milli Vanilli directly with the intention of reworking the record for the American market.

Hot on the heels of “All Or Nothing”, the second single “Don’t Forget My Number” was released in Europe and although it didn’t reach the heights of their debut it still charted all across Europe and made the top 10 in Germany, Netherlands and Spain.

It’s been less than 9 months since they signed with Frank Farian and already they had 2 European hit singles an album climbing the charts and a record deal with a major label in the USA. Whatever thoughts they had of trying to get out were at least getting shadowed by the excitement of it all, if not completely blocked out.

On March 7th, 1989, Arista released the re-worked and re-titled Milli Vanilli album. It was now called “Girl You Know It’s True” as the first single was now at number 2 in the Billboard chart. Half of the 8 tracks penned by Farian were gone, among the replacements was a Climie Fisher song, an Isley Brothers cover and a song written by Diane Warren.

This version of the album credits Rob & Fab with the vocals, something the Hansa releases never did. It’s also worth noting the Arista pressing is a bit of a shambles, the track order on the cover doesn’t match what’s printed on the label or the content itself. Some parts of the artwork still say “All Or Nothing”, the original title.

The second single from the album was released on April 1989, “Don’t Forget My Number” became their first US number 1 when it hit the top spot on July 1st 1989.

It doesn’t matter where you are from in the world or what style of music you do, the absolute pinnacle for any recording artist is a number 1 record in the USA. To reach that stage in little over a year without touring the country and with only your second single was phenomenal, so naturally, all eyes were on Milli Vanilli now.

They had done many shows already over the last year or so and would still go on to do a full European and US tour but little did they know their next performance would be the one they would be remembered for.

On the 21st of July 1989, Milli Vanilli took to the stage for a performance on MTV at the Lake Compounce theme park in Bristol, Connecticut. Partway through the performance the device responsible for playback jammed and kept repeating the line “Girl, you know it’s…Girl, you know it’s…Girl, you know it’s…” over and over.

Pilatus recalled the incident in an interview saying, “When my voice got stuck in the computer, and it just kept repeating and repeating, I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I just ran off the stage.”

MTV host “Downtown” Julie Brown ran after him and after some er gentle persuasion convinced him to finish the performance. “With a bit of pushing and screaming, and a couple of F-words I think as well, I got them back out there,” Brown explained.

They completed the set and the audience barely seemed to notice, or maybe they did and thought it was intentional? It was after all the late 80s and chopped up, sampled vocals were becoming quite common. Less than a year previous Mel & Kim topped the charts around the world with “Respectable”, the song sampled the first word of the chorus and repeated it in a similarly choppy way “Tay-tay-tay-tay t-tay-t-tay-t-tay-tay take or leave us only please believe us we ain’t ever gonna be respectable”. Or maybe the audience noticed but simply didn’t care? Either way, the show went on as if nothing unusual had happened.

There were however, many journalists in the audience and watching the broadcast who did notice and did care. Some radio and tv producers previously had suspicions that all was not what it seemed with Milli Vanilli prior to that incident, an example is Beth McCarthy-Miller (director of many TV shows such as 30 Rock and Brooklyn 99) who was a production assistant at MTV in the late ’80s, she thought it was odd that two Europeans with thick accents when they spoke and fairly limited English language skills could be able to sing and rap in such flawless American accents. It wasn’t until this performance that the suspicions grew into more than that.

Two weeks after the now-infamous incident, Milli Vanilli released their 3rd single, “Girl, I’m gonna miss you”. It entered the charts on August 5th 1989 and 8 weeks later it became their 2nd US number 1 record. In retrospect, the opening lyrics to the song seem prophetic now that we know how the next few months turn out.

“It’s a tragedy for me to see the dream is over”

On September 5th they set off their first European tour, lasting 10 weeks. Halfway through the tour their 4th single “Blame It On The Rain” was released. The song was written by Diane Warren and gave the group their 3rd US number 1, the song it knocked off the top spot Bad English’s “When I See You Smile” was also penned by Diane Warren.

Charles Shaw performed the rap on the first single but was fired shortly after it was released

In December 1989, with “Blame It On the Rain” still on the top spot on the charts, Charles Shaw made good on his earlier threats. He told New York Newsday writer John Leland that Rob and Fab were impostors who hadn’t sung a note and he was one of three actual singers on Milli Vanilli’s hit debut album. He retracted the statement shortly after saying it was a publicity stunt to promote his own upcoming release. Frank Farian is reported to have paid $155,000 for the retraction and Shaw’s continued silence.

On January 6th 1990, they released the 5th single from the album “All Or Nothing”, and 3 weeks later they won 3 of the 4 awards they were nominated for at the American Music Awards.

“All or Nothing” didn’t fare as well as the previous singles and although it still made the top 40 it ended the run of consecutive number 1s.

On February 21st 1990 a stunned Milli Vanilli accepted the Grammy award for the best new artist, beating Neneh Cherry, Indigo Girls, Tone Loc and Soul II Soul.

As they made their way to the stage to accept the award from Young Mc and Kris Kristofferson they looked elated but inside I’m sure it was dawning on them that it was now a matter of when, not if, the truth would come out. Surely now as Grammy winners, the scrutiny would be too much?

Some music journalists felt that Milli Vanilli were not worthy winners of the Grammy. Rolling Stone magazine named them the worst act of 1989 and “Girl You Know Its True” the worst album.

In a Time magazine interview, in April ’89, Rob was quoted as saying “Musically, we are more talented than Paul McCartney. Mick Jagger, his lines are not clear. He don’t know how he should produce a sound. I’m the new modern rock ‘n’ roll. I’m the new Elvis.”

Fab claims Rob was misquoted and taken out of context but it’s easy to believe that by now Rob was starting buy into his own hype.

After the Time article was published the tide began to turn. The record sales slowed down, and the coverage in the press was less favourable.

Rob and Fab are sitting in their hotel one night after a gig they turn on the TV and “In Living Color” is on. Damon and Keenan Ivory Wayans have wigs on with long braids and even before they spoke it’s obvious who they were meant to be.

“Call now and get your Milli Vanilli kit, in just 10 minutes you too can look and sound like Milli Vanilli…but act now cos we’re almost out of style”

Keenan Ivory Wayans and brother Damon make fun of Milli Vanilli on “In Living Color”

They were now the butt of the joke, it wasn’t just the Wayans. David Letterman did one of his famous top 10 lists on 10 jobs Milli Vanilli could do other than music.

They knew Frank Farian had already started on a second album, with the same singers as before. They decided enough was enough they didn’t want to just be lip-synching anymore. They demanded to be able to sing on the next album or they would have no involvement.

The standoff lasted a few months until eventually Frank Farian flew to LA and broke the story himself in November 1990. His version of events is quite different to Rob and Fab’s.

According to Farian, he did let them sing. “I’ve never heard such a bad singer,” he says. “They wanted to sing. They wanted to write songs. It never happened. They went instead to discos till 4 a.m. and slept all day. All they ever really did was party. Someone who lives like that can’t make good music.”

He also said he never expected it to be as successful as it was. “I thought, OK, it’s just for discotheques and clubs. I never thought it would be a great hit, not No. 1, not Top 10 in America. And then it was too late and I was too embarrassed to say anything.”

Frank Farian doesn’t think he did wrong by Rob and Fab, quite the opposite. “I made them rich. Rob and Fab got 3 million marks–$2.1 million–from us. The record companies were very satisfied. The real singers also got rich. And Frank Farian got even richer. Only Rob Pilatus wanted much more.”

Farian does have some regrets, but not that he didn’t let Rob and Fab sing or help them develop as vocalists. “If I had it to do over, perhaps it would have been smarter to have them all together on stage, have the original people singing and Rob and Fab just dancing.” It’s hard to work out why he didn’t actually do that in the first place.

Thrown under the bus by Farian, and abandoned by their “fair-weather friends” Rob and Fab were left to face the music on their own. Their record label, Arista, effectively disowned them. According to one Arista employee, the platinum disks for Milli Vanilli were taken down the same day.

They gave a press conference shortly after Farian’s bombshell. While sitting down to answer questions Rob sang the chorus and then Fab rapped a few lines from “Girl You Know It’s True” to prove it’s not beyond them. They then offered to return the Grammy and suggested giving the award to the session singers. The academy would later officially rescind the award, the first and only time this has happened.

Milli Vanilli were the subjects of numerous lawsuits, mostly from fans who say they were deceived, many were dismissed but the constant legal fees drained what was left of the money they had made over the last 2 years.

Frank Farian announced he was going to release the second Milli Vanilli album as planned but under the name “The Real Milli Vanilli”. The album “Moment of Truth” proved to be just that, it barely charted in Germany and bombed in the USA. The truth was, Milli Vanilli was greater than the sum of the parts.

2 years later Rob and Fab tried to make a comeback under their own names, with their own voice. A quick look at the credits shows that Fabrice had a much larger involvement in the recording. By that time Rob was struggling with depression and drug abuse. He and Fab had indulged in many drugs while on tour and while Fab had abandoned that lifestyle for Rob it was his coping mechanism.

The album, simply titled “Rob & Fab” was released on a small label and only sold around 2000 copies. Which sounds like a complete failure until you look a bit deeper. The label that eventually signed them was on the verge of folding, they could only afford to press around 2000 copies. The company went bankrupt not long after the release.

Had they been able to press more copies, they probably would have sold more. They had a lot of support, including Arsenio Hall who had them perform their debut single as Rob & Fab live on his show and they did a very good job by all accounts. Even if they only sold 1% of what Milli Vanilli sold they would still have shifted over 100,000 copies.

After failing to sell “The Real Milli Vanilli” and the same music repackaged as “Try ‘n’ B”, Farian decided he would try to make a Milli Vanilli record with Rob and Fab actually singing. They started work on the album, “Back in Attack” in 1997. Rob was still battling depression and drug addiction throughout the production of the album. He was charged with assault and robbery for which he was sentenced to 3 months in jail and 6 months of rehab. He also attempted suicide but was prevented from jumping off a hotel balcony by the police who were called by a journalist Rob had phoned to record his last words.

Farian had bailed Rob out of jail and paid for his rehab, and they eventually completed the album. However, on April 2, 1998, just prior to the promotional tour for the album Rob was found dead of a suspected alcohol and prescription drug overdose in his hotel room in Frankfurt. His death was ruled an accident. The album was never released.

In the years following the death of Rob Pilatus, Fab continued to develop as a singer and songwriter. In 2003 he released his solo album “Love Revolution” distributed through CDBaby. He also records and performs with John Davis (the voice that Fab was miming to most of the time) after they met in 2014. The project is called “Face meets voice” and they perform a selection of Milli Vanilli songs as well as some original material.

When the news broke the industry, the media, and the public were all shocked. It’s understandable the public was shocked and to a lesser extent the media too, but it strikes me as a little odd that others in the music industry were so quick to condemn Rob and Fab for their part in it all when this type of thing was not unheard of. In fact, it’s surprisingly common.

Black Box

There was another case almost identical to that of Milli Vanilli, happening at the same time.

In July 1989, while Milli Vanilli’s “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” was at number 1, Black Box released “Ride On Time”. The song sampled the vocals from Loleatta Holloway’s 1980 disco hit “Love Sensation”, but in the video and in live performances the vocals were lip-synced by Katrin Quinol who was marketed as the group’s lead singer.

It was the group’s first release as Black Box, but they had released a few singles before under different names, with varying success. The group’s original line up was Daniele Davoli, Valerio Semplici, and Mirko Limoni. Their first single was called “Numero Uno” and was released in 1988 under the name Starlight Invention Group (also sometimes known as Groove Groove Melody), the song peaked at number 9 in the UK charts. They also released the track “Airport 89” under the name Wood Allen, the song only peaked at 99.

Black Box “Ride On Time” single featured a picture of Katrin Quinol who didn’t sing on the recording

So they decided on a new name and hired French Caribbean model Katrin Quinol as the image of the group. The video for “Ride On Time” doesn’t feature Davoli, Semplici or Limoni, just Quinol miming the words while dancing and some other dancers. With sampling still a fairly new concept at the time, the general public assumed the person in the video was also the singer.

Neither Loleatta Holloway nor the writer of “Love Sensation” Dan Hartman were consulted for permission to sample the song, and they failed to mention Holloway’s vocals in the credits. They did, however, clear the use of the sound recording with the rightsholders, Salsoul Records. As Holloway had unrecouped advances from the label she would not have received any money from this agreement. As an American citizen, she was not eligible for the majority of neighbouring rights royalties that would usually be paid as the USA didn’t sign the Rome Convention. It’s also worth noting that the American neighbouring rights society Sound Exchange doesn’t recognise a sample as a performance so it isn’t eligible for any payment at all.

With no legal recourse available Holloway’s counsel engaged in a press attack on Black Box and eventually secured a settlement that paid the singer an undisclosed sum. As the writer of the original track, Hartman was able to sue the group and the court ruled in his favour, he was awarded an undisclosed fee and listed as a writer on the new recording. This writing credit would entitle him to a share of the publishing revenue from the Black Box track.

The legal action lead them to re-record the track with (uncredited) vocals by Heather Small (M People). It was released in September 1989, and the original Holloway version was pulled from distribution.

“Ride On Time” was number 1 in three countries and became the UK’s best-selling single of 1989, selling over 850,000 copies in the UK and over 1.5 million copies worldwide.

The success of the single lead to the release of an album “Dreamland”, the group drafted in Martha Wash (The Weather Girls) to record some “demos” for them. During the sessions, she recorded vocals for a number of different tracks, some original songs and a cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Fantasy”. All of Black Box’s 6 other singles, “Everybody Everybody”, “Open Your Eyes”, “Hold On”, “I Don’t Know Anybody Else”, “Strike It Up” and “Fantasy” contain vocals from the sessions with Martha Wash, none of them credit her as a vocalist and like “Ride On Time” Katrin Quinol mimes the vocals in the video and appears on the cover of the single. Quinol also toured with the group and so would mime the vocals for all the tracks at gigs.

Martha Wash

So, in September 1990, Martha Wash sued Black Box and RCA Records for commercial appropriation. RCA settled the case out-of-court in December 1990 and agreed to pay her a “substantial” fee. RCA also signed her to an eight-album recording contract and financed her national tour. As a result of the lawsuit, there was new federal legislation introduced in the USA making vocal credit mandatory for all albums and music videos, although similar rules had long been in place in Europe anyway.

Katrin Quinol left the group in 1991 following the court cases, but Black Box went on to record another album and are still active today. The second album, without Martha Wash’s vocals, didn’t sell anywhere near what the first album sold but the remaining members of the group were not hounded out of the music industry or ridiculed like Milli Vanilli.

Katrin’s account of her time with Black Box mirrors much of the Milli Vanilli story too. She was a model by day and a go-go dancer by night, she would often sing at the end of the night. She enjoyed singing and although she didn’t want to quit her modelling career she jumped at the chance to be part of Black Box. They asked her to be their lead singer, even though by that time “Ride On Time” was already recorded and the sessions with Martha Wash were underway. Quinol assumed that like much European dance music of the time it would be limited to the clubs and any success would be brief.

After she agreed to join she was told the vocals had been recorded and she was only needed for pictures and videos, so she just treated it like a modelling job. After “Ride On Time” became a hit across Europe she felt “trapped” into continuing her promotional duties. After leaving Black Box she did try to start a music career on her own, in 1995 she released the single “Feel You” under the name Back in a Box feat. Katrin with no success.

C&C Music Factory

Shortly after winning her battle to be credited for her performances on Black Box songs, Martha Wash found herself in a similar situation again. In June 1990 she had been paid around $1000 to record a demo for David Cole and Robert Clivillés, the song she recorded was never completed but they used some of the parts to create the chorus of a new song.

The song “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” featured rapped verses performed by Freedom Williams and was released as C&C Music Factory featuring Freedom Williams. Martha Wash was credited, but only as a background singer. In the video for the single Zelma Davis mimes to Martha Wash’s vocals.

Like Katrin Quinol in Black Box, Zelma Davis was presented as the groups lead singer, she is the only female pictured on artwork and lip-syncs in all the videos. Davis did actually record some vocals for C&C Music Factory releases, just not this one.

On December 11th 1990 Martha Wash sued SONY music (coincidentally the parent company of RCA whom she sued over Black Box) for fraud, deceptive packaging and commercial appropriation. SONY was not willing to settle out of court this time, as they believed they had done nothing wrong. They had credited her performance, as a background singer, they argued that on a rap song the featured performer is the rapper and the singer of the chorus is rarely credited as a featured performer.

That is partly true, you have probably never heard the name Nanci Fletcher, yet she has sung choruses for Snoop, Dr Dre, Warren G and 2Pac, each time she was credited as a background singer and never the featured artist. Not naming them as a featured means the label isn’t obliged to pay them any royalties, they can just pay them a session fee. It also means they are counted as “non-featured” performers for the purpose of neighbouring rights payments so instead of sharing 45% of the earnings with the other featured performers they share 5% with the other session performers. As the USA is still yet to sign The Rome Convention, neighbouring rights revenue in the USA is already a fraction of what it is in the rest of the world, reducing the performer’s income even further by not crediting them as featured makes this money almost non-existent.

When the chorus vocalist is a well-known performer they are nearly always credited as a featured performer. I would consider Martha Wash to be a “well-known performer”, just for “Its Raining Men”, not to mention her work with Sylvester and the Black Box songs. She is more than deserving of a featured credit.

SONY disagreed and fought the case for 3 years before eventually reaching a settlement. They may actually have won had it not been for the precedent set by the earlier Black Box case. SONY paid a fee to Martha Wash, credited her as a lead vocalist, listed her as featured on future pressings and asked MTV to add a disclaimer that credited Wash for vocals and Zelma Davis for “visualization” to the “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” music video.

Seduction

If you thought it was surprising that Martha Wash had to sue SONY twice to get credit, you’ll be even more surprised that she had to sue David Cole and Robert Clivillés twice too!

Before she recorded the vocals for what would become “Gonna Make You Sweat” she recorded a demo of a song written by Cole and Clivillés, “(You’re My One and Only) True Love”. The demo was finished off by adding backing vocals and released under the name Seduction, it was the second single released under this name the first being “Seduction” with vocals performed by Carol Cooper. After the success of the first 2 singles, Cole and Clivillés put together a line up (that didn’t include Cooper or Wash) to promote the songs and eventually record new material.

Martha Wash’s lead vocals were still on the track when it was released and she wasn’t credited on the single with the performance, when the album was eventually released she was credited as a background singer. When David Cole found out she was upset he offered her 1% of the royalties as a settlement, as this is just a fraction of what a featured artist would normally get she refused and commenced legal proceedings.

A&M Records settled the case in December 1990, just a few weeks after Frank Farian told the world the truth about Milli Vanilli. Hard not to think that was a factor in settling the case.

The Crystals

Phil Spector girl band The Crystals is not dissimilar to some aspects of the Milli Vanilli case. Two of their most successful singles in the early 1960’s “He’s a Rebel”, their only US #1 single and the follow up “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” #11 in the US, were both actually recorded by Darlene Love and her group The Blossoms and then released under the name The Crystals. The Crystals were apparently on tour when the track was recorded and released.

Much like Milli Vanilli, The Crystals were not the mastermind of their deception and they were upset Spector had substituted them with The Blossoms twice. Spector obviously ignored their protests as he would later use 4 recordings by The Ronnettes for the album “The Crystals sing the Greatest Hits”. As both “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” also featured on that 12 track album it means only half the tracks were actually The Crystals singing on the rather disingenuously titled album.

The Monkees

Later in the 1960s came the Monkees, a Beatles style pop band created for a TV show that went on to sell over 70million records. Each of the members had musical skills, they played instruments and could sing but despite being presented as a band that played their own instruments they only recorded the vocals on early recordings. Even more bizarrely they mimed playing different instruments to the ones they actually knew how to play best.

Micky Dolenz, a guitarist, pretended to play the drums, Michael Nesmith a bass player, was on guitar, Peter Tork a more experienced guitar player than Nesmith was on Bass and Davy Jones was lead vocalist despite Micky Dolenz being widely regarded as a far better singer. Davy Jones had volunteered to pretend to play the drums but it was decided that as he wasn’t the tallest of the group, sitting behind the drums would not be a good look. So it’s clear here that much like Milli Vanilli, the look was far more important to the producers than actual musical ability.

The biggest difference between the Monkees and Milli Vanilli is that the members of the Monkees were given the opportunity to develop as musicians and recording artists. For the first few months, they were only allowed limited input into the recordings, although Michael Nesmith contributed songs he had written from the outset. Nesmith had already released 4 singles prior to auditioning for the Monkees and after he was cast the production company behind the show bought the rights to his songs so they could use them in the show. Over the years they learned how to play the instruments they were pretending to play and became accomplished multi-instrumentalists.

They played instruments and sung on their later recordings, by 1967 they had sacked their producer and musical director Don Kirshner and were now functioning more independently. However, ratings for the show declined along with record sales and the show was cancelled in 1968. The band continued to release music with their founding line up until 1971 and have had revivals and reunions in each of the following decades. The two surviving members of the group, Michael Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz still tour as the Monkees.    

The Archies

After being dismissed as the producer and musical director for the Monkees, Don Kirshner went on to create another band for a TV Show. The Archies were a fictional band from the Saturday morning animated comedy show, The Archie Show, based on the Archie comics.

They released 5 studio albums and a greatest hits compilation in the ’60s and ’70s, they had 4 top 40 singles in the USA and their biggest hit “Sugar, Sugar” was number 1 in USA, UK and Canada, and sold over 6 million copies. The recordings were made by session musicians who were only paid a session fee and the record sleeves didn’t credit any of them.

The voice actors from the TV show didn’t contribute to the recorded music released under the names of their characters. This was pop music recorded by anonymous session musicians, released under an assumed name and presented to the public with an image considered more commercially viable. Sound familiar?

The Temptations

The Temptations “Classic 5”
L-R: Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, David Ruffin

It doesn’t end there. In the late 1960s The Temptations were having issues with one of their founding members and lead singers. The previously tee-total Paul Williams had developed a heavy drinking problem that was affecting both his health and his ability to perform. By 1969 the group’s de-facto leader Otis Williams (no relation) had enlisted Richard Street to sing Williams’ parts from behind a curtain off stage. Paul Williams would be singing, but not particularly well so his microphone was muted and the audience would only hear Richard Street’s voice.

Street had sung with some of the group before, in an earlier line up when they were known as Otis Williams & The Distants. He eventually officially joined The Temptations in 1971, after performing with them from off stage for 2 years, by which time Paul Williams wasn’t able to perform the dance routines that had become the group’s trademark. This wasn’t made public until a lot later when former members started releasing autobiographies and memoirs.

The Temptations 1971-1975 Line Up
L-R: Richard Street, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams, Dennis Edwards and Damon Harris.

Tight Fit

In 1981 record producer Ken Gold put together a group of session singers and released two medleys of 1960s pop songs called “Back to the 60s” and “Back to the 60s part 2” under the group name Tight Fit. The first of the singles went to number 4 on the UK charts but instead of the session singers who sang on the record, a group of actors was hired to front the group when they first appeared on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops. In 1982 a different producer recorded a cover version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with Roy Ward, the former drummer and percussionist from the British 1970s band City Boy, on lead vocals. The song was also released under the name Tight Fit, but this time a different line up fronted by model Steve Grant appeared on Top of the Pops. The song went to number 1 and the new line up actually recorded songs for an album, but nothing matched the success of “Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Steve Grant still tours nearly 40 years later on the back of the song he just mimed to on TV.

The first ghost singer?

The practice of recording vocals that would later be associated with someone else dates back to the early days in the film industry. Professional singers would record songs for musicals that would then be lip-synced to the actors. A good example of this is Marni Nixon, in 1948 when she was 18 she provided the singing voice of 11-year-old child actor Margaret O’Brien. Over the years she sang for Deborah Kerr in “The King and I” (Kerr won a Golden Globe for best actress for that movie), Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and dubbed in some of Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend”, among her many uncredited contributions.

When she provided the singing for Natalie Wood in West Side Story they not only didn’t credit her, they didn’t even tell Wood herself! All of this lead Time Magazine to call her “The Ghostess with the Mostest”.

Now, you might think that these examples from movies aren’t the same as Milli Vanilli…until you consider the fact that these performances were also released on record as movie soundtracks. With no mention that the actors aren’t singing on the records.

Deborah Kerr appears on the cover of the soundtrack for “The King and I”…Marni Nixon sang all her parts.

The more recent examples in pop music are too countless to mention them all, but artists like Jennifer Lopez, TLC, Selena Gomez and Britney Spears have all released records that employed “ghost singers”. Even Michael Jackson has 3 songs released, albeit posthumously, that are widely believed to not be the late singers own voice. Something SONY seemed to back up in court documents.

The only real differences between all the artists that did it before Milli Vanilli is the speed at which Milli Vanilli became successful, and the fact they won a Grammy.

When you look at all the examples dating back to the very beginning of the music industry, and the now ubiquitous use of Auto-tune, Melodyne and other pitch correction technology it’s hard not think that Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan were dealt with a little harshly.

There’s even a part of me that thinks Milli Vanilli should get their Grammy back.

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PledgeMusic goes bankrupt, other sites in decline. What is the future for crowdfunding in the music industry?

In early May 2019 music crowdfunding website PledgeMusic announced it was officially entering bankruptcy. Most of the artists who were pledged money through the website will almost certainly not receive the money that was promised to them as the company had used this money to pay company debts instead, breaking their own promise that all funds go directly to the artist.

So what went wrong? Is crowdfunding still a viable way to raise money for your projects?

How it all began

Over the last few years crowdfunding platforms on the internet have raised billions of dollars for start ups, entrepreneurs and inventors. That amount is on a steep upward trend with many territories experiencing year on year increases of more than 100%. Over $34 billion has been raised through crowdfunding websites, and there are now more than 1000 such websites to choose from.

The concept of crowdfunding isn’t new, as far back as the 17th century a type of crowdfunding was used to finance the production of books. In return for contributing to the costs people were often named in the book.

A famous historical example of crowdfunding is the construction of the pedestal that the Statue of Liberty stands on, it was constructed with donations from the public.

Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World newspaper, announced a campaign to raise $100,000. In return for a donation he pledged to print the name of every contributor, no matter how small the amount given. Pulitzer began publishing the notes he received from contributors, which in itself encouraged other people to contribute.

Fan Finance

In 1997 British rock band Marillion became the first to use the internet to conduct a crowdfunding campaign, raising $60,000 to fund a North American tour. In 1995 they split with EMI and signed with independent label Castle Communications, who was better known for releasing heavy metal compilations and videos of Alvin and The Chipmunks, they weren’t able to properly fund their tours, or new recordings, as band member Mark Kelly explained.

“We were in a position in 1997 where our manager said to us that we would have to find something else to do for six months out of the year because Marillion wasn’t earning enough money to carry on paying the sort of money that we were used to… we then sacked the manager. We emailed the 6000 fans on our database to ask, “Would you buy the album in advance?” most replied “yes.” We took over 12,000 pre-orders and went on to use the money to fund the writing and recording of the album.”

Trendsetter

In 2001 the first crowdfunding company was formed. ArtistShare was founded by musician and producer Brian Camelio as a way for artists to raise money and grow their fanbase. Since launching in 2003 ArtistShare projects have been nominated for 29 Grammys, winning 10. In 2005 Maria Schneider’s Concert in the Garden, funded and released via ArtistShare, became the first project to win a Grammy without being available in retail stores.

It wasn’t long before other crowdfunding companies started to pop up, Sellaband in 2006, SliceThePie in 2007, IndieGoGo in 2008, PledgeMusic and Kickstarter in 2009. Many of them had a specific focus on music, such as PledgeMusic.

Riches to rags…

For 9 years PledgeMusic was a roaring success and year on year growth was consistent, but late in 2018 rumours were beginning to circulate that some artists weren’t receiving the money their fans had pledged them within the 30 days stated in the PledgeMusic terms.

Even the high profile acts like Jesus Jones were having to wait much longer than they expected. The campaign for their album “Voyages” completed in October and they were expecting the money to arrive by November. By the end of January, they had still not received the funds owed to them and felt compelled to warn other bands and their fans to avoid PledgeMusic.

PledgeMusic also released their own statement on January 24th saying (in part), “PledgeMusic has been in discussions with several strategic players in the industry who have interest in the PledgeMusic platform. We are evaluating a number of transactions with those potential partners, and we plan to announce details of this in the next 60 days. It is our expectation that payments will be brought current within the next 90 days.

What does it all mean?

It doesn’t take much to read between the lines, they were clearly trying to find a buyer for the business who would take on their debts and pay the artists what they were owed. At the time of making that statement, they were still accepting pledges and new projects despite owing a large number of artists five-figure sums.

Founder, Benji Rogers, issued his own statement on the same day and spoke about “battling to get the right people paid under immensely difficult circumstances” which inadvertently revealed they were unable to pay everyone and instead were prioritising just a handful of projects.

On February 1st, the Musician’s Union (UK) issued a statement to members advising them to use other crowdfunding sites for their projects. It took a few more days for PledgeMusic to issue their own statement suspending activities on the website.

On May 3rd a leaked email named FRP Advisory as the administrators that would be steering the failing company through bankruptcy. On May 8th Benji Rogers confirmed efforts to sell the company had failed, despite the fact they offered buyers a deal that meant they didn’t have to repay the money owed to artists and stated: “PledgeMusic will shortly be heading into administration”. There is currently no staff on the payroll at the company.

So what happened to the money?

The only explanation is they spent it. In his statement, Benji Rogers said the money had been used to pay company debts. Why were there debts though? The company boasted over 45,000 artists and a 90% success rate on campaigns, they charged 15% commission on each campaign, so there shouldn’t have been any cash flow issues.

That means it can only be one of two things, fraud or simply gross mismanagement.

A former employee suggests it’s the latter and points a finger directly at former CEO Dominic Pandiscia who took over the role in 2016 following the departure of founder Benji Rogers. According to the employee, Pandiscia spent $500,000 to get a presence for PledgeMusic at SXSW Music Festival but it lead to little or no new business opportunities.

Pandiscia also moved the New York office from an affordable shared workspace into a much more expensive office, only to have to move some employees back again when the financial issues began. Pandiscia and many of the other high-level executives also took home huge wages and bonuses despite paying other staff a bare minimum.

Dominic Pandiscia left PledgeMusic in October 2018, right around the time the rumours of money trouble started to become more public.

Band-Aid on a broken leg

It seems that when the money troubles began, instead of suspending new campaigns and focusing on paying the artists they owed they did the exact opposite and instructed the A&Rs and campaign managers to launch as many new projects as possible so they could use the pledges from those campaigns to pay the artists they owed. At this point, PledgeMusic is more like a Ponzi scheme than a business.

The Fallout

Unless a miracle happens, this is the end for Pledge. They have no money to pay artists the estimated $1million (or more) that they owe and no staff to distribute it if they did. The damage to the reputation of the company is the hardest to recover from. Will artists and fans ever trust the platform again? Probably not.

A number of music industry organisations came together to assess the damage caused by the collapse of PledgeMusic.  They put together a survey in order to find out how many artists in the UK have lost money and what the impact has been for them

It was jointly promoted by UK Music, Music Managers Forum, Musicians’ Union, the Association of Independent Music, Help Musicians UK, PRS Foundation and International Showcase Fund partners, including British Underground, PRS Members’ Fund, the Music Producers Guild, The Ivor’s Academy, Featured Artists Coalition, Music Support, and the BPI.

The survey has ended now, so we just need to await the publication of their findings.

Also, Michael Dugher the CEO of UK Music has demanded that the beleaguered direct to consumer platform be referred to the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority.

In a letter addressed to Small Business and Consumer Minister Kelly Tolhurst, he wrote;

Dear Kelly,

I am writing on behalf of UK Music to ask you to investigate the speculated collapse of PledgeMusic and concerns that it may enter administration and to refer the case to the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA).

UK Music is the umbrella body for the commercial music industry. We campaign and lobby for the collective interests of the music industry on behalf of artists, musicians, songwriters and composers, record labels, music publishers, studio producers, managers and music licensing organisations.

Many musicians across the UK relied on crowdfunding website PledgeMusic to deliver payments from patrons, to pay for album recordings and other costs. These artists were already enduring long delays in receiving payments.

As a consequence, creators who used PledgeMusic’s services are likely to lose money if it goes into administration without resolving its outstanding debts. The Musicians’ Union is working with its members to advise them.

Emerging musicians often rely on crowdfunding platforms to raise capital to support album recording costs, music video costs and other capital expenditures. This is often a crucial step for them to progress through the music talent pipeline. Musicians should be able to trust crowdfunding platforms to fulfil their obligation of delivering money pledged by fans and supporters.

I would therefore ask that you refer PledgeMusic to the CMA to ensure this matter is properly investigated.

Kind Regards,

Michael Dugher CEO, UK Music

So what’s next for crowdfunding in general?

It’s possible that the problems PledgeMusic found themselves in are somewhat endemic of the crowdfunding model when used to monetize music. If we look at one of PledgeMusic’s competitor’s, Kickstarter who also launched in 2009, you can see that while overall revenue is up, the amount of successful campaigns for music projects is rapidly declining.

In 2012 around 5000 music projects were successfully funded on Kickstarter, by 2017 that number was less than half at around 2200 projects. The other issue Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites have to deal with are scam campaigns and projects failing to deliver on rewards. According to Kickstarter’s own fulfilment report, 9% of successful Kickstarter projects failed to deliver rewards. This figure is consistent across all the categories, including music. Overall, 8% of dollars pledged went to “failed” projects. To date, Kickstarter has received over $4billion in pledges so $320million has gone to failed or fraudulent projects with only 13% getting a refund.

Perhaps this is why in 2016 online payment processor Paypal announced they were removing crowdfunding sites from their payment protection program?

Despite over 10 years of steady growth, in 2017 it was forecast that the crowdfunding industry as a whole would fall around 17% in the period 2017 to 2021. Something that appears to be manifesting as in addition to the failure of PledgeMusic, Kickstarter’s own success rate has fallen from 40% of projects succeeding to just 36% in 2019. Music seems to have fallen more than most of the other categories so far with a 7% decline.

Were crowdfunding websites ever good for music?

There’s 3 reasons why I don’t think using crowdfunding websites are good for music

  1. The fee paid to the website. PledgeMusic took a massive 15% (or more with some packages) of the money raised, if you were able to raise the same funds through a business loan you would pay around 5% APR and even then it’s not a fair comparison as the bank have actually provided the capital therefor are justified in charging interest. Kickstarter takes a lot less, just 5% plus another 3% or 4% going to the payment processor.
  2. The success of the campaign is almost entirely down to your own following and your ability to effectively communicate with them. Which makes paying the fees mentioned in the previous point even harder to justify.
  3. Many people end up having to put their own money in to make sure the project succeeds, but for every $10 of their own money they put in around $1 goes to fees and commissions.

The concept of crowdfunding is still sound, whether thats through focussed time limited campaigns, pre-orders or ongoing subscriptions getting your capital directly from your audience is extremley useful. 

Aside from the money itself there are some other benefits from this method of fundraising.

The level of engagement involved in promoting your campaigns will naturally result in a stronger bond with many of your fans. You can identify your “super-fans”, these are the people who spend/pledge the most on your products and will likely be very vocal advocates.

You can also use your fans as a focus group to test out new songs, videos and artwork ideas.

Alternatives to using a Crowdfunding website.

Your Own Website 

The most obvious way to raise funds from your fans without using a 3rd party crowdfunding platform is to have that functionaility on your own website. There’s even website templates (available for under $100) pre-configured to work exactly like Kickstarter and other crowdfunding websites and all you need is a payment processor like Stripe or Paypal. Even if you have to pay a web developer something to add this to your site it will still work out cheaper than the commissions you would pay to the crowdfunding sites if your campaigns generate a decent amount of interest. For those on a tight budget a simple paypal button on a page promoting the campaign can be just as effective. 

Your Own Mailing Lists

This is how Marillion did it back in 1992, and direct email marketing is still an effective strategy. The key here is to have a good mailing list, and that isn’t just a case of having tons of email addresses. You need to regularly clense your list, remove people that don’t ever even open your mails. The average engagement for email marketing is about 7%, a well maintained list can be up to 30% or more.

Bandcamp 

Obviously this is a 3rd party, so it does still mean paying a commission but what makes Bandcamp a bit different is that payments come directly to you as they happen. You don’t have to wait at all, the moment someone completes a purchase youget the money. There’s tons of functionality that I’ve already talked about in another article. Even if you don’t want to run your campaign on Bandcamp it’s still a great tool for building your mailing list as you can give away tracks in return for an email address and then run a email fundraising campaign.

QRates

Qrates is a vinyl broker that has crowdfunding options on their website. So it isn’t entirely dissimilar to the fulfillment options that PledgeMusic offered. But with a 100% record of actually fulfilling their orders and campaigns the similarities between them are all surface level. Their commission is quite reasonable, between 10-20%*, and they even have a network of retailers who will purchase your releases wholesale (you can opt to not allow wholesale purchases or limit the amount) I ran a campaign to press 200 7”s and I sold 40 of them to a distributor in Germany. I’ll be writing a complete review of Qrates in a later article. Traxploitation readers get a 5% discount. Use this link to get your discount or enter the code TRAXPLOITATION05 at checkout.

So while PledgeMusic is history, and other Crowdfunding sites are declining (at least in terms of music) raising funds directly from your fans is still a worthwhile strategy and there are tons of ways to run your campaigns. If you do decide to go through a 3rd party be vigilant and look out for any red flags, sign up for the newsletters of the companies you use and pay attention to any changes in the business.

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Bittersweet Victory: Why The Rolling Stones owned 100% of a song they didn’t write and how the writer got it back.

At the 2019 Ivor Novello Awards, Richard Ashcroft announced that after 22 years the dispute over his song, “Bittersweet Symphony” was over. The Rolling Stones would no longer be listed as songwriters or collect any royalties from the song.

Many people are applauding Keith Richards and Mick Jagger for doing this, I’m not so quick to give them credit (pun intended!). At the time the message coming from The Rolling Stones camp was they were entitled to every penny from the track.

In a 1999 interview with Q magazine, Keith Richards said: “If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money”. Also in 1999, Andrew Oldham (The Rolling Stones former producer) said of Ashcroft “…he thinks he wrote something. He didn’t. I hope he’s got over it.”

Don’t jump to any conclusions yet though, this story is far more complex than you can imagine.

So why did The Rolling Stones have a claim to the song in the first place?

The Verve’s 1996 recording of “Bittersweet Symphony” contained a 4 second sample of “The Last Time” released under the name The Andrew Oldham Orchestra.

Andrew Loog Oldham was The Rolling Stones’ manager and producer between 1963 and 1967. In 1966 he released an instrumental album of The Rolling Stones songs using members of the band and an array of session musicians.

The Orchestral Version of the song sounds very little, if at all, like The Rolling Stones version. However, as it is officially released as a cover version, and credits Keith Richards and Mick Jagger as the writers, it is established as a derivative work based on existing copyright material.

Clearing the Sample

Prior to releasing “Bittersweet Symphony” and the accompanying album “Urban Hymns”, The Verve had contacted Decca Records for permission to use the 4-second sample. They intended to give 50% of the composition of “Bittersweet Symphony” to Richards and Jagger for the sample with Ashcroft retaining the other 50% for his lyrics.

Now, within that 4-second sample, there are 2 distinct copyrights. The sound recording of the song, and the composition of the song itself. In this case, Decca Records owned the sound recording of the orchestral version. The Rolling Stones recording and publishing rights of the original version were both owned by ABKCO Records, the company of their former manager Allen Klein.

The Verve had cleared the use of the Decca owned sound recording but had not specifically agreed a deal with ABKCO for use of the composition. Which is where the problem begins.

Despite this oversight, the song was released and quickly became the band’s most successful single. It entered the UK chart at number 2 and stayed in the top 40 for 3 months.

The joy was short lived. Obviously inspired by the songs meteoric success Allen Klein sued The Verve over the rights to what was now a huge hit.

“They rung up and said, we want 100% or take it out of the shops, you don’t have much choice!”

Klein demanded 100% of the rights for the track and that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger be listed as sole composers of “Bittersweet Symphony”. He threatened to force the band to pull all the copies of the album from the shops, which would have been devasting financially to the group.

Meanwhile, the second single from the album, “The Drugs Don’t Work”, became the band’s first number 1 hit. They bowed to the pressure and felt their only option was to agree to Klein’s terms rather than risk losing an expensive legal battle and having to pull an album that now contained the bands 2 biggest hits in their history.

The Verve settled the case out of court and signed over 100% of the rights to ABKCO, with Richard Ashcroft reportedly receiving just $1000 in return.

Before we get into how Richard Ashcroft got back his rights, let’s look at a few details that are sometimes overlooked in this case.

Was “Last Time” the first time?

Firstly, The Rolling Stones version isn’t exactly an original work itself. It’s clearly based heavily on “This could be the last time” a traditional gospel song made famous by The Staple Singers….have a listen to the chorus.

If you need any more convincing, in 2003 Keith Richards confirmed the influence of The Staple Singers song. “…we came up with ‘The Last Time’, which was basically re-adapting a traditional gospel song that had been sung by the Staple Singers, but luckily the song itself goes back into the mists of time.”

The lifetime of the copyright in a composition is currently 70 years after the composer/author’s death. So folk songs and other traditional songs that have been around far longer than that are not protected by copyright. Instead, they are considered “public domain” meaning you can create a new song based on the traditional song and then copyright that. Which is what The Rolling Stones did with “The Last Time”

The sample wasn’t in the early versions of the song

It’s hard to imagine “Bitter Sweet Symphony” without the strings but actually before recording the now iconic version Richard Ashcroft recorded the song with producer John Leckie, without the sample. From a legal standpoint, this proves that Richard Ashcroft wrote the song with no influence whatsoever from the Rolling Stones (or The Staple Singers) songs.

New Strings Attached!

On The Verve’s recording, the strings you hear at the start are not from the sample, they follow the same chords as the strings in the sample but the riff itself was written by string arranger Wil Malone. It’s worth noting that chord progressions are not protected by copyright so the fact that Malone’s riff follows the progression is irrelevant.

Ghost Writer…

The actual part of the orchestral version that was sampled wasn’t written by Keith Richards, Mick Jagger or even Andrew Oldham. It was written by string arranger David Whitaker who rarely gets mentioned and isn’t credited on any of the recordings.

With all that taken into consideration, it’s hard not to rank this as one of the biggest injustices in the music industry. Especially when you think about the fact the song was nominated for a Grammy in 1999 and the ballot named Jagger and Richards.

Who’s to blame?

Despite Keith Richards’ comments at the time “Bittersweet Symphony” was released, neither Richards or Jagger was actually directly involved in the dispute between The Verve and ABKCO Records.

Allen Klein

The instigator of the dispute was notorious music mogul Allen Klein. He was so influential in the music industry that at one point he managed both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the 2 biggest bands on the planet, simultaneously. He’s credited with both saving rock ‘n’ roll and blamed for breaking up The Beatles.

His bullish business practices earned as many fans as it did enemies, John Lennon loved him, Paul McCartney hated him. Richards and Jagger were impressed at first, not least of all because Klein renegotiated their record deal to guarantee them $2.6million and make them higher earners than The Beatles. They soon came to distrust him though, as it seemed he was making much more out of the band than a manager should.

The original music industry disruptor?

I could fill an entire blog with accounts of his business dealings, and maybe I will at some point, but here’s a brief outline of his management model.

Klein set up ABKCO Records and when signing artists their recording and publishing rights were transferred to his company, or to a newly formed holding company. He would then license the works to labels. In itself, there is nothing wrong with the model. At first, it seemed to really work well for the artists.

For example, he set up a holding company for Sam Cooke that produced and owned his music. He then licensed the recordings to RCA Victor in a deal that gave RCA distribution rights for just 30 years (rather than forever as was common at the time) in return for 6% of the royalties and a minimum of $500,000 in advances paid to Cooke over 3 years.

The nature of the deals he did was unheard of at the time and certainly went a long way to shifting the distribution of power, and money, more in favour of the artists. However, he always managed to insert himself in the deals in such a way that he was able to make huge amounts of money for himself, but not without raising suspicions.

Rolling the Stones

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Allen Klein leave court.

In 1968, just 3 years after becoming their manager, The Rolling Stones had become so distrustful of Klein they hired London law firm Berger Oliver & Co to look into their financial affairs and Jagger hired the band’s future manager Prince Rupert Loewenstein as his personal financial adviser.

Jagger and the band discovered that buried in the small print of their deals with Klein were clauses that allowed ABKCO to withhold millions of dollars from them. This included a $1.25million advance paid by Decca in 1965 that ABKCO did not legally have to pass on to the band for 20 years!

In 1970 Klein was replaced by Loewenstein and the band spent more than 20 years sueing ABKCO to get their rights back and recover unpaid royalties. However, they were unable to break the terms of their management deal with Klein.

This meant that in the midst of the dispute and despite numerous legal battles ABKCO was able to release 4 albums by The Rolling Stones after the band had moved on to new management.

As well as owning the songs released during his time as manager, ABKCO had also purchased the rights held by the previous manager Andrew Oldham for $750,000. This included “The Last Time”. Which bring us back to “Bittersweet Symphony”

Back to 1997…

Given his past practices, it was inevitable that Allen Klein would take advantage of his rights in The Rolling Stones works. That same track record means we can never be sure how much, if any, of the money from “Bittersweet Symphony” actually made it into the hands of Jagger and Richards.

We can be fairly certain that Klein was acting solely in his own interest when he initiated legal proceedings back in 1997. That doesn’t explain Keith Richards’ comments in the Q Magazine interview, which seem to assert his belief that they have a claim to The Verve’s track. For now, I will put that down to Rock ‘n’ Roll hyperbole.

The fight for rights.

So how did they get the rights back? Most people’s go to tactic in these type of situations is to sue. Their lawyer calls the other persons lawyer and the two lawyers argue it out, clocking up countless billable hours of legal work.

Often a lawyers main objective is to shield their client from these disputes, on many occasions they will try to settle it with as little involvement from their client as possible. Sometimes they even initiate cases without consulting their client, like the time Metallica’s attorney issued a 41 page cease and desist notification to a tribute band.

So you can’t assume an artist or band is involved in legal cases initiated in their name. Likewise, you can’t assume you are dealing with the artist when trying to negotiate via a lawyer, manager or another intermediary.

Instead of suing Jagger and Richards, they made the sensible first step of just asking them to give back the rights before getting litigious.

It worked. According to Richard Ashcroft’s management, “Mick and Keith immediately, unhesitatingly and unconditionally agreed to this request. Incredibly generously and as an indication of what great artists and men they are they have agreed that to the extent it is within their power they have given Richard his song back.”

Follow the money…

So all future royalties earnings of the song will now go to Ashcroft, but what about the 22 years of royalties that have already been paid? Will they be given back too?

Allen Klein died in 2007 and his son Jody has been managing ABKCO since 2005, so any negotiations about retroactive payments from the money received by ABKCO will have to go through him.

Perhaps Mick Jagger and Keith Richards will “unhesitatingly” and “generously” repay the money they received if asked? It’s hard to estimate how much that would be but if you take into account the airplay it received (which attracts a licensing fee paid by the broadcaster), and the movies and TV shows it has been in, the amount is likely to be in the 10’s of millions.

It’s fantastic that one of the biggest injustices in music has been corrected and that the true writer will be credited but the huge financial losses and emotional strain caused by the dispute make this a bittersweet victory.