By Simon Napier-Bell
A one-volume insider history of the whole damn music business
Would you, if you’d written a novel, sign the rights to a publisher who agreed to neither print your book nor market it yet demanded half of any money you might make from it if someone else did? Well, that’s music publishing.
And would you, if you'd finished making mortgage payments on your house, be happy for it to remain the property of the building society? Because that's what happens when artists finish paying off the cost of making their records.
These things seem so foolish, so outrageous, so utterly without logic that there simply has to be a reason for them to be like that. And there is…
The man in front of me was a jelly gorilla. His short-sleeved white shirt revealed flabby runnels of spare fat flowing down the underside of his arms like melting liver sausage. Sitting at his desk, the top of his stomach reached right up to his neck. He was three hundred and fifty pounds of collapsing flesh. How he could manage to pull all this weight upwards and get it balanced on two legs was amazing. But he did. And we shook hands.
He was Mike Stewart, president of United Artists Music, New York. Standing next to him was his sidekick, the company’s vice-president, Murray Deutsch, polished and petite, like a life-sized porcelain figurine.
Just five foot seven, Murray was packaged in an exquisitely cut charcoal suit with a perfectly knotted tie and a stiffly pressed collar. At the bottom of his suit, his shoes shone like black onyx. At the top, his rose-apple face stuck out like a dollop of pink mayonnaise on a prawn cocktail. This was Mike Stewart's pet sycophant – a plaything for the boss. In the middle of our meeting a shoeshine boy knocked at the office door. Mike flipped him a quarter and told Murray to have a shoe shine.
“I don’t need one," Murray told him.
Nor did he. His shoes were like mirrors. But Mike snapped back, “Murray, if I tell you you’re gonna have a shoeshine, you’re gonna have one.” So Murray concurred.
This was 1966. Through a stroke of luck I’d written the lyrics to a hit song, ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’. Writing songs wasn’t what I really did, I was a manager, though that was also due to a stroke of luck. One day out of the blue the Yardbirds had phoned me and asked if I'd like to manage them. ‘Well - yes please!’
The lyrics for ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ had been co-written with Vicki Wickham who was a producer at Ready Steady Go, Britain's top pop show. She was also a friend of Dusty Springfield, who'd found the song in Italy and asked us where she could get English lyrics for it. We knew nothing about writing songs but had a go at it. Next thing we knew the song was number one. And because management was turning out to be hard work, I thought, “Maybe this is what I should be doing.”
United Artists misguidedly thought the same. They approached me and Vicki and asked if we’d like to sign an exclusive songwriting agreement. Apart from a nice advance they also offered a flight to New York to meet the head of the company, Mike Stewart, which is why we were there.
Mike had an idea. “Murray – why don’t you take Simon and Vicki over to the Brill building.”
He turned to us, “You know about the Brill, don’t you? It’s where all the top songwriters work. Murray will show you round.”
Mike’s dapper little servant led us off to see something we knew about but had never seen.
It was a building heaving with activity, cramped small offices, people running in and out of the passageways, everyone seemingly knowing everyone else, dark, cramped, hugely atmospheric but equally claustrophobic. This was the American music industry in microcosm. In this building were publishers, pluggers, music printers, demo studios, but most important of all – songwriters.
Murray took us to a floor on which every door had a six-inch square window to see in through, like prison cells. Inside each room was a pianist at an upright piano and someone else sitting on a stool beside them. Pianos were banged, melodies hummed, chorus lines sung, and phrases tossed around between piano-players and stool-sitters. There was no air-conditioning. The temperature in the street was in the eighties. In here it was more like the nineties.
“They all work 10 to 6, five days a week,” Murray told us. “They write America's hits. We want you to join them.”
“But who are they?” we asked. “Who on earth agrees to sit in a little sweatbox and slog away at writing songs in such an atmosphere.”
Murray opened a door. “Neil,” he said. “I want you to meet a couple of guys from England. They've just written one of the greatest songs ever.”
Turning from the piano we saw Neil Sedaka. Three years earlier his song “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” had been number one. So why was he slaving away in here?
Vicki knew him; she'd booked him on Ready Steady Go a few months previously. “Neil,” she asked, “why on earth do you spend your day working in a tiny room like this?”
He grinned. “Well – the truth is – I'm under contract. But that's not really the reason. It's just that.... This is how we do it. And we love it. We're all here. All songwriters together.”
Vicki shook her head in disbelief.
Murray opened the next door. “Carole. Meet two friends from England.”
The face at the piano turned towards us. It was Carole King. Carol had written one of the most memorable hits of the early sixties, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”. It was unbelievable that the reward for having done so was to be imprisoned eight hours a day. Vicki knew Carole too, and asked her, “Why do you work in a place like this?”
“It can be a bit of a nightmare sometimes,” Carole admitted.
It was incredible – like a car factory - a conveyor belt of songwriters.
Murray shut the door. “Burt Bacharach worked here until last year too,” he told us. “All the great songwriters do. We want you to join them.”
When we got back to the office Mike Stewart was tucking into his lunch – a bucket of Kentucky fried chicken and a half-gallon milkshake. “Whad’ya think?” he asked, spilling crispy bits into his lap. “You wanna stay here for a few weeks and work with the best? We’ll pay your accommodation.”
We both shook our heads.
“Do you want to know what these guys earn?”
We didn't. It was irrelevant. Our lives were about London. I tried to explain that back home I had the Yardbirds to manage and Vicki had a job producing Ready Steady Go.
Mike got tetchy and banged his desk. “You just don’t get it, do you? In this business, the song is the one and only commodity. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The history of music publishing is the history of the music industry. Forget records, forget TV shows, forget rock groups – they're a mere triviality. Songs are forever. When you've finished your time in this business, all you'll have left is the songs. You guys should stay here and get rich.”
We both knew, if we were serious about wanting to be top songwriters, we should stay and work in that dreadful building. Even worse, we ought to try and make friends of these two men – a slag-heap of falling flesh and his perfectly tailored pet frog.
Without even looking at Vicki I knew what she was thinking - it wasn’t us who didn’t “get it”, it was these guys. They were completely ignorant about the cool world we inhabited on the other side of the Atlantic. They knew nothing about pop groups and pirate radio, Kings Road and trendy nightlife, lazy dinners and easy sex. They obviously hadn't a clue what was going on in the real world. As far as we were concerned the music business was a British thing; America was just a backwater. Why would anyone want to exchange the pleasures of swinging London for a songwriters’ Alcatraz?
“I'm sorry,” I told Mike. “We really need to get back to London.” Vicki nodded in agreement, and he gave a helpless shrug.
But back in London managing the Yardbirds, I soon found I needed to know more about music publishing. In fact, bearing in mind I was managing one of the world's top rock groups, I thought it was about time I learnt more about the music industry in general - how it worked, how it had come into existence, how it had managed to get by without me for a hundred years – so I started reading.
Twelve months later I felt better informed. But I've been surprised ever since by how few other people in the business really know anything about it. So I decided the time had come to write it all down in one book.
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