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Songwriters Overcome Thorny Obstacles to Hit Paydirt in Entertainment Business

Posted in News on August 28, 2002

The music of the Austin Powers' films is even more memorable when one contemplates the difficulties overcome by the composer who created it. "The odds against making it as a composer in Hollywood are staggering, yet we continue to try," said George S. Clinton, who scored all three of the James Bond spoofs, including the current Austin Powers in Goldmember.

Clinton added, "Maybe it's being too stubborn to give up, or having an ego that says we're the one in ten thousand that will beat the odds, or maybe we're just too stupid to see what's so obvious to everyone else. Whatever it is, we keep at it."

Successful people often attribute their accomplishment to blind perseverance, faithful friends, and good luck -- overlooking their own obvious talent. Clinton said the help of friends and business contacts he established during his career journey facilitated his climb through the ranks. "For me, one of the main factors in my being able to stick with it has been the support and guidance of the wonderful people I met along the way. The folks at BMI continue to be invaluable."

A non-profit performing rights organization, BMI collects and distributes songwriter royalties when music is played by TV networks, radio stations, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and hotels -- almost any business that plays music. The organization also lobbies for songwriters in legislative sessions and corporate boardrooms where copyright issues affecting songwriters are decided.

Stories are common about business deals in the entertainment industry that leave creative people uncompensated. Bo Diddley, a founding father of sock-hop rock, recently told the Los Angeles Times that he was among the many denied their due. "I was one of them," he said. "I was dealt the wrong hand in the card game. I was brought up in a generation of trusting people, and we found out that there are few people out there who can be trusted. Everybody gets funny with the money. "

Diddley has a very different story, however, regarding his songwriting performance royalties. "The only people that ever did me right, in the 1950s and all the way up through now, is BMI," he said. "I have no regrets in my 47 years with them; everything in the book was right."

Mike Post, music composer for such television shows as "Law and Order" and "NYPD Blue," said the security of having BMI behind him gives him the peace of mind to concentrate on composing. "Frances Preston (BMI President and CEO) and BMI have my back," said Post. "I don't have to worry about that part of it. That's taken care of. It's a given. It's straight up; it's honest; it's not political."

"It has to do with somebody taking care of those of us who write music for a living," Post continued. "These people do it, in my opinion, better than anybody on the face of the earth."

When BMI came on the scene in 1940, many songwriters had little opportunity to pursue a career. The music industry was something of a closed shop. Only about 1,100 songwriters and composers and 140 music publishers shared in performing rights revenues.

"Prior to BMI's founding, the music business was not readily accessible to newcomers," said TV host Dick Clark. "BMI opened the doors for the young, the black, the country, the non-traditional songwriter. It widened the opportunity for more creative people to participate in the art of music."

In the public mind, recording artists, songwriters, and musicians often are lumped together as a single occupation with common issues. Although one person can engage in all three livelihoods simultaneously, they are not paid the same way, and they rely on different organizations and companies to be compensated for their work. While songwriters are entitled to a few cents from record companies for every song on a CD or cassette sold, many successful songwriters receive the majority of their income through the public performance of the music -- on radio and TV stations, in public places, and in businesses. In most of these instances, someone other than the songwriter is performing the composition.

Although the right of public performance is reserved exclusively for the songwriter under copyright law, anyone may play a song in public if permission is obtained. BMI collects money for these recorded and live performances and distributes the revenue to its more than 300,000 affiliated songwriters and publishers. Operating as a non-profit company, BMI currently pays out about 84 cents of each dollar collected to owners of copyrighted music.