Thursday, May 03, 2007

 

Music industry, thy name is greed


By Edward Copeland
Fans of WKRP in Cincinnati will no doubt remember the episode from which the above scene came, when Jennifer agreed to be Les' date to the banquet where he was to receive his coveted Silver Sow Award. No matter if you saw the episode when it first aired in 1979 or its infrequent appearances in syndication, you probably fondly remember this sequence, where Les prepares to dress for the big night, complete with ascot and hairpiece and all set hilariously to the sounds of Foreigner's "Hot Blooded."

Those will be mere memories if you watch the episode on the long-awaited DVD release of season 1, thanks to the moneygrubbing music industry's insistence of trying to constantly extort more money, depriving audiences of a priceless moment and themselves of publicity for the sake of greed.


Fighting over music rights is what has delayed the release of WKRP for so long in the first place. On a commentary track, WKRP creator Hugh Wilson even notes, "That used to be Pink Floyd there." It's hardly the first case of music industry greed either hampering works or making DVD packages more expensive (see Freaks and Geeks, The Sopranos) if the makers insist on keeping the original music.

I've even experienced examples of this in syndicated versions of series. The memorable St. Elsewhere finale, which originally included a favorite opera recording of Dr. Auschlander's, played in syndication with more generic music similar to the show's theme. The final punchline of the finale of Newhart, which originally included the playing of The Bob Newhart Show theme, plays in syndication with the standard Newhart music. Both were MTM shows and they still couldn't make a deal? Now, I'm no legal or music industry expert, but it would seem to me that there is a world of difference between playing a song in the background than being held up by performers who actually agreed to perform on the show. Do talk shows have to renegotiate every time they rerun an episode featuring a musical performer?

How about old episodes of Saturday Night Live? Surely they've made some sort of deal to avoid this kind of greedy nonsense. Why haven't series producers made the same sort of deals? I've never illegally (or legally for that matter) downloaded a song in my life, but I'm starting to support such activities when I continue to see the unmitigated avarice of the music industry. Remember back when multimillionaire Garth Brooks was whining because he only got paid once for people buying his CDs but didn't get a cut if someone bought used copies of his albums? How much do they need? It's one thing to refuse to give a filmmaker or TV show the rights to a song in the first place (such as when Led Zeppelin said no to letting "Stairway to Heaven" into Almost Famous or "Dazed and Confused" in to Dazed and Confused) but quite another to agree to a song's use and then come back later and demand more. My God, how much money does Martin Scorsese have to spend to keep the songs he chooses in his various films? Actually, the answer is that for "prestige projects" such as a Scorsese film or The Sopranos, they give "favored nations" rates that little guys don't receive.  When I see Billy Batts get the shit kicked out of him in Goodfellas, it damn well better be to Donovan's "Atlantis." The music industry behaves like Paulie (Paul Sorvino) in Goodfellas when he becomes a partner in The Bamboo Lounge, "Had a bad week? Fuck you! Pay me!"

Most of the music used in WKRP has had to be replaced and most of it isn't that noticeable, but the deletion of "Hot Blooded" is particularly egregious. Who knows how many people hearing that song again might have had a sudden urge to actually buy something by Foreigner? UPDATE: For a really great recent article about this effect on WKRP, read Noel Murray's excellent AV Club piece on the "Mike Fright" episode. There also are odd moments such as in the "Commercial Break" episode about making a jingle for the funeral home chain when Herb asks everyone in the office to show off their singing skills. I don't remember exactly what Johnny sang — it was just a few words as he opened the door and slid out of the room — but it was apparently something real because now Johnny doesn't say anything and just silently wheels out of the room.

Back when I was in college, in a lame attempt at "investigative journalism," I questioned whether a local news station had secured the rights to John Carpenter's memorable theme from Halloween to use in a sweeps-month promotion ad. After many phone calls, I finally spoke to the person who held the rights to the music and his response was that he didn't know if the TV station had secured the rights, but he didn't really care because he figured it might inspire people to buy or rent Halloween again so he'd still make money and considered it good promotion. If only others in his industry felt the same way instead of demanding outrageous fees that end up with their music not being used and their potential customers having their fond memories destroyed.


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Comments:
I don't have all the answers to everything you put forth. TV and radio stations (I believe) typically have contracts with BMI and ASCAP that allow them to use tunes in the "temporary", for lack of a better phrase. Obviously a TV ad isn't going to hit DVD anytime soon and has no resale value. Any kind of DVD release of a movie or TV show would fall under a different banner entirely -- and whether it be Donovan, Foreigner or Pink Floyd, I think we can assume the artists in question aren't usually bothered by these issues. It is, as you point out, greedy middle men -- which perhaps absolves a company like Fox.

As much as we purists recognize the value of "Hot Blooded” -- and the internets are aghast over its exclusion -- ultimately it comes down to dollars, and whether or not the WKRP set will sell to expectations without it (and countless other “priceless” omissions). If it does fine by Fox’s expectations, we can assume that future WKRP sets will be handled similarly. If the release fails, Fox must weigh options: Did it fail because we screwed it up or because there’s little interest in WKRP? For fans wanting more WKRP, that’s quite the gamble if they want to be bullheaded and not make the purchase. My most recent piece at the Morgue made my thoughts fairly clear. This series seems like the ultimate benchmark for the test. I’m going to pick up the set and weigh in on my opinion of WKRP’s possible future on DVD shortly.
 
I recently had a chance to ask John Wells about the possible DVD release of another favorite series of mine, China Beach. He confirmed that music rights were slowing up the process, but that he was determined to keep talking to Motown and others in an attempt to get the series out. Here's hoping; that's another series that wouldn't be the same without its music.
 
You make me mad, Ed! I had no idea garth Brooks was such a douche. When I think of Saturday Night Live on DVD, aren't they just the 'best of actors'? I don't really follow the DVD release of SNL, but I don't remember too many musical moments in these Best ofs.

Man... GOD! If I didn't hate Garth already, I'd hate him now...
 
I don't know about SNL on DVD, but what I was meaning (and I probably didn't say it clearly enough) is that when they show reruns in syndication of it, the musical guests are included and musical guests reappear on reruns of talk shows as well, so I figured that the same rule should apply to The Larry Sanders Show, since the performers themselves agreed to appear and perform in the first place. You are probably right about no SNL musical performers on DVD for the same reason, because of the greed.
 
Ed, sorry for arriving late to the party, but it's wrong to assume that musical acts on "Larry Sanders" would be judged according to rules that govern performance on talk and variety shows. It's a scripted series (the improvised "talk show" parts notwithstanding). Talk shows don't generally repeat that often, and rarely have any life beyond the year in which they originally aired (with rare exceptions, like the Ed Ames tomahawk episode of "The Tonight Show"). Scripted shows go into syndication, end up on DVD and VHS, etc., so the creators have to negotiate a step deal, to pay the musicians something at each stage (and in the case of powerful performers or labels, a bit more depending on how many copies are sold).

As I explained in the "Larry Sanders" thread over at The House Next Door, there are two sets of rights -- one for the performance, the other for the song. In the case of "Larry Sanders," it doesn't really matter what the performers or their labels had to say about the performance itself -- if a record label wants more money because Warren Zevon is onstage singing "Werewolves of London" while Rip Torn grins, the producers of the series have to cough up more money. The process is bifurcated that way and always has been.

All the steps have to be agreed-upon in advance, and fees or potential fees hammered out in advance -- otherwise the record labels can come back and ask more money for any step after the first or second. And if the filmmaker says no, they yank the music. As is their right.

I know it's tempting to blame performers and record labels for this whole mess -- and I certainly have no love for major record labels, having dealt with them professionally myself on the filmmaking end of things -- but your argument is one-sided and assigns no responsibility to the filmmakers.

Hugh Wilson deserves a pass because WKRP went on the air in the 70s, when VHS, DVD, etc were just gleams in some techie's eye.

But the makers of "Larry Sanders," "Felicity," "My So-Called Life" and other series that came around after home video have nobody to blame but themselves when they have to replace songs due to exorbitant rights demands by record labels.

A filmmaker or TV producer who wants a good song in a scene should use one that's not affordable at every step. If that means you don't use "Dazed and Confused" or "Everybody Hurts" or some other huge seller, so be it. Use a song by a lesser-known band or a smaller label -- artists who will cut the filmmaker a break and ensure that the music stays in, instead of appearing once and then vanishing somewhere down the line.
 
D'oh!

That last paragraph should have read:

A filmmaker or TV producer who wants a good song in a scene should use one that IS affordable at every step. If that means you don't use "Dazed and Confused" or "Everybody Hurts" or some other huge seller, so be it. Use a song by a lesser-known band or a smaller label -- artists who will cut the filmmaker a break and ensure that the music stays in, instead of appearing once and then vanishing somewhere down the line.
 
Of course, the earliest Larry Sanders (as well as Wonder Years and China Beach which others mentioned) pre-dated DVD as well. While it is true that TV producers try to get off on the cheap, I still think the music industry acts like Paulie did with the manager of the Bamboo Room in GoodFellas ("Bad week? Fuck you. Pay me."). How much is enough? In the cases of shows like China Beach and The Wonder Years, the music of the time is essential to placing them firmly in that era and if they agree in the first place, I think it's despicable for them to hold them up for more years later.
 
RE: SNL

Up until recently most of the SNL DVDs were "Best of" discs and the like, but around Christmas Universal released the entire First Season of SNL - and it included if not all, then nearly every single musical performance from that season (of which there were many).

I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to put that set together and it was pretty pricey (retailing for $70), but so far Universal seems to have been leading the pack as far this kind of thing is concerned, as is also evidenced by their MIAMI VICE season sets, which include quite a bit of the original music.

Hopefully Fox sees fit to be a bit more discriminating on future WKRP releases. It's been pointed out by many that even if they'd paid for a half a dozen or so key songs (like "Dogs" & "Hot Blooded") fans likely would've been more forgiving.
 
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