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Triumph of the Underdogs

Bug Music publishing

Publishing may seem like pretty dry stuff, but the failure to understand this side of the business has, time and again, cost artists dearly. Just ask Little Richard or John Fogerty. Copyrights are an asset that will continue to provide dividends for an indefinite period of time. Writers should never give them up, but some still make that mistake. There are also those involved with publishing deals who don't understand the process, particularly little labels that need to be taught how important it is to pay publishing and not throw the invoice in a stack with the electric bill to be paid at a later date. Bug has done much to simplify matters by taking the legalese out of their concise one-page contracts and giving labels fill-in-the-blank forms for royalty statements (the company even has sent calculators to some mathematically challenged labels).

Bug actually prides itself on never missing a royalty period and paying its writers every three months for the past 25 years. Fred explains: "What we've instilled in everyone by getting these royalty checks out on schedule is that if you're with Bug, you'll get paid -- although there was one band we signed that had pressed their own records and then got mad at us because we never paid them. We had to explain that if you press up your own record, then you're the record company. For us to send you a check, we'd have to collect the money from you and then send it back to you!"

All of Bug's deals come up for renewal yearly, at which point clients are free to leave and take their business elsewhere. Few do. The loyalty of Bug's clients is quite an extraordinary testament to the brothers' stellar reputation. Still, Alvin admits he knows a few songwriters who will gripe a bit about Bug. He credits those complaints to unrealistic expectations. "Some people will tell me they don't think Bug is pushing their song enough," he says, "but I have to tell them: 'You're writing songs about Santería, death, and destruction. Garth Brooks is never going to cover your songs!'"

Going head to head with Led Zeppelin, transforming Iggy Pop into a TV-commercial composer  --  it's just another day for Bug Music publishing
Going head to head with Led Zeppelin, transforming Iggy Pop into a TV-commercial composer -- it's just another day for Bug Music publishing

The brothers have worked with some writers for so long they're now signing their clients' children as well, working with more than one generation of the Allison (Mose and Amy), Cash (Johnny and Roseanne), and Bramhall (Doyle Jr. and Sr.) clans. Louie Perez of Los Lobos -- who has been with Bug since the early Eighties, before the band even had a contract -- believes he's "been very fortunate to work with people who have a homegrown aesthetic. Bug has been like a family to us. I mean, they show up at our kids' birthday parties! A lot of the time in this industry, you have to separate business and friendship, but with Bug we can operate as business partners and still be friends. I think it's a unique thing. And when they're placing my songs, they always let me know if there's any potential ethical, ideological, or moral issue that I might be opposed to."

Fred says they've known non-Bug songwriters "who all of the sudden see someone's throat getting slit while their song is playing [onscreen in a film]. It's happened. Everyone has their own idea about how their songs should be used. Some don't like their songs in commercials. Others don't like them associated with cigarettes and alcohol. Some have strong political beliefs, and they have every right to make sure that the songs they write don't get used to promote something they don't believe in. And we try to make sure that never happens."

At Bug protecting artists' rights is almost a crusade, one that hasn't lost any of its fervor, even as the company has grown. "What's interesting about all these huge corporate megamergers at the moment is that it's exactly the opposite of where we're going," says Dan. "We're growing, but we're growing with the entrepreneurial spirit. We're still saying, 'Keep your publishing; keep your copyrights.' As a result if you're chasing something down for Iggy Pop, you feel that satisfaction of 'Hey, I'm doing this for Iggy Pop.'" Interestingly Iggy has been so nonmainstream over the past three decades, no one except perhaps Dan and Fred could have foreseen his songs being used in national TV commercials. "And Iggy owns those songs," adds Dan. "It's not the property of some big corporation. It's not owned by some AOL faceless thing on the Internet."

"There are writers out there who don't even know who owns their songs," says Fred. Dan offers an example: "We were walking to lunch with Marshall Crenshaw -- this was awhile back, so the songs have probably changed hands three times since then -- but he was talking about a company that owned his early stuff. Marshall says, 'I don't know who owns the company now.' He was drinking a Coca-Cola, and we told him: 'Well, you're drinking it!' Coke had bought his old publishing company. And he was like [baffled], 'Coke owns my songs?'

"In the early Eighties, we started delving into old blues royalties, because a lot of these guys were being totally ripped off," Dan continues. "We'd cut our teeth on all this renegade punk stuff, so it was like, 'Blues? Okay, give us those guys!'" John Lee Hooker enjoyed a career revival after signing with Bug, and a big smile forms on Fred's face as he recalls the late Willie Dixon, perhaps the greatest blues songwriter of all time, who finally got what he was entitled to because of Bug's efforts. Prior to signing with Bug, Dixon was victimized by events that included Led Zeppelin ripping off his material to create "Whole Lotta Love" without giving the great bluesman credit. (The song, of course, was credited to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.) After signing, Dixon was receiving royalty payments in the tens of thousands for, among other things, Etta James singing a snippet of his "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" in a Coke commercial. "He would come into the office to get his checks, and he would just be so proud," Dan gushes.

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