Triumph of the Underdogs

At a time when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is lobbying Congress to pass a law that would make all recording artists nothing more than "workers for hire" (essentially making them even less than a label employee), it's refreshing to see there are still people like Dan and Fred Bourgoise out there trying to preserve the rights of artists. The brothers (whose Los Angeles- based Bug Music publishing company celebrates its 25th anniversary this month) inspire admiration in even the most difficult to please.

"I can probably count on one hand the people I have good things to say about in the music business. They are two of them," remarks Lisa Fancher, president of the long-running indie label Frontier Records, and a woman not known for her kind opinions. In an effort to help with journalistic objectivity, she adds: "If I could think of anyone who hated them, I would pass it along. But I really can't."

When Bug was launched in 1975, there wasn't anyone doing what the brothers did for songwriters in the song-publishing field, and, for the most part, there still isn't. Elder brother Dan came to California from Detroit in 1965 as the late Del Shannon's tour manager. He spent the intervening ten years working with Shannon, managing bands, "being a hippie," and eventually doing A&R for UA records. The last of these gigs "totally disillusioned me about being in the corporate world at all," he recalls. "I ended up getting fired. I was told I wasn't a team player, so I was like, 'Okay, I guess I'm going to have to start my own team.'"

Dan was more than amenable to a pitch from Shannon, which was, basically: "Get me my old songwriter copyrights back [including the very lucrative 'Runaway,' which even Elvis had recorded] and I'll split them with you." The process of tracking down Shannon's old copyrights and collecting what was due took approximately two years, but in the meantime Dan began running with the music-rights quest Shannon had inspired, convincing others like Asleep at the Wheel, the Alpha Band, Moon Martin, and indie labels like Bomp! and Rollin' Rock to let him help them sort out that side of the business. Once there was enough work for two people, Fred quit his job as a singles buyer for Tower Records, joined his brother, and Bug was born. They understand how others might find working with a sibling difficult, but for them it's never been a problem.

"Maybe it's because we're Polish!" jokes Fred. In August 1976 they moved into the Hollywood Boulevard building they remain in to this day, though they've since leased a lot more space and have opened offices in Nashville (1985), London (1992), New York (1996), and Munich (1999). They've grown from one person administering approximately 20 copyrights, to a company of about 40 people (including two lawyers) handling 70,000 copyrights. Bug's current roster includes songwriters as diverse as Iggy Pop, Johnny Cash, Los Lobos, the Dixie Chicks, Atari Teenage Riot, Peter Case, Nashville Pussy, Buddy Guy, Melle Mel, Dave Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock, Eddie Palmieri, John Lee Hooker, and Pere Ubu, as well as the estates of Willie Dixon, Gram Parsons, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Janis Joplin, and the late Darby Crash of Germs fame (whose mother "still gets a good-size check every quarter," according to Fred). And that list barely scratches the surface.

According to Fancher success hasn't changed the Bourgoises. "It's so rare when people do well in this industry and they don't turn into idiots or become evil and power-grabbers," she says. "Fred and Dan started out doing everything the right way, step by step, slowly building the business and never getting out of hand." Songwriter Dave Alvin, who's been with the company since the Blasters' early days on Rollin' Rock in the late Seventies, admits one thing has changed from that time, when spontaneous office parties were the norm. "You can't just drop by to drink all their beer anymore," he chuckles. "It used to just be Dan, Fred, and one other employee, and Fred would usually answer the office phone. Now, a receptionist answers and it's like, 'David Allen?'" Despite the slightly less-personal environment, Alvin claims he "trusts them" more than anyone else in the music business. "Slash Records [the Blasters' second label] had all this rhetoric about being different from the major labels and corporations, and I bought into it at the time. It turned out they were as big crooks as anybody. But Bug never had any rhetoric at all. They really were different. They were honest."

When Bug began many singer-songwriters had abandoned traditional music publishers (most of which didn't have any use for up-and-coming artists), simply leaving the business of administering their copyrights to lawyers and accountants. "Bug Music really began as a hybrid of the things old-time, traditional [Tin Pan Alley] music publishing companies did, pitching songs to outlets and encouraging writers," explains Dan. "The major publishers at that point had really given up on anything that was associated with 'street' or new music. They were content to just have their big names that made big money, and they basically acted as banks. Most of the writers we began working with fell under the radar."

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!'"

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.

Marie Dixon, Willie's widow, recalls that her husband's old publishing company "would give him a statement, but it was always difficult to decipher what it really meant; it wasn't a clear statement in which you could determine where your money was coming from or how much. After Willie went to Bug, we didn't have that problem anymore." She calls the increase in their income "significant," because not only did Bug take a smaller fraction than the other company did, but it also actually worked his catalogue, placing songs in commercials and films. "We were able to finance the Blues Heaven Foundation [which educates songwriters about publishing, aids artists in need, and provides scholarships to inner-city youth] after Willie began working with Bug Music."

Alvin laughs as he remembers one event in which he was stuck between Bug and one of its big corporate rivals. "I was dating this songwriter, and she'd just left Bug for this big-money publishing deal," he recounts. "She made me go with her to the BMI awards, the sort of event I hate, and we had to sit with her publishing company. For some reason they kept saying bad things about Bug. The Bug guys, who were sitting at another table, kept teasing me for sitting with these other guys, but I had no choice. Finally, after I'd had a few beers, I turned to these people and started screaming in their faces: 'What have you done that's so great? Did you go to England to get Willie Dixon's royalties back like Bug did?'"

Bug is looking ahead, with both brothers cautiously optimistic about the future of the Internet and digital music as another avenue where writers can make income. "The only good thing about AOL buying Time Warner and EMI is that what they essentially did was buy the largest number of copyrights in the world, millions of them," says Dan. "Since AOL is a digital company, they're not going to create a situation where this asset is given away for nothing." He gets excited when he begins to use his imagination. "Maybe someday you can dial up on your computer, and a guitar player will come up on your screen with a little box that lets you give your credit card number to throw coins into his guitar case, so to speak."

You can be certain that when it happens, Dan and Fred will be there to make sure the guitar player gets his or her royalty check.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sabrina Kaleta