There are three kinds of problems that musicians will have with securing royalties on movies – the soundtrack can be a flop because of the movie regardless of career-best material that was exclusive to the soundtrack. The soundtrack can be a huge hit, but their manager screwed them over. The third problem is an ultimatum where they wrongly choose a percentage of copyright ownership over a percentage of the producer’s share of publishing income (which is actually in addition to the songwriter’s share of publishing income). Here are examples of those scenarios in no particular order…
In October of 1980, the Bee Gees filed an $200+ million lawsuit against Robert Stigwood and PolyGram. As reported in Rolling Stone, the suit sought 75 million from both Stigwood and the Polygram group (co-owner of Stigwood’s companies), 50 million in punitive damages, millions in back royalties, the return of all the B.G. master recordings (along with copyrights), and releases from all contractual obligations to Stigwood. The Australian brothers claimed an independent audit revealed that Stigwood owed them millions in back royalties. They charged that Stigwood had mismanaged them to his own advantage. The languor of B.G. was not ill-placed.
Stigwood Group president Freddie Gershon called the lawsuit revolting and maintained that the audit showed only 300,000 dollars in unpaid royalties, which RSO promptly paid to the Gibb brothers. Gershon saw the whole affair as contract negotiations through the press. Stigwood called the suit an ill-advised stunt. The parties settled out of court in May 1981 with public apologies. Reportedly, the B.G. received 70 million dollars. Gershon saw it as a Stigwood victory. He said: “If you’ve been in the business long enough, you know that all artists go through periods of temporary insanity.”
After the success of Saturday Night Fever and Grease (consecutive hits starring John Travolta), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) was supposed to be third time’s the charm for Stigwood. Unfortunately, greed killed his chances of making a killing. The soundtrack was listed at an unprecedented $15.98. The price was driven up by high royalties. RSO calculated its own project on the album with a 14.98 list price to be about 65 cents per album. By including a poster, centerfold and additional colour on the embossed album sleeve, the price was raised and RSO could make what Al Coury (the president of RSO) called a normal profit.
The soundtracked debuted at number 7 on the billboard top pop album. It rose to 5 on the following week and it remained there for 6 weeks. Like how films can drop off the chart after a strong opening, the musical equivalent can be the same. Like how test screenings can affect films (especially if the films are being secretly recorded by piracy pundits), the soundtrack ironically hurt its own sales because it received an enormous amount of pre-sale airplay. Such attention trailed off as radio programmers became cautious. Within eleven week, the soundtrack fell out of the top 100 albums.
Any chance for major royalties was scuppered. Courty said that the problem was timingl “With S.N.F. and Grease, the timing of the album (5 to 6 weeks before the film), the timing of the singles (pre/mid/post of release) were what we laid out. It proved to be a successful format. The film was originally scheduled to come out Christmas of 1978, but Universal wanted the film out in the summertime, so the production schedule was really rushed. We got the album out 4 or 5 days before the picture came out, so consequently we did not have a chance to use the music of Sgt. Pepper to presell the motion picture. When we released the album, we had unbelievable acceptance on radio then, a few days later, the picture came out and got terrible reviews, so radio immediately back off.”
The opposite had happened to the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. None of the artists anticipated the success. Their rancour, now, is imaginable. The Oriental actress/musician who played Mary Magdalene had even declined a percentage and received a flat fee of £100 (that’s pounds), which is about $240. Out of all the singers, only Murray Head had opted for royalties. The fact that the non-Beatles movie was a flop can easily be traced to the fact that the director had never made a musical and the screenwriter was relatively nascent to the craft of screenwriting. He should have got the people responsible for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There’s that or hire Ken Russell – the eccentric British director who wrote and directed an adaptation of The Who’s Tommy. Coincidentally, one of Ken’s sons (Toby) is a huge fan of Chinese movies to the extent of having his own DVD label (Vengeance) and writing five non-fiction books (too long to list in parentheses).