Why they won’t publish your song
Do you know how lawsuit-happy amateurs plague Tin Pan Alley? How music rackets reap millions? Why great hits go to court? Maybe you can write a better song—but when you’ve read this you won’t
It is perfectly normal to write a song, or to want to. Some people do it out of disgust or defiance when they hear a nonsensical tune being played interminably and selling a million records which earn masses of money for some fellow with no talent. Others do it when they feel happy, or sad, or after the third drink. At one time or another almost everybody does it.
When an amateur writes a song and lets it go at that, he is just like anyone else. Sooner or later, however, a chemical change takes place and he begins to believe that, given the right breaks, he can sell his song and make a fortune.
Steve Allen has a soothing answer for an amateur songwriter who, in pain and yearning, wants to crash Tin Pan Alley.
“There's nothing to stop you,” Allen says. “But why don’t you go out in your back yard with a twodollar uranium detector and become a millionaire? It's easier.”
The voracious record business, by ignoring the former traditions and taboos of popular music, has pried open a narrow slit in what used to be a door tightly sealed against newcomers. Nevertheless, hordes of aspiring songwriters are left wailing outside, futilely beating against it.
The very mention of “amateur songwriter” sets off a chain reaction of traumatic seizures among publishers. But their manoeuvres to, avoid coming in contact with eager-eyed men and women haunting New York with a new song to sell are hardly more absurd or adroit than the amateur’s manoeuvres to make contact.
Amateur songwriters have been known to disguise themselves as elevator operators, waiters, delivery men and baby-sitters in order to gain access to publishers’ ears. Their unpublished manuscripts are likely to turn up in laundry bundles, candy boxes and under the napkins on luncheon trays. Some would-be songwriters spend all their earnings from less glamorous pursuits on a succession of four-dollar “unpublished copyrights,” printing their songs at their own expense and swamping publishers' incoming mail baskets with impressive, bragging brochures. They bombard publishers with importunate letters and telegrams. They sit or stand for hours in tiny reception rooms, portfolios under their arms, waiting for someone—anyone—to notice them, steadfast in their belief that the instant their songs are heard they will be hailed as successors to Rodgers and Hammerstein and given lifetime contracts.
But all letters, packages and hollow objects sent as gilts and suspected of containing unsolicited manuscripts are returned to their senders unopened, if a return address is given, thrown into the wastebasket (unopened) if not. Visitors to publishing offices who are not known or unable to
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Why they won’t publish your song
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present convincing credentials explaining their presence are turned away or stalled by well-trained receptionists. This can keep an amateur songwriter hopping for months. There are, roughly, 3,000 music publishers.
Their harsh treatment of amateur songwriters might seem unreasonable except for the fact that a great deal of trouble can be traced to them. An avalanche of amateur-incited lawsuits descends upon publishers year after year. Some few of these are instituted by sincere novices who either mistakenly believe they have a grievance, or who have been convinced of it by less sincere but no less mistaken lawyers. Most of them, however, are trumped up by legal opportunists chasing fees.
Unfortunately, law-enactment officials are not always entirely clear in their understanding of musical copyright, and lawsuits which reach the courts depend for their disposition on the interpretation of the judges sitting on the cases. Thousands of dollars have gone, by court decree, into the pockets of people who did nothing to earn them except to plead their causes before tone-deaf judges.
Earnest would-be songwriters who complain sourly that publishers brush them off without courtesy or consideration have these dishonest—or, sometimes, just badly advised—amateurs to thank for their difficulties. They do not, however, realize that their own numbers have erected the wall which bars them from Tin Pan Alley. Instead, they blame the publishers.
But for corruption, the amateurs believe, they would be successful songwriters. They are unshakably convinced that the music business is a racket and all publishers are thieves. Some of them harbor the additional suspicion that the names appearing on title pages are not the names of real people at all, but of dummies invented by the publishers (for tax purposes). The songs were really written by amateurs.
For at least two generations there was a fable, recited by some professionals as well as amateurs, that Irving Berlin never wrote more than a tenth of the songs for which he is credited. It was whispered that' Berlin kept a talented slave boy in a back room, turning out songs. During Berlin’s most prolific years, the fiction expanded; he kept three boys in the back room.
Incomprehensibly, even professionals in show business frequently act like amateurs when they add songwriting to their activities. Berlin, for one, learned this bitter truth the hard way. If given the choice of looking at an amateur’s manuscript or diving into ice water in February, he would unhesitatingly choose the ice water.
Once, some years ago, a song-plugger who knew the famous composer-publisher well brought hkn a song written by a gainfully employed singer. He said, “Irving, 1 know you make it a rule not to look at outside manuscripts. But after all, this fellow is no amateur in show
Jim Thornton sold When You Were Sweet Sixteen. Then he sold it again. Then the fight started
business. He’s a pro. Besides, he sings your songs all the time — a good plug. He also plays ball with me, and I need him. Now, he’s really written a song here that’s got a good chance. We’ll probably publish it ourselves, but he made me promise I’d show it to you. Please look at it. Or if you won’t, at least write him a letter and he’ll know I kept my promise.”
Out of friendship for the song-plugger, Berlin dictated a polite note to the singer in which he expressed his hope that the song would be well received.
Five years later, Berlin wrote the score for a musical film. An infringement suit was promptly filed against him by the singer, whose song had not been published after all. The singer claimed that Berlin “stole” several bars of his song. As proof that the composer had access to his work, he submitted the friendly note.
Berlin had to defend the suit. The judge ruled in his favor, declaring that no composer of Irving Berlin’s stature need stoop to stealing a few bars of music from anyone.
Nevertheless, such lawsuits compound the generally held public superstition that larceny is rife in the music business. In ninety-nine percent of cases brought to trial, decisions go to the established copyright owners, but the cost of defending unwarranted lawsuits is high.
Music publishers don’t have to steal songs. There are too many available, produced in prodigious numbers by seasoned professionals who, themselves, may write a hundred for every one that is published.
But, ironically, the reputation that music publishers are larcenous has been fostered not only by the legions of frustrated amateurs and their cronies, or by litigations brought by injured songwriters and their heirs, but also by the publishers themselves. A publisher who will express sorrow, anger or indignation when an outsider accuses him of stealing a tune is the first one to jump into court when one of his properties makes its appearance under another firm’s imprint.
One of the most famous cases of two publishers fighting over the same bone is the story of a fracas involving the lively 1950 melody, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.
The Weavers, a favored folk-singing group, used the song as part of their repertoire when they performed at a bistro in New York’s Greenwich Village, where it attracted the attention of Howard Richmond, head of several publishing firms.
Richmond instituted a search for the title, which he found in a book of collected Israeli folk songs. While the book bore the usual copyright, no notice could be found regarding the song itself. Mention was made that it had been arranged by Julius Grossman, an American schoolteacher.
On the assumption that an old folk song would be in the public domain, Richmond turned the melody over to composer Spencer Ross for doctoring, and to Gordon Jenkins (who wrote Manhattan Tower) for lyrics.
Still jittery about the possibility of previous copyright, Richmond sent a copy of the revision to Israel for further clearance, meanwhile applying to Washington for an American copyright.
The Weavers, under contract to Decca, recorded the modernized version and backed it up with another adapted folk song, Goodnight, Irene, a property of another of Richmond’s publishing firms. The record was an instantaneous hit, and sheet music of the song sold briskly.
Pending clarity on the copyright situation, Richmond’s firm (Cromwell Music, Inc.) put aside composer royalties as they accrued, earmarking them for payment of possible future claims.
Suddenly, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena appeared on retail sheet-music racks with a different title page and bearing the imprint of a different publisher, Mills Music, Inc. In this version, the words were by the celebrated lyricist Mitchell Parish, while the music was attributed to Julius Grossman and Issacher Miron, a pseudonym for Michrovsky.
Hard on the heels of this appearance came notice to Richmond that Mills was bringing suit in behalf of the composer, Michrovsky. Basis for the suit was a contract between Mills and a representative who claimed to be Michrovsky’s agent.
Michrovsky, a living Israeli, could establish that he was a composer of the song. Two sets of lyrics existed. Two publishers claimed title.
In his defense, Richmond pointed out that composer royalties were ready and waiting for Michrovsky. His firm had spent thousands of dollars to promote its version in good faith that the tune was either in the public domain or penned by a composer who did not come under the jurisdiction of the international copyright law.
When the case came to trial, the ruling favored Mills. According to the decision, Mills owned the publisher’s copyright to the melody. It did not own the Gordon Jenkins words, but the firm had its own set of Parish lyrics. Jenkins tore up his lyrics and tried to forget the whole thing. The money Cromwell had expended in exploiting and popularizing the song was not recoverable. Now, in addition, the hit Decca record with the Jenkins lyrics constituted a copyright infringement and could not be sold or played on radio programs. All traceable copies of the recording as sung by The Weavers with the Jenkins lyrics and backed up by “Goodnight, Irene” were hastily recalled by Decca and destroyed. Cromwell's sheet music was similarly disposed of. If you should happen to have a copy of the Decca record, cherish it. It is a collector’s item.
As if music publishers didn’t get into enough legal entanglements with amateurs and with other publishers, they also have an occasional rough time of it with professional songwriters.
Sometimes out of mischievousness and sometimes out of bottled amnesia, songwriters of the colorful Tin Pan Alley days had a habit of selling the same song to more than one firm, then sitting back to enjoy the fireworks.
The irrepressible Jim Thornton (18611938) sold When You Were Sweet Sixteen outright to the publishing firm partnered by Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern, which filed it away. Some time later, Thornton sold the same song to the Witmarks, who published it. They were promptly sued by Marks and Stern, who claimed prior ownership. This case
never came to court, all parties knowing Thornton well. Witmark, with a bona fide bill of sale on file, signed by Thornton. forfeited $5,000 to Marks and Stern, who possessed a similar—but earlier— document. Witmark had paid Thornton a total of fifteen dollars for the song, and Marks and Stern not much more. When the original copyright lapsed, its renewal was assigned by Thornton’s widow to Shapiro-Bernstein, Inc. A hit when it was first published in 1898, it remained a barroom and barbershop favorite until it was revived in the 1944 film. The Great John I.., and became a hit for the third.time when Perry Como recorded it for Victor.
Not all publishers’ litigations are intramural or contra-amateur songwriter. Hard-won copyright protections are so jealously and insistently cherished by the publishing fraternity that its legal departments are staffed by busy sleuths constantly on the lookout for infringements, intentional or otherwise. Publishers feel that they have spent a lot of money popularizing a song's lyrics. They see no reason why they should give away a precious part of their property for someone else’s profit.
When you hear a singing commercial on radio or television that uses a familiar tune with new lyrics extoling the virtues of toothpaste, automobiles, soda pop or soap flakes, you may be sure that money has been paid to the publisher, composer and author for a license to parody.
In recent years, with many of the country's long-time ballad-writing composers unable or unwilling to compete on equal terms with the newer writers of the “crazy sounds’’ permeating the air waves, more and more of these licenses are being issued. In earlier days, songwriters declined to lend their works to anything
that might tend to cheapen them, but the fees forthcoming from well-heeled advertisers have proved too attractive to spurn.
Irving Caesar, the celebrated lyricist (Swanee, Tea for Two, Crazy Rhythm, Imagination), chuckles wryly over the music-business situation which made the licensing of lyrics for commercials a welcome auxiliary income. In 1956, he sold
the commercial rights to Is It True What They Say About Dixie, which contains an appropriate line of lyric, to the manufacturers of Swanee T oilet Tissue.
The shadow of the copyright law falls on a number of assorted violators. Importers of music boxes, chiming watches and children's music - playing toys are under surveillance. When the tinkling mechanisms play copyrighted tunes which have not been licensed for cigarette boxes, timepieces or teddy bears, their purveyors are subject to fines.
Sunday-school teachers are unknowing law-breakers when, lovingly but illegally, they reproduce, on bits of tinted paper,
the lyrics of copyrighted spiritual songs for their pupils to sing.
Most illicit users of music are guileless. but the industry feels it must clamp down on all violations in order to protect itself from the deliberate derelictions perpetrated by “lyric bootleggers” who peddle the words to popular songs in sheet or pamphlet form on city street corners without paying royalties. This vice is a constant irritation to publishers, who arc upset when the bootleggers— usually small printers—rake in profits on material in which they have no investment.
What with one thing and another, music publishers spend a great deal of time bringing or defending lawsuits. And all this fun and frolicking in the courts, reported solemnly in the trade journals and sometimes hilariously in the popular press, has done little to rid the general public’s mind of a suspicion that publishers must be an untrustworthy, slippery lot.
But not all people who say they are publishers, are. The warning is issued repetitively to milling throngs of wouldbe songwriters who get swindled annually by illegitimate “publishers” who belong to a group known as “song sharks.”
Amateur songwriters are a gold-mine for song sharks, many of whom manage to operate trickily within the letter of the law and are, therefore, hard to curb. They know that amateur songwriters, bruised by the repeated rebuffs they get on Tin Pan Alley, are sucker-bait for a promise that their songs will be looked at, read, evaluated and published.
The sharks run small ads with big headlines in some of the music industry’s trade papers and in the back pages of sensational or “confession” magazines. SONGWRITERS WANTED, the ads
proclaim, or CAN YOU WRITE A SONG?, or YOU CAN MAKE MONEY IN MUSIC! or SEND YOUR POEMS . . . WE’LL PUT THEM TO MUSIC. In smaller type, the ads promise free examination and criticism of lyrics or melodies or both, adding that there are millions of dollars to be made in songwriting (as if the amateurs didn’t know!). Some go so far as to identify themselves as publishers and recording companies in search of new material, hinting that if a songwriter has not yet succeeded in his ambition it is probably because he has not had the proper promotion.
When an amateur lyricist rises to the bait and sends his creations to such an advertiser, he receives — with dizzying promptness—a reply that sends his hopes soaring. “Your song poem is wonderful,” the letter encourages. “You are fortunate —our staff comprises a professional composer who is willing to set your words to music! Please send fifty dollars to cover expenses. We will copyright your song, send you printed copies, and PROMOTE IT. Good luck! You are on your way to success!”
Not knowing that it costs several thousand dollars to promote a popular song properly, the amateur “invests” his fifty dollars. For his money he receives, as promised, a “musical setting,” printed copies duly copyrighted and formal notice that the song has been sent to a “select list” of music publishers, disk jockeys, recording companies and performers.
In this way, the song shark has kept to the letter of his advertised word and is not subject to legal action. His “promotion” stops here, after an expenditure of from ten to fifteen dollars, which pay for an employee’s time in copying some music, a few dozen photo-offset or photo-
static copies, a United States unpublished copyright (which anyone can get for four dollars) and however many postage s*amps it takes to get the amateur’s song o the select list, made up of names easily acquired from any trade paper or music directory.
The “contest” idea has been twisted into a racket of heroic proportions. This one works in several ways, a favorite being to advertise for song-poem entries in a national lyric-writing contest ... no obligation. This is a contest in which everyone wins. Each contestant is notified that his poem has been selected by the judges as the best example of fresh new talent. The prize is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the amateur to collaborate with a “top-notch professional composer”—absolutely free of charge. There is, to be sure, the matter of publicity and exploitation, so necessary to promote a song. If the contest winner will send $50 to help defray expenses . . .
A slightly more elaborate and less individually expensive deception is perpetrated in another sort of “contest.” This time, advertisements proclaim that lyrics are being sought for existing melodies which have been recorded in an album. All the contestant has to do is buy the album (a bargain at $2.98), write lyrics for one or more of the tunes therein and submit them for judging. Those who follow these rules are deceived into believing that any such contest exists. None does. The “sponsors” are satisfied with $2.98 each from thousands of aspiring amateur lyric-writers.
The song-shark business, incredibly, mulcts millions of dollars a year from songwriting housewives, sales clerks, white-collar workers and students who, when they realize they have been misled, have no legal recourse. They get what they pay for—“musical settings” (or. if they are composers rather than authors, “lyrics”), copyright, sheet music (in some cases, even demonstration records; these coarte higher) and certain vague "professional services.” The song sharks call themselves “publishers” and they call their victimized clients the “ego trade.” They have deceived so many hundreds of thousands of people over the years that to a sizeable segment of the general public an impression remains that all publishers operate on a pay-as-you-go basis. This, added to everything else, does nothing to remove the smudges from the legitimate publishers’ reputations.
No active, bona fide publisher asks— or accepts—payment for publishing a song, or advertises for music or lyrics. But how can the aspiring songwriter know or believe this when he can't get close enough to an active, bona fide publisher to find out?
He can. Despite all the barriers that confront newcomers, some hope exists— for beginners, however, as opposed to “amateurs.” There is a world of difference between the two; the difference is largely one of realistic self-evaluation and a willingness to work hard and stubbornly in the face of unusually hard and stubborn opposition. There is little room in the music business for the out-and-out amateur who dabbles in music as a hobby from which he would like to strike it rich, like a lucky quiz-show winner on television or the holder of the winning ticket in a raffle. New songwriters join the professional ranks regularly, adding their fresh talents to the continuing parade of popular music. Nobody can stop them. ★
The material for this article will be included in a forthcoming book. The Gold In Tin Pan Alley, to be published by Longmans, Green, Lippincott.