eat sand title

Don't Eat Sand...

There are many hazards that can lie in wait for the artist that actually gets a record deal after the roller coaster ride of paying dues. Exploitation and self abuse go hand in hand with contracts. Every opportunity presented is also a chance to eat sand at the end of a long ride, which you thought was the brass ring at the time.

The labels hold all the cards. When a label pays for the recording session, they owned the product. If a band-owned tape is signed over to a label, a label or their agent/producer can use the tape forever and almost for free, unless otherwise stated in the agreement, or they own the tapes outright.

Case In Point: The Surfaris

surfaris 1963 I relate here what I understand of the Surfaris' story, which I learned from numerous conversations with Surfaris Jim Pash (sax/guitar) and Ron Wilson (drums) many years ago, augmented by considerable reading of various published accounts. It's worth noting that Jim and Ron didn't quite tell the same story, in part due to being treated differently by their labels. Ron was viewed as the persona of the Surfaris because he was the voice of "Surfer Joe," and because he was the legendary drummer of "Wipe Out." I've tried to boil it down to the probable truth. The facts may never be fully known. So, take it all with a grain of salt. The story is here as an illustration of the larger point.

The Surfaris recorded their first single in classic DIY fashion for a small sum in December of 1962 at Pal Studios with Paul Buff. The band on that day was Jim Fuller - lead guitar, Bob Berryhill - rhythm guitar, Pat Connolly - bass, and Ron Wilson - drums. Jim Pash was not available for the session due to family commmitments. They only intended to record "Surfer Joe," which soaked up most of the session time. They warmed up with two covers, "High Tide" (the Lively Ones) and "Hot Doggen" (the Lively Ones). "Wipe Out" was recorded as an afterthought. It's hard to believe, but they hadn't realized the need for a b-side.

The deal they struck with Buff included pressing a hundred copies of a resultant single. The label was to be DFS Records, named for Dale Francis Smallen, their "manager" at the time, and the guy who supplied the laugh and call at the beginning of "Wipe Out."

Enter Richard Delvy

Challengers 1963 Richard Delvecchio (Delvy) had left the Belairs early on to found his own band the Challengers with fellow Belair Jim Roberts. Delvy was a savvy young aspiring music mogul. He knew where the money in the business was. He picked up the rights to their single, and pressed a bunch of copies on his own Princess label. He gained enough radio action on KMEN San Bernardino, KMAK Fresno, and KSTN Stockton, to interest Dot in picking up the single for national distribution. Dot edited both tracks down for time-limited AM airplay, even then misrepresenting the time on the label to an even shorter length. They removed two full verses of "Surfer Joe" and did an early fade out on "Wipe Out." Delvy made a bunch of money. "Surfer Joe" c/w "Wipe Out" was a huge hit.

surfaris first album Dot agreed to release an album to go with the hit. Delvy took the Surfaris into a studio, where they recorded a number of cover tunes from a list he gave them. When the album came out on Dot, the Surfaris were shocked to find out it wasn't them playing on the record. Ron Wilson said Delvy tried to convince them that it was them, but that he had to do a bit of overdubbing because the tracks were rough. It turned out to actually be tracks recorded by Delvy's band The Challengers, with the exception of "Surfer Joe" and "Wipe Out." You can imagine the firestorm. labels and producers could do things like that then - still can.

A lot of wrangling through lawyers got the Surfaris out of their contract with Delvy, though he retained the rights to the existing tracks. Through several successive issues of the Dot album, their settlements were accommodated by adding the line "...and other instrumental hits by other artists..." to the cover, and eventually deleting the photo of the Surfaris on the back. It was forty years before some of the original Surfaris tracks from that session were issued, and it took the death of two of the principles to make it safe enough.

The Surfaris negotiated a deal with Decca. Again, with naive notions, they failed to get the best deal for the whole band. Decca only wanted Ron Wilson. He was the Surfaris in their eyes. After all, it was his voice and his drums that had made the hit. Decca had the usual A&R control over the sessions, and used studio musicians instead of band members on most of the vocal tracks. Only Ron Wilson's voice and drums were present much of the time. This further stained already difficult internal band relations.

surfaris - play The instrumentals Decca recorded were often the whole band, but were sometimes not very well produced. Ron said that producer Bud Dant thought of the instrumentals as filler - throw aways - which he did not spend much time on. Some sound like the tape just rolled. Mixes were sometimes demo-like, and instruments distorted in some cases.

So, even after being burned the first time out, the Surfaris still got hoodwinked on the second go despite family lawyer oversight. This in itself is another lesson - use a repurable entertainment lawyer when considering a contract, not your family layer.

Their songs have been reproduced ad infinitum with little artist control for 40 years. The masters belonged lock, stock, and barrel to Delvy and to Decca (Now MCA).

Among the side affects was the deep rift between Ron Wilson and the rest of the band, particularly Jim Pash, and the complete anonymity of Pat Connolly. Another side affect was several working versions of the Surfaris in the eighties and onward, with Jim Pash and Jim Fuller augmented by Paul Johnson (Belairs) and Don Murray (Crossfires), and Ron Wilson's Surfaris with late sixties Surfari guitarist Dale Beckner and bassist Andy Lagomarsino, and a Bob Berryhill version that is essentially a family affair. There were bitter disputes over ownership and use of the name, and some booking conflicts.

The Record Bizz: Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto You!

rolling stones
The way the business used to run, and still does in many segments, is with total record company control. It is, after all, their money the line.

Tales abound among big names and nobodys. The Rolling Stones gave Decca & London an album of unreleaseable obscene songs to complete their contract, and Van Morrison gave Bang an album of made-up nonsense songs, some about the label, to complete his obligation to he could move on to WEA. Morrison's title for the album was very fitting, "Music Is Spiritual (The Music Business Is Not)!"

Examples: A&R and Staff Producers

paul revere and the raiders

The label assigned a staff A&R person to tell the artist what songs to record. Hence, a million versions of "Moon River." You see, there are all these other contracts about publsihng and royalties that are part of the label's revenue stream. The label or producer decides who actually plays on sessions, hence only Dick Dale and occasionally Art Munson of his band are on the Capitol releases.

A staff producer is assigned to a project. He may have no idea at all what the band sounds like, wants to sound like, or even what Rock 'n Roll is. Mitch Miller produced the early Paul Revere & The Raiders Columbia sessions. Mitch bloody Miller! At least it wasn't Lawrence Welk.

Engineers In Lab Coats

Engineers often ran sixties sessions technically, insisting musicians play quietly and pristinely, telling them they would make it come out loud later. As the Syndicate of Sound were told at Golden State Recorders, you play softly in there, and I make it come out loud here. Not true, of course, since the distortion and other characteristics of pushed limits is just not there.

Artistic Control

electric prunes, dave hassinger, ricahrd podolor at american recording 1967
Musicians are better off today, in part because of a revolution started by the Grateful Dead. They were upset at the butcher job RCA Hollywood staff producer Dave Hassinger did on their first album. Hassinger had likewise damaged The Rolling Stones and Electric Prunes sessions there, and countless others with HIS formula sound. The Dead refused to go back into the studio unless they could control the situation. While they were on strike, Warner Brothers issued an interim album Anthem of the Sun, culled from live tapes recorded in Seattle, Portland, and LA, badly edited, and poorly mixed by Hassinger. So the story goes, Warner Brothers sent an ace contract lawyer to their Haight-Ashbury house to convince the boys to come back into the fold. He found them sitting on the stoop of their band house, and began his pitch. They generally ignored and verbally abused him. Exasperated, he exclaims "How do you ever expect to become rich and famous if you don't make another album?" to which Pig Pen replied in true Dead fashion "Buffalo Bill didn't make no album and he was rich and famous!" The Warner Brothers representative left in frustration. Soon the label gave in, and they got artistic control.

Now What: Don't Take That Advance, You'll Live To Repay It!

The biggest risk continues to be the advance game. Bands tend to think of an advance as a signing bonus, and believe in themselves so much that they have no doubt of their eventual multi-platinum future. The trouble is, advances are essentially loans to the artist, with the royalties held as collateral. When sales volumes don't materialize, the band must pay the money back. Even when it does, it is usually years before the royalties overcome the advance amounts, and unless the band has been very careful, they often never see any further money at all.

Label expenses can include everything from that limo ride they "gave" you to fees paid to merchandisers, tour bus companies, producer percentages, cash-per-record-placed independent radio promotions lizards, CD-of-the-month clubs, video producers if you get that far, music publishing if you let them do it for you, and tour support. Some big hit makers have ended their careers owing the labels big bucks.

It's also not just dollars for sales volume. It's dollars for sales volume after returns, promotional copies and costs, expenses ad infinitum, and so on. If a band is foolish enough to let the label pay for the recording sessions, they can find themselves in the hole for a hundred grand in no time at all while the label owns the tapes.

Even if you DIY it, you have to get distribution, and collecting from that segment of the business is easily as hard as anything you'll ever do. Some of them run on today's money paying off yesterday's debt, and can't pay if they don't collect from the chain stores who pay really slowly, or the mom-and-pops who often don't pay at all. And then there's the international market, where it can take years to get just part of your funds out of the deal, if ever any at all.

DIY Your Way To The Top!

DIY your first disc, distribute by on the web, through online companies like CD Baby and Amazon, by mail, and especially at shows. If you create a buzz, someone will sign you. If you don't, you have nothing to worry about. Play for fun, and you might make it. Be careful if you do.

Oh, and good luck. Send me your releases, it's all part of your costs, and it's tax deductible as a business expense. See, you're learning already.