FARE PLAY(S): MUSIC PUBLISHER RANDALL WIXEN APPLIES FORENSIC SCIENCE TO SPOT, SPIKE SONG ROYALTIES
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Following early and eventual failed stints struggling to master an instrument and later stretches of managing much too needy bands, music publishing giant Randall Wixen first hung out the shingle for his industry-leading Wixen Music Publishing, Inc. in 1978. In his own words, Wixen was “the guy in high school who couldn’t play an instrument well enough to be allowed to stay in the band.” Later, while managing bands in college, he “ultimately discovered that I didn’t have the personality to be able to tolerate the foibles of musicians and the necessity to be on-call. I couldn’t deal with calls at three in the morning along the lines of, ‘We’re in Dallas and the windshield of the van is broken. Watta we do?’
What Wixen eventually did was channel his long-standing and unwavering love of music into making sure songwriters received all of their fair share of the income they were entitled to, based on the number of songs sold, times streamed and heard as soundtracks to videogames, television spots, etc. Budding Bruce Springsteens and future Fitz and The Tantrums will want to read what Wixen has to say about how best to get paid in today’s ever-shifting – and sometimes shifty – music business.
Randall, it’s a pleasure and thank you for your time today.
Well thank you for talking to me.
I want to begin our Q&A with a little music publishing 101. If you had to describe what you do for a living in a Tweet, what would be in those 140 characters?
Somebody once called me the Scott Boras (superstar sports agent) of music publishing. We are basically administrators, agents for songs themselves rather than musicians or recording artists.
Obviously we’re gonna get into a great deal more detail throughout the conversation, but first let me take you back to the seed. We’re certainly both lovers of music. When did your love affair with music begin? Can you recall the very first song that made a big impact on you?
In the summer of 1967 I went to Tumbleweed Day Camp with a guy named Adam Holzman who was the son of Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman, and he kept talking about this group The Doors and this guy Jim Morrison. We were both little kids, but here was a guy who knew these guys and they were getting played on the radio and we were calling up KHJ (93-KHJ in Los Angeles) every day to request them. He got me excited about the business and the behind-the-scenes action and machinations of how things happened, and that was really the beginning of the spark.
So The Doors opened the door, as it were.
It was. And the great benefit of that is that sometime maybe 25 years ago or so I got to start working with them, and aside from Jim, I got to meet and know all of them fairly well and work with them.
I’m blessed to say that during my stint producing Rockline in the mid-90s I was blessed to have Ray (Manzarek) and Robby (Krieger) on the show, and it was certainly a highlight of the five years that I was at the helm of that show. So Randall, do you remember the very first album you purchased with your own money?
It was The Doors first album (laughs).
(Laughs) Ah, OK. And don’t tell me; they were your very first concert?
No, it was Sly & the Family Stone at the Hollywood Palladium in 1971, 2 or 3.
And who was the very first rock star you ever met?
(Pensively whispering) The first rock star I ever met (thinking)…I honestly don’t remember. I collected autographs of all the people I was interested in in high school, and I was a bit of a stalker and I would chase these people down for signed albums, and I remember some of the earliest meetings I had where I got to meet Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull. I got to go in for a few minutes while Bob Dylan was recording Blood on the Tracks at The Village Recorders.
What other music-related jobs did you hold down before the formation of Wixen Music Publishing, Inc. in 1978?
I was the guy in high school who couldn’t play an instrument well enough to be allowed to stay in the band, so I was the designated manager. So I was managing bands in high school and trying to get people record deals, and then when I went on to college at UCLA I was the music editor of The Daily Bruin and I was writing stories. I interviewed this new band Talking Heads that were just coming on the scene. I continued to manage and write about music.
Let’s begin talking in-depth about Wixen Music Publishing, Inc. What sparked your decision to start the company back in 1978?
Well I was still managing bands in college and I ultimately discovered that I didn’t have the personality to be able to tolerate the foibles of musicians and the necessity to be on-call. I couldn’t deal with calls at three in the morning along the lines of, ‘We’re in Dallas and the windshield of the van is broken. Watta we do?’ Like, well you wait until morning (laughs) and get the glass replaced (laughs)! But I was really interested in the contracts, the agreements, the licenses, and so I’d spent a lot of time looking at these licenses and these statements that my bands would get from their publishing companies, and I’d look at them and I’d say, wait a second’ we had 12 songs on this album [and] they only paid on 10. Why are the quantities for each song on the album different? If they’re all on the same album, they otta have the same number of units reported for the album catalog number. And so I sort of became a forensic guy – a professional squeaky wheel – and I’d go chase down people’s money, and I became very good at finding uncollected and unpaid royalties. So I merged away from management and [said] you give me the statements, you give me the contracts, you give me the numbers and I’ll go out and find your mistakes and find your missing money.
You used the word “forensic.” I think that’s a good word. You kind of peel back more layers of the onion further and further, to the benefit, of course, of your clients. Speaking of clients, who was your very first client at the company?
Well the story behind it was as follows: I wasn’t quite making enough money on music publishing so I had to do all sorts of side jobs to indulge my habit of being in the music business. So I was selling real estate for Fred Sands (Realtors) in Pacific Palisades (CA) two days a week, and trying to make it with a bunch of new wave and punk clients in the late 70s. In one of these open houses in Pacific Palisades there’s a guy with long hair sitting on the couch playing guitar. So we struck up a conversation and it turned out he was the lead guitar player for the group Styx.
Now was this JY (James Young)?
Yeah, it was JY. So I said, “What are you guys doing now?” And he said, “Well, nothing. We all hate each other, the album Kilroy (Was Here) didn’t do what we wanted it to, so I did a solo album and nobody wants to put it out.” And I said, “Well I can get it released.” And he said, “But you’re a real estate guy.” And I said, “Well, no, this isn’t my real job.” Anyway, I got his record released and he brought me in to work with his business manager and look at royalty statements, and then his business manager said, “Well you’re pretty good. I got this new guy, Tom Petty, why don’t you look at his statements. Once given the opportunity to show what my abilities were, I became the hot kid on the block that you had to get in to look at royalty statements.
So what attributes should an artist look for when deciding to sign with publisher A or publisher B?
I think one of the great mistakes that artists make, and what lawyers who advise them make, is the idea that you can compare, quantitatively, publishing services. If someone is looking at, well this guy is 95-5 and this guy is 90-10, the idea that the guy who’s only charging five percent is obviously better than the guy who’s charging 10 percent is just a complete fallacy. It’s far more important to look at the qualitative collection ability of the publisher you’re signing with, than to look at it just as numbers, because it’s 95 percent of something or it’s 90 percent of something, and the “of something” is far more important than the percentage. The worst way to save on commissions paid is to collect less money.
You may have already given me the answer to my next question, but you tell me. Flipping the switch on my previous question, what would be the most important thing about yourself that feel a potential client should know in order to convince them that you’re the right man for the job?
Well not only are we good at the forensic statement review aspect of royalty collection…but aside from that aspect, we got really tired several years ago of hearing everybody say, “Oh yeah, they’ll collect every penny you’ve earned, but they won’t do anything. They won’t actively market your material, they won’t go out there and beat the pavement and try to get a placement in a commercial or TV show.” So we built a department which is now headed by a woman named Sharon Masters, who was 14 years at the Atlantic Records Group pitching their master recordings and their artists and most recently VP of sync for television and movies, and we now think that not only do we offer the forensic service and the royalty collection, but we also think that we’re the equal, if not the better of, people who are pitching and placing songs now as well.
So it’s time to give us the lineup. Who are some of your most well-known past and present clients?
Because we work on a forensic basis, people who have large back catalogs benefit tremendously from the services we offer. We have a lot of the heritage acts that you might have worked with on KLOS, like Styx, Journey, The Doors, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Tom Petty; you know, the heritage acts. And about 10-12 years ago, my wife, who has an MBA in finance, said, “This business has really grown and if something should ever happen to you I should come into the business and know how it works. So she came into the business and one of the first things she did is [say] “well these are all cool bands that you love and work with, Randall, but we need contemporary catalog acts.” So she brought in The Black Keys, Fitz and the Tantrums, Andrew Bird; we’re very catalog oriented.
I wanted to mention that the third edition of your book, The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing, came out last year.
Yeah, it’s done really well. It’s used as a textbook at places like NYU and Northeastern and other people that teach music publishing at college level courses. It’s been really gratifying.
What are some of the additional topics covered in this edition that were not in the first two?
Well you can hardly keep up with the changes that are going on right now. If I was to write today about the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees, they might be overturned by the time I did it. There might be a whole new copyright law before it gets into print.
Very true. So what should be checked off on a songwriter’s checklist before he or she even thinks about approaching a publisher?
Well most publishers unfortunately have to have a certain level of activity to take you on. So there ought to be a certain level of activity that someone gets going on their own; either they’ve got a video that’s got 300,000 views on YouTube, or Justin Bieber’s gonna cut one of your songs, or something. There has to be some sort of critical mass. The other thing I’d say is…one of the new things in the book, this DIY chapter. Things that you can do for yourself until you’re at the stage in which someone is willing to take you on. Some of those things are getting your BMI and ASCAP writer and publisher membership taken care of and make sure your songs are copy written. Be prepared and do a lot of self-education so that when you do have that critical mass you know what you’re doing and get ready to do it.
You mentioned ASCAP and BMI a couple of times. How does music publishing differ from ASCAP and BMI?
ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and Irving Azoff’s GMR (Global Music Rights) are all performing rights organizations and they collect a major source of income for music publishing which is performing rights when your song gets played on the internet, on the radio, on TV, in a live performance venue. They collect performing rights; the rights to publicly perform music. But there’s all sorts of other rights that need to be collected through a publisher, and those are mechanical rights and download rights for making copies of the recording. There’s synchronization rights if somebody’s synchronizing your song with a movie or a TV program or an advertisement. There’s sheet music rights that you might license if you have a big hit record. There’s ringtone rights.
You mentioned streaming. I’d like to give you the opportunity to sound off, chime in about the ongoing debate about streaming services and payment – or lack thereof – to songwriters. Give us your thoughts on the climate of that relationship.
It’s basically a predatory business at this point that doesn’t allow songwriters and publishers to fairly be paid for the consumption of the product they create. Companies like Spotify and Pandora offer a really nice service to consumers of music, but they’re offering the product of a third party industry and not yet having to pay a fair market value for it. The rate that Pandora and Spotify and these services pay to publishers is not what publishers would willingly take. They are rates that are determined by government statute and by a judge operating under a consent decree. It would be like you going into a Mercedes Benz dealership and the dealer wants to charge you what he thinks the car is worth, but he’s told, oh no, the government tells me you can take any car on the lot as long as you pay a government determined fee for this car. You know if you get $9 for a million streams, how are you supposed to make a living? If you get 10 million streams that’s 90 bucks. So I understand the beauty of it to the public and the great ability to have access to any music you want, whenever you want it, but really the product that is being distributed is being distributed at predatory rates. All the baby bands that we see now are flipping burgers at In-N-Out to make ends meet.
Final question for you, Randall. In your bio, at the very bottom, Tom Petty has a quote that says: “Randal Wixen is that rare man of integrity in a business that I’m not gonna call crooked, but I’m not gonna call it anything else.” Do you agree with him about the music business?
Yeah I think so, and I would also have to say that in terms of this industry especially, a lot of people who get into the business aspect are not necessarily people who have been trained with business backgrounds. They are often people who are friends of the artists or have come in through a personal relationship. They don’t always know the things that they need to know to protect their clients as well as someone who might have come in with a business background or a law background or an accounting background. So when you couple the lack of what some of the people in the business know, but ought to know, along with what Tom refers to as, I guess questionable ethics, sometimes people don’t get protected as well as they should.
I think maybe the lesson here is that there has to be the balance between the passion – folks who get in because they love music – and the professionalism with people like you who know what they’re doing.
Alright, Randall, thank you. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks again for your time.
I really appreciate it. Bye.