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Copyright 1997 Guardian Newspapers Limited The Guardian
April 7, 1997
SECTION: THE GUARDIAN FEATURES PAGE; Pg. T10
HEADLINE: ARTS: THE DRUMMER FROM LUSH KILLED HIMSELF LAST YEAR. THE BAND WAS SUCCESSFUL, YET HE WAS EARNING POUNDS 150 A WEEK. WHY?
Patrick Gilbert on how you can be a pop star and still be poor
Last October, Chris Acland, the drummer of indie veterans Lush, hanged himself at his parents' Cumbria home. Nineteen ninety-six had been his annus horribilis. He'd split up with his girlfriend, he was living in a friend's back room and, despite relentless promotion, Lush's third album had failed to break the group in America. At 30, Acland was still on a basic wage of A150 a week - a figure that hadn't changed in six years.
'Chris visited me in Dublin last summer,' recalls Steve Rippon, the band's original bassist. 'He wasn't his chirpy self. He was feeling down for lots of reasons, but the money situation certainly didn't help. It wasn't anyone else's fault, it's just the way the music business works. He'd been in Lush for eight years, it was his job, but he couldn't even afford somewhere proper to live.' Acland's death serves as a sobering reminder that musicians in seemingly successful groups often survive on little more than subsistence wages. True, they have access to plenty of free lager and a complimentary cheese sandwich or two, but such perks are scant compensation for the merciless grind of record promotion and touring. Unless your group is in the Oasis league, a musician's slice of the money - usually around four per cent of the group's total income, plus the odd bonus - amounts to little more than a McChef's salary. A generation after Ringo and George were raking in a fraction of a penny per record sale, backing musicians are still granted 'drone' status.
Life can be dramatically different, though, if you're the band's sole creative mainspring. The way groups are financed is complex, but traditionally the honey-pot has always been set aside for songwriters - a hangover from the Tin Pan Alley era of the forties and fifties, when fly-by-night crooners simply interpreted the standards of the day. Take Oasis: for every album they sell, Noel Gallagher earns around 45p in songwriting royalties in addition to his slice of the .60 that's shared between the group members and the management.
On top of this, he'll net around pounds 500,000 year from the Performing Rights Society, the agency that collects songwriting royalties for radio plays and live performances.
So far, Noel's estimated earnings from record sales (forget merchandising and box-office receipts for the moment) are around the pounds 2 million mark. Meanwhile, frontman Liam pockets around A4 million and Bonehead, bless him, a fraction less. No one in Oasis is complaining, of course: but when these figures are shrunk down to the level at which most indie bands operate - 150,000 or so album sales worldwide - the differential in a band's individual incomes is enormous. All of a sudden, the person who hums the tunes is driving around in a Jag while the man who bangs the drums is still bunking the night bus home.
Often, this disparity occurs early in a group's career, when the chief songwriter signs what is known as a 'publishing deal', basically just a way of securing hefty advances - anything between pounds 30,000 and pounds 2 million - against future PRS royalties. The advance is frequently just large enough to drive a wedge between the songwriter and his impoverished sidekicks.
Wiggy spent the eighties and early nineties working with Billy Bragg, and now earns his living as a record producer. He argues that 'lesser' band members are denied a voice. 'In the studio, you can provide the hook or a riff for a song, or add a certain atmosphere, but never get a penny in royalties. The songwriter will take the credit. Artists, publishers and record companies all have a system to earn money from your work, but musicians are powerless.' So what do musicians contribute to a song? And should they automatically be rewarded with a cut of the songwriting cake? In the red corner, Songwriters United will no doubt point out that before Noel Gallagher commandeered Oasis, they were simply four blokes standing around in a garage in Burnage, guzzling cans of Kestrel lager and arguing a lot. What clearly transformed them into a supergroup was Noel's facility to wed a memorable melody to a set of simple chords. In the blue corner, there's a roll-call of disgruntled musicians who feel that their frenetic drum pattern or guitar pyrotechnics breathed life into a mediocre song.
The Smiths' drummer, Mike Joyce, went to the High Court to argue that his musical contribution to the group had been vastly undervalued by his paymasters, Morrissey and Johnny Marr. The judge agreed - and Joyce recently won an astonishing pounds 1 million in compensation.
But not all songwriters are insensitive to the creative alchemy a group situation inspires. 'What people like about our music is that something doesn't quite make sense,' explains Brian Molko, the panda -eyed frontman of Placebo, who split all their royalties. 'And that element comes from what the others add musically. You can't think of them as wholly 'my' songs, even though they're based on my words and music.' Even the Spice Girls - none of whom threaten to be the new Bob Dylan - are rewarded with a small cut of the publishing money. And other artists take an even more egalitarian stance. It's widely known that Pulp share their songwriting royalties equally between all five members, even though Jarvis Cocker writes the majority of the group's material. Every time Common People is played on the radio, drummer Nick Banks receives the same cut as Cocker. Banks recently bought his local pub in Sheffield.
To an outsider, this democratic rationale - shared by rock giants U2 and REM, among others - may seem extraordinary. After all, you wouldn't expect an architect to design a house and then divide the profit from its sale equally with the bloke who ti led the bathroom. But Pulp's manager Geoff Travis is adamant that it's in the group's long-term interest. 'Bands are complex organic creatures,' he says. 'If someone does 90 per cent of the work, it's quite legitimate that that person should get more than an equal cut. But often you have to watch closely what each member adds to the equation. If they're all pulling their weight and holding the group together, I'd be inclined to opt for a democratic split. It can ultimately lead to a better atmosphere and, from the empirical evidence, longevity.' But what of musicians who find themselves excluded from an equitable split? 'Rock 'n' roll isn't the Civil Service,' Travis counters. 'It's a brutal business. It's like Mark E Smith said: 'What do you think this is, a bloody career?' However, in any industry there's room for a greater redistribution of wealth.' In Glasgow, the flag of publishing democracy is flapping noisily in the breeze. Hypnotic lo-fi popsters AC Acoustics have just signed a publishing deal with Island, and the pounds 80,000 advance has been divided equally among the group. 'You ask me what the others could be without me,' grunts frontman Paul Campion, who creates the lion's share of the band's material. 'You should be asking, what would I be without them?'
LOAD-DATE: April 7, 1997