I have been reading Fred Goodman’s interesting Allen Klein bibliography, which includes a section on the Verve ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ sampling dispute. There were winners and losers amongst the publishers, record companies, writers, musicians and arrangers who were involved in this case. This has set me thinking: who amongst these players deserves our sympathy the most?
It is certainly not Allen Klein. Although the Verve made unauthorised use of the Rolling Stones' song ‘The Last Time’, which was published by his company ABKCO, he made sure that he was recompensed. In return for granting permission for the use of the sampled tune, Klein insisted that Richard Ashcroft, who had written the lyrics to ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, sell the rights to them to ABKCO for just $1,000. As a result, the entire song came under the control of Klein’s publishing company. In addition to making publishing money from the sales of the Verve recording, Klein licensed the song for use in commercials. It has advertised products such as Nike shoes and Opel automobiles. According to Goodman, ‘“Bitter Sweet Symphony” remains one of ABKCO’s best-earning compositions’.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards aren’t due much sympathy either. The Verve had taken part of one of their songs, but they gained the whole of the Verve’s song in return. Although Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Richard Ashcroft are credited on the record label as the joint authors of 'Bitter Sweet Symphony', Klein’s deal means that only Jagger and Richards receive royalties: the songwriting splits are 50% Jagger/50% Richards/0% Ashcroft. Most of the Rolling Stones’ income comes from the sales and live performance of songs that they first recorded in the sixties and seventies. ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is the exception. It is the most successful Jagger/Richards composition of the last 35 years. It even earned them a Grammy nomination. With the ghosts of Milli Vanilli howling in their bones, they were finalists for the Best Song category in 1999.
What about the Verve: do they deserve our sympathy? Here it should be noted that Klein’s deal was concerned solely with the publishing of their song. The Verve messed up in respect of these composition rights, with the net effect that they had to concede ownership to ABKCO. They were more efficient in clearing the sounding recording rights to the sampled version of ‘The Last Time’. These were purchased for a one-off fee from Decca Records. Although this money has probably been paid for from the band’s advances, they will have received their usual royalty rate from their record company as artists for sales of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. They will also have received royalties for public performances and broadcasts of their sound recording. As musicians, the band has not lost out, it is the songwriting that has been affected.
And so we turn to Richard Ashcroft, the Verve’s singer and the only member of the band who had a (potential) writer’s share in ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. He signed away his songwriting royalties for a paltry sum. He has failed to earn any songwriting royalties for single sales. He has missed out on the songwriting income for the public performances, licensing and airplay of this track. And so, is he the main victim?
Here we have to contemplate why he accepted Klein’s deal. Ashcroft’s decision could be considered odd in light of the fact that his record company expected ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ to be a hit. In addition, according to Goodman, it was this hit potential that encouraged Klein to press for and gain the maximum return. However, while Ashcroft would have therefore known that he had much to lose, he would also have realised there was more to gain.
‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ was issued as a single in the late 1990s. This was an era in which singles were loss leaders: the record industry made its main profits from CD album purchases. The Verve’s 1997 album Urban Hymns is a platinum selling record in America and it is the 17th best-selling album of all time in the UK. This album includes ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ and it is this track, primarily, that has driven its sales. ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ doesn’t earn any more royalties from these sales than any of the other tracks on the album, however. In accordance with standard practice in the UK, the songwriting royalties are divided equally between each song. There are thirteen tracks on this album. Ashcroft is the sole writer of eight of them and he has a share in another four, which are group compositions. Making a rough calculation, it would appear that Ashcroft earns nearly 70% of the songwriting royalties for the album as a whole. In contrast, Jagger and Richards receive less than 5%. Ashcroft has done OK.
But what about the Staple Singers? The Rolling Stones’ song ‘The Last Time’ is heavily indebted to their 1958 recording ‘This May Be the Last Time’. Keith Richards has acknowledged the debt, stating that the Rolling Stones’ recording ‘was basically re-adapting ... the Staple Singers’. He nevertheless stressed that the Staples Singers’ record is based on a ‘traditional’ gospel song and that ‘luckily the song itself goes back into the mists of time’. Roebuck Staples is, however, credited as the composer, rather than the arranger, of the Staples Singers’ version. According to Goodman, it is not the traditional nature of ‘This May Be The Last Time’ that has thwarted the Staple Singers’ claims to royalties, but rather the fact that they ‘weren’t managed by Allen Klein’.
Roebuck Staples does deserve some sympathy, but this is not a cut and dried case. There are differences between the two versions of ‘The Last Time’. The Rolling Stones composed their own verses to the song; they also wrote the guitar riff that dominates their recording. Moreover, the element of the song that is sampled for ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is not present in the Staple Singers original.
It is not present in the Rolling Stones record either. ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ does not feature their recording of ‘The Last Time’; it instead samples the version by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. It is the opening orchestral riff that is featured. This motif is only loosely based on Keith Richard’s guitar playing. The main credit for it should instead reside with David Whitaker, who composed and arranged the orchestral score. Whitaker will have received a one-off session fee for his work. He will have received no royalties for ‘The Last Time’ and none for ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ either. Have we finally found our man?