Can't Regret Them All: The Story of the Very Lucrative 'Pokemon Theme'
Lawsuits, buyouts, an eccentric singer and the corporate reality behind one of the biggest theme songs of all time.
For a generation of American kids, the word Pokémon will be forever inextricable from its obsessive tagline: "Gotta catch 'em all." For the millions that woke up early to watch the debut of a spin-off cartoon series based on Nintendo's smash video game, which debuted on Sept. 8, 1998 in the U.S., that tagline was set to the tune of "Pokémon Theme," written by John Loeffler and John Siegler and sung by Jason Paige, a 60-second piece of '80s-esque hyperbola ran in front of Pokémon's first 80 episodes.
In the vast web of Pokémon -- which includes thousands of products licensed to 400 companies in well over 100 countries worldwide, adding up to a global value of some $45 billion, according to data from The Pokémon Company in Japan -- the original "Pokémon Theme" is one of dozens of songs related to the franchise. But, by virtue of it being the original -- not to mention that memorable motto in the song's hook -- it's far and away the most famous. And the current Pokémon Go craze, despite not including the theme in its marketing or gameplay, boosted the song's Spotify streams by 362 percent around the world the week after the game's release (July 6).
The song's back story, as colorful as it is, is more about icy corporate efficiency than the glowing, motivational tale its lyrics suggest. Despite its notoriety and global success, some of the theme's key players -- including singer Jason Paige, who ended up in litigation over what he considered unfair compensation -- have been left behind along the way.
In 1997, no one in the West knew what a "Pikachu" was. The franchise, already wildly successful in Japan, was being prepared for an American introduction, starting with the translation and editing of the Pokémon show and its characters into English. Stories from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, respectively, reported that Nintendo had spent $20 million on publicity (four times its usual outlay) and promised $5 million in television advertising to stations carrying the show ahead of its debut.
Before it could infiltrate America though, Pokémon needed a theme song.
John Siegler worked as the head writer and producer of production company Rave Music, led by CEO John Loeffler, which produced jingles and theme songs for commercials and television shows. By 1998, the company had worked with licensing firm 4Kids Entertainment and its head of production Norman Grossfeld several times. When 4Kids was tasked with coming up with a 60-second jingle for a new Japanese show called Pokémon, Grossfeld turned to Rave.
"One of the reasons [Grossfeld] told me he hired us was because he was interested in those big, advertising-type melodic hooks that people were going to sing and whistle," Siegler says. "And John [Loeffler] and I, with the information that we had, decided on a basic idea of how the song would go and I went ahead and produced it."
Siegler and Loeffler wrote the lyrics and music together, then Siegler arranged and recorded the track himself, playing keyboards and bass and programming drums himself, bringing in guitarist David Rolfe as the only additional musician. The teams from Rave and 4Kids then auditioned a handful of session singers to handle the lead vocal, looking for someone who sounded young but not childish. "We didn't want it to sound like a nursery rhyme," Siegler recalls, "But we wanted it to be so that the kids, who we were selling the show to, would feel like they weren't listening to their parents' Eric Clapton."
The man who got the job was Jason Paige, a writer, actor and singer in his late 20s who had been doing 100-150 sessions a year (by his own estimation) singing jingles, theme songs and background vocals to pay his bills. Over the course of a few sessions, Paige laid down the vocal on the 60-second demo, including its powerfully catchy hook.
What happened next was nothing short of a phenomenon, and the corporate entities involved were quick to cash in. By April 1999, seven months after its debut, the New York Times reported the franchise secured "at least 40" licensing deals for dozens of products -- several of which used "Pokémon Theme" in part or in full -- and had pulled in north of $200 million in revenue in the U.S. alone. Companies like Hasbro, Topps and Tiger Electronics were jumping on board in droves, making action figures, toys, trading cards and more. "They were selling everything -- Pokémon lunch boxes, Pokémon underwear, whatever -- because it was really huge," Siegler says. "The first couple years of Pokémon, it was just insane."
Quickly, the decision was made to put out an album of original music, and 4Kids once again turned to Loeffler and Siegler to make it happen. Paige was called back in to sing an extended version of the "Pokémon Theme," as well as a new song called "Viridian City" penned by Loeffler and songwriter Neil Jason. The finished album, 2 B A Master, was completed in less than a month, Loeffler has said in interviews, and featured 13 original songs sung by various session vocalists and artists. Released June 29, 1999, via the Koch Records label (alongside Nintendo of America, 4Kids Entertainment and Cherry Lane Music Publishing), 2 B A Master proved to be another hit for the franchise: it was certified platinum by the RIAA, having sold 500,000 copies in the United States, in four months. By 2003, Koch president Bob Frank claimed it had sold three million copies worldwide.
"We were all making a lot of money, we were all thrilled," Siegler, who had five co-writing credits on the album, including the "Pokémon Theme" alongside Loeffler, says about that initial success. "If you're an entertainment person, if you ever get a hit like that, there's just nothing like it."
Not everyone was making money, however. Several of the vocalists who worked on the album, including Paige, were unhappy with their contracts. For recording the show's initial 60-second theme song -- which ran through January of 2000 -- Paige says he was paid "in the three figures, with the promise of future compensation on the album." But in the time between signing his initial contract and the album's release, the Pokémon franchise had ballooned into a $5 billion global operation, and Paige's contract did not include royalties from licensed products that used his voice.
"Between the TV show and the completion of the album, there was a myriad of other products that came up as well that started using little sound bytes of the song," Paige says. "How do you determine what the compensation should be for a sound byte coming off a plastic watch? Or a little pinball machine? Or a room greeter in a Blockbuster video store?"
Further, while Loeffler and Siegler both received writing credits, the publishers included companies like Jigglypuff Music, owned by 4Kids, Pikachu Music, owned by Pokémon USA -- itself controlled by Nintendo -- and Cherry Lane Music Publishing, which published the sheet music. "The publishing is owned by the various partners, the various corporate partners," Siegler says, noting that that is not unusual in the television business. "They weren't ungenerous about the writers' share; I put my kids through college with that money. So I have no complaints. I think if you wanted to get some complaints, you'd get them from the singers, who all signed buyout contracts... and then when the thing exploded were less than thrilled."
Paige hired a lawyer to try to recoup royalties from seven different companies that used his voice, a process he says played out over more than a year. In the end, a settlement was negotiated out of court with each of the companies that were using his voice paying Paige a flat fee amounting to a total less than $100,000, the singer says. (While Paige declined to be more specific than that, the New York Post put the number in the mid-five figures.) By the end of 2000, with estimates placing Pokémon's worldwide value north of $10 billion, Paige was out.
Four years ago, Jason Paige did a Skype interview with Tamashii Hiroka, a young Pokémon obsessive who ran a YouTube channel dedicated to the franchise. Throughout the 25-minute interview, Paige is alternately thoughtful and animated, breaking out into full-throated, impassioned renditions of popular jingles and theme songs from well-known television shows; during a recent phone conversation with Billboard he was equally effusive, singing iconic songs from Spiderman and Speed Racer. Towards the end of the Skype interview, Hiroka begins asking questions from other fans, including whether or not Paige would do any Pokémon-related work in the future. During the course of his answer, Paige explains the litigation over the "Pokémon Theme," providing a glimpse into his thought process in the years since -- and a sense of inner conflict.
"If I had taken that horrible, horrible, record-breaking horrible contract, based on the amount of success that Pokémon had, I would have made more money off of that bad contract than I did in the settlement," he says. "I wish it would have amounted, in financial compensation, to what it is really worth... If you think that the theme song contributed 1/1,000th of a percentage to the overall from the time it was recorded -- which I think is kind of fair -- it would probably be $100 million worth of revenue... Of course, it wasn't deemed so and the revenue was much, much, much less than that. But it taught me in the future to make sure that I don't work for people that don't have my best interests at heart."
The following decade-and-a-half saw the Pokémon franchise continue to flourish, releasing dozens of movies, selling millions of video games and billions of trading cards and putting out a slew of music releases, including the soundtrack to Pokémon: The First Movie, which was certified double platinum after its release on Atlantic Records in 2000. There have been Broadway plays, children's books, temporary tattoos, retail stores, even a Pokémon theme park. YouTube became an unexpected boon when comedy duo Smosh released a viral video of them lip-syncing along to the "Pokémon Theme," which had racked up 24 million views -- the fourth-most watched video ever on YouTube at the time -- before it was removed due to a DMCA complaint in mid-2007. As new technology and new revenue streams opened up, Pokémon evolved and adapted to them, and its creators found increasingly more ways to make money from the colorful creatures.
Now, the success of Pokémon Go has returned the franchise to its status as a cultural hit, reportedly adding $7.5 billion to Nintendo's market value in the days since its release. The "Pokémon Theme," in addition to its streaming gains, sold 7,000 downloads in the week ending July 14, a 1,079 percent increase over the previous week. But most of the players involved in the original theme have moved on.
Rave Music is no more; Loeffler founded a multi-purpose music company called Fieldhouse Music, which operates as a division of BMG. (Loeffler did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.) Siegler, after becoming head of music for 4Kids Productions in 2000 and working on Pokémon for an additional 10 years, sold his writing credit for the "Pokémon Theme" in 2010. 4Kids Entertainment is now 4Kids Media, a subsidiary of Konami; Koch Records became eOne Music; and Cherry Lane Music Publishing was acquired by BMG in 2010. Even The WB, Warner Bros.' television network that aired the original seasons of the Pokémon television show, was shut down, eventually re-branded as The CW.
Paige, now 47, has also moved on, as much by necessity as by choice. He still sings jingles for the likes of Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew, and performs in a live show called For the Record, which showcases movie themes organized by director and which Paige says is in talks with ABC about a televised live event. His eclectic grab bag of ongoing work includes producing a "yearly Beatles Gospel Nativity concert" (Paige: "An incredible way to spend the holiday.") with the Open Fist Theater in L.A., has beatboxed on stage with Aerosmith and recently toured as the frontman for Blood, Sweat and Tears. His own music, which he describes as "songs about my life that are socio-political-sexualogical in nature," is available on YouTube. Nearly two decades later, he's found a way to come to terms with being cut out of the Pokémon universe.
"You know, you continue to go through life and find the value in things," he says after being asked if he would have done anything differently. "And the value is in happiness. Fairness is relative in retrospect. Would it have been just as amazing if it had ended there when I got my settlement? No. I would want it to go on to greater and greater successes, even if I wasn't compensated. Because I'm compensated through the happiness and joy that all these people are having from it... The cosmic happiness of billions of people is absolutely invaluable."