Bill Siddons is a personal manager and partner in Core Entertainment. Additional clients include Alice in Chains, Jerry Cantrell, Elayne Boosler and Michael Glabicki of Rusted Root.
Imagine you started a group — let’s call it “the Few” — and wrote all of its hits — 10 in just five years.
Your partner, the lead singer, then decides to leave for a solo career. Still, promoters are offering $100,000 a night for the Few. There are opportunities for TV specials, merchandise offers and more.
So, who gets to profit from the brand you built together? Can you call your band with the new singer the Few, or is it the Fewer? Can your ex-partner use the name if his solo career fails? You wrote all the songs, but who decides whether your biggest hit, “Big One,” is used in that Trojan ad?
Most important, what do you tell the kids? “Mommy and daddy still love you, but the vocals are going to sound different now”?
The passion that drives you to care only about creating art can blind you to the fact that you are also starting a business. From Day One, you are building assets with a bunch of partners — it is like being married to several people at once. The surest way to protect your art for the future is to address that from the beginning.
Clear agreements early on can save you years of pain and heartache, preserve your finances and, most important, safeguard your relationship with your fans.
Ultimately, perhaps the most important asset you will be creating is the brand. Ownership of that brand may be the critical factor in determining who lives in poverty and who lives in wealth.
The list of bands that have lost one or more members who were crucial to their sound or brand identity reads like the roster for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: the Temptations, Pink Floyd, the Doors, Van Halen, AC/DC, Supertramp, Little River Band, Alice in Chains, Styx, Journey.
Despite key personnel changes, these bands still have active careers. The people profiting are the people who own the names (the brands) and are able to work under those names. They may not be who you think.
Often the brand lives on after the departure of the artists who have clearly been the creative force — the unique face and/or voice. In short, the heart and soul of the band.
In some cases (AC/DC, Van Halen), the band goes on to redefine its sound and direction, and in the process redefines its brand. In others, the original sound is imitated, and that brand is used to enrich new members.
Consider the recent case involving my original client, the Doors. The drummer, John Densmore, and the estate of Jim Morrison sued the other two original members for abusing the trademark and using it without permission by touring as the 21st Century Doors — and they won.
This story could have had a very different outcome. But because there were valid contracts signed, it was a relatively clear (though expensive) path. The partnership contracts provided that a veto by any member could stop a proposed project or use. No one ever imagined at the time that it would come to litigation and cold, hard cash — but it did.
Now consider what happened to our recent client Birtles Shorrock Goble, the founding members, singers and songwriters of Little River Band. They now call themselves BSG.
Little River Band had phenomenal U.S. success during the late ’70s and early ’80s, producing music indelible to a generation of concertgoers and radio listeners. The brand the original members created — including the name Little River Band, the acronym LRB and the symbol of the platypus in their logo — was unmistakable to fans worldwide.
One by one, the original members resigned from the LRB corporate entity to invest in their families and their solo careers. Guitarist Stephen Housden, a non-original member who had joined the group well after the brand was established, was granted rights to the trademarks. He tours the United States, making millions annually, performing LRB classic hits and presenting his group as Little River Band — although not one original member remains in the group.
Housden has sued BSG many times to stop them from making reference to their history or connection with Little River Band.
Under settlement agreements reached in 2002 in Australia and this year in Florida, BSG can make only limited use of the brand they created. And without control of that brand, they are unable to market themselves effectively. Essentially, they are artistically and economically silenced.
Sadly, the fans suffer most. No one has ever mistaken an Elvis impersonator for Elvis. A new band playing someone else’s hits under the original name is no different than the performers doing Liberace or Judy Garland in the Legends of Las Vegas show. But it is legal.
If you are going to start a career in the music business, you should start it with your eyes wide open. Make sure you understand who owns and controls what is important to you, and that you have it in writing.
If your talent translates into greatness, and if you have a career that lasts, you must protect your art. Take control of it early, so instead of a legacy of bitterness and heartache, your legacy is about the music. Spend your best years onstage, not in court.