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If Elvis Presley Wasn’t a Songwriter, Why Was He Paid Like One?

Though some might find it objectionable for Presley to take ownership for songs he had no hand in writing, this practice is not singular to him.

It’s all a big hoax,” Elvis Presley once insisted to an interviewer. “I get one third of the [writing] credit just for recording [a song]. It makes me look smarter than I am!” In fact, by 1950s standards, the Mississippi-born artist who had “never written a song in [his] life” — not “Hound Dog,” not “Jailhouse Rock,” not “Love Me Tender” — had one of the most friendly and lucrative music publishing contracts around. And it was all thanks to a sweet deal struck between Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and Hill and Range Publishing.

The publisher, most of which has since been absorbed into Warner Chappell Music, was best known for its formidable country songwriting roster at the time it signed the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but founders Jean and Julian Aberbach found themselves betting on Presley’s success in 1954 by signing him to a co-publishing agreement with Hill and Range. (The Aberbachs opted not to sell their Presley publishing with the other Hill and Range assets in the company’s sale, and their surviving family members now administer their piece of the catalog through Raleigh Music Group.)

Though the deal was undoubtedly favorable for Presley, various forms of co-publishing agreements were not unheard of by 1954 for a major artist. In the 1920s and ’30s, according to attorney Michael Sukin, who in the past represented the Presley estate, Chappell Music (the publishing giant of its day) often made deals to split copyright ownership with its biggest writers. “Usually two-thirds went to the publisher and one-third was for the writer,” he explained. Frank Sinatra is even known to have had a co-publishing agreement, with his companies Sergeant Music Co. and Saloon Songs taking pieces of the publisher’s share on his behalf.

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But the term “co-publishing” is “a pretty broad category,” says Randall Wixen, founder of Wixen Music Publishing. Not all co-publishing agreements are created equal, he says. When signing to a music publisher, there are two portions of income to consider: the writer’s share (50%) and the publisher’s share (50%). A co-publishing deal entails agreements that cede any portion of the publisher’s reserved share over to the songwriter. Nowadays, the myriad deals under the co-publishing umbrella are the industry “template,” says Sukin, although in rare cases a newer writer may take a full, traditional publishing deal (today, this is most commonly seen in Nashville).

Parker managed to secure Presley a 50/50 split of the publisher’s share in his 1954 deal, a stipulation rare for its time. The money would be funneled into Elvis Presley Music, Inc., the company set up by Presley and Parker to collect the publisher’s share of profits. But not all of that money was going straight into Presley’s pocket. In 1966, Presley agreed to a highly controversial new contract with his manager, upping Parker’s fee from an already high 25% to half of all gross income, including his increasingly valuable publishing stream. Due to his overreach, in 1982, Parker lost that 50% fee in the Presley enterprises after an estate hearing questioned him for “handling affairs not in Elvis’s but his own interest.”

By 1957, Presley’s partnership with Hill and Range also included giving a one-third cut of mechanical royalties from every songwriter to Presley as well. This is what Alex Halberstadt, biographer for Doc Pomus (who wrote nearly 20 songs for Presley over the course of his career) nicknamed “The Elvis Tax.” For the writers who wanted Presley to turn their tune into a hit, it was just the price of doing business. “It’s better to get a percentage of a hit song than 100% of nothing,” says Ken Emerson, author of Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era. 

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But not every songwriter took the deal. Famously, Dolly Parton turned down Presley and Parker’s offer to record “I Will Always Love You” on the condition that she would give up half of her publishing rights. “I wanted to hear Elvis sing it, and it broke my heart,” said Parton in a recent interview with W Magazine, but she was not willing to lose half of her song to the singer. Parton’s gamble paid off decades later when Whitney Houston cut the ballad for the film The Bodyguard. Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 14 weeks from 1992-1993, setting the record for the song with the most weeks at No. 1 at the time. Later, the Houston rendition re-entered the chart, peaking at No. 3 following her death in 2012.

Though some critics might find it objectionable for Presley to take money and ownership for songs he had no hand in writing, this practice is not singular to him or even to major recording artists of the time. “Dick Clark was notorious for this,” says Wixen. In 1960, the American Bandstand host was investigated along with other broadcast personalities by the U.S. government for payola. Unlike Alan Freed, another host implicated in the scandal, Clark was not taking pure cash bribes – he took publishing royalties, a practice Steven Derounian, a U.S. congressman from New York, cheekily coined “roy-ola.”

Songs that complied with Clark’s requests for publishing were allegedly rewarded with placements on his weekday and Saturday night ABC-TV programs, including American Bandstand. Variety reported at the time that Clark made “more than $500,000” from music publishing and other music royalty income over the course of about two years – the equivalent to about $4.9 million in today’s dollars.

Apart from the few savvy profiteers at the time, publishing was still not viewed widely as a lucrative, steady industry like it is today. “People saw it as a penny business, so not many people really paid attention to how powerful it could be,” says Todd Brabec, a former ASCAP executive who now teaches music business at University of Southern California and serves as an expert witness in court regarding old publishing contracts. He explains that the biggest development in publishing came about a decade after Presley’s heyday: when singer-songwriters became commonplace at the top of the Billboard charts.

When the lines between songwriters and recording artists began to blur, the publisher’s game was less about finding artists and plugging songs than it was to facilitate and administer copyrights. Of course, plenty of artists did not write songs and plenty of pure songwriters still remained in the industry and needed that assistance, but the popularity of people like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, The Beatles, The Doors, and countless others led to an influx of co-publishing and publishing administration deals, in which the writer claimed part or all of the publisher’s share themselves.

Today, the legacy of major artists, like Presley, elbowing their way into publishing income continues, but not without pushback. Recent movements like The Pact, a group of top songwriters who wrote an open letter to the industry, have vowed to stop giving publishing or songwriting credit to any artist or manager who did not change a composition without a “reasonably equivalent/meaningful exchange.” However, lacking the necessary leverage to push back on these demands from artists and executives, this practice still proceeds uninterrupted to this day.