X fans compelled to play the Los Angeles punk band’s classic 1987 ballad “4th of July” every July 4 were disappointed Monday to find the track missing from Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. Dozens of them even tracked down Mike Rouse, X’s 25-year manager, and requested explanations online.
“I started out being as courteous as I can,” Rouse says. “As you get down the list, you’re like, ‘It’s a long story.’ Then you get, ‘I’ve got time.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t! I’m prepping for a seven-week tour! First show is tomorrow!’ I don’t have time to be waxing methodical about the nuances of music business.”
In 2014, X’s legal researcher, Dan Perloff, contacted the band to explain that because music copyrights terminate after 35 years under the Copyright Act of 1976, the rights to master recordings of albums like 1980’s Los Angeles and 1981’s Wild Gift would revert to the band, sequentially, in coming years. No longer would Warner Music, which owns X’s former label Slash Records, be in charge of X’s catalog. Instead, X signed a 2018 licensing deal with indie Fat Possum to distribute those works online.
Earlier this year, See How We Are, the 1987 album that contains “4th of July,” passed the 35-year mark and reverted to X. In recent years, other artists have taken advantage of their own termination rights, although they commonly have to sue their labels to get them back: Anita Baker framed this copyright process as a moral victory: “Retired from the Plantation 2020 My Masters Are Coming Home,” she wrote in 2021; Dwight Yoakam settled with Warner Music Group earlier this year to win back his rights; the late James Brown’s children and other family members have been squabbling in court over deals involving these termination rights for years; and currently two class action lawsuits filed against Universal Music Group and Sony Music seek to let hundreds of recording artists regain control of their own masters.
With X, however, reclaiming the rights to See How We Are underlines what happens when artists aren’t ready to exploit those rights upon regaining control of them. After 40 years, the band is still DIY with a single employee — Rouse — and preoccupied with other ventures. “I’d like to say it was because we had these giant, great, big, grandiose plans,” Rouse says. “But it was really no deeper than ‘we were just busy as heck.'”
X plans to post the album on streaming platforms as soon as next week, Rouse adds, and possibly reissue a vinyl version by early 2023. (Fat Possum, which licenses the rest of X’s catalog, with the exception of 1993’s “Hey Zeus!,” which was self-released by former managers, will be involved in both reissues.)
“4th of July” gets annual Independence Day sales and streaming spikes, but Rouse says the revenue is not exactly the equivalent of Mariah Carey during Christmas or Al Green on Valentine’s Day. (The track is not officially available on YouTube, but X and its reps have not taken action against individual users posting it themselves; This version has nearly 134,000 views.)
“4th of July,” written by Dave Alvin of The Blasters and a short-lived member of X, also does not generate publishing royalties for the band. Rouse adds that the methodical, nuanced, music-business explanation for its absence on streaming services is pretty much just that July 4 snuck up on them. “It really is no bigger than ‘It happened without us seeing it coming.'”