One element of the backstory that underpins the book A Bridge of Straw is the fact that one song can generate such a large amount of ongoing income. In fact every time a song is used in any way – TV advert, in a film, played on the radio, in a computer game – the writer of the song should get paid.
My inspiration for the idea of a song generating so much money was the song Lay Down Sally. Indeed, this was one of the starting points for the whole idea behind the novel,
I once read an interview with the singer Marcella Detroit (in Q71, which currently lives within a pile of other old music magazines in my downstairs toilet). She was one half of Shakespears Sister, along with Siobhan Fahey, who had a big hit with the song Stay. But in the 1970s Marcella used to be a singer with a number of acts such as Leon Russell and Bob Seger, under her real name of Marcy Levy. And it was during that time that she co-wrote, and sang on, one of Eric Clapton’s biggest hits, Lay Down Sally.
The interview I read was in 1992 when Shakespears Sister had their few fleeting moments of fame. Lay Down Sally had just had its two millionth play on US radio. She said “(The money) just keeps coming in. I know it bought me my first house and my car… it’s kind of disgusting how much money you can make from songwriting.”
So the idea of one song providing a decent income for ever more is certainly not fanciful. In an interview in December 2009 on the BBC web site, Bob Heatlie, who wrote Merry Christmas Everyone for Shaking Stevens, put a figure of £8,000 income per annum from that one song.
A BBC4 documentary called The Richest Songs In The World also carried some interesting statistics. For example Every Breath You Take brings in between a quarter and a third of all the income from the back catalogue by The Police. And most of it goes to the songwriter, Sting, even though Andy Summer’s guitar part is arguably the most recognisable part of the song. In total that one song is estimated to have earned £13.5m.
It doesn’t always work out like this, however. Van Morrison wrote Brown Eyed Girl as a young man just arriving in American, and signed a contract which gave away his rights to ongoing royalties. That song has been played on US radio over ten million times and made an estimated £12m. Van Morrison has seen very little of that money.
One final example. One of my favourite artists is the group The Band. They shared a house in Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s called Big Pink, which became the name of their first album. The songs on their first two albums (the second – and best, in my opinion – being just called The Band) were mainly written by guitarist Robbie Robertson. Or were they? In later years, drummer/singer/player-of-many-other-instruments Levon Helm claimed that everyone contributed to those songs. They came out of the environment, he said, from them being around each other all day, music was just everywhere. How could one person claim to have written the music on their own? And yet it was Robertson who continued to be paid the royalties, much to Helm’s anger.
And I haven’t even mentioned Spandau Ballet (who went to court over song writing royalties) and George Harrison (the first person successfully sued for plagiarism, My Sweet Lord supposedly a rip off of He’s So Fine). So the idea of one song generating a huge amount of money, and the authorship of that song being potentially contestable, is one that is very much based in reality.