It is the latest bomb in the music industry. Retired from touring, Paul Simon has sold the publishing rights to his songbook (which includes huge hits with the duo Simon & Garfunkel) to the giant Sony Music Publishing. In those cases, the financial details are usually unclear and there is only speculation that the final amount may exceed the 300 or 400 million dollars (up to 340.72 million euros) supposedly paid by Universal Music Publising Group to Bob Dylan, agreement which served as the starting gun for what is already a veritable avalanche of artists willing to monetize their work before the Grim Reaper (and Joe Biden’s tax hike) arrives.
Songs are sold to the highest bidder
Simon’s thing is also a boost to that generational trend. The singer-songwriter from Queens, New York, could have negotiated with Hypgnosis, Primary Wave and other newly minted companies that are revolutionizing the game with money from powerful mutual funds. Simon, however, has chosen one of the historical giants. In contrast to most of his generation colleagues, Paul has never developed an antagonistic relationship with the music business. Quite the contrary: after clicking with One Trick Pony, his film as screenwriter and protagonist, offered to the editor of the soundtrack, Warner Bros, to pay the red numbers generated by the project. Never, neither before nor after One Trick Pony, there has been any case of an artist who, without being contractually bound, assumes to compensate the losses derived from a personal whim.
“He’s one of us,” they say in the music industry. And, up to a point, they hit the spot. In conversations with John Lennon, the beatle complained that it took too many years to understand that the money was in the copyright of their songs. Simon explained that he had lived in the belly of the beast, working during his dark years for small New York labels and publishing emporiums. There he was treated with the indifference reserved for brats, an attitude that led him to found his own publishing house, Eclectic Music, which took off with the pitch of The Sound of Silence. He was also especially adept at negotiating Simon & Garfunkel’s recording contract with CBS: claiming that it was a simple folk duo, he got the record company to agree to bear production costs, which were generally discounted from royalties. They would soon discover that, driven by the perfectionism of Simon, Garfunkel, and his main studio accomplice, engineer Roy Halee, the simple folk duo’s records would be among the most expensive (and gorgeous) of the 1960s.
In these matters, Paul Simon has been the anti-Dylan. Although both born into Jewish families in 1941, Paul and Bob understand their work in opposite ways. Simon is a goldsmith who cooks his songs over months – or years! – while Dylan believes in the inspiration of the moment, in composing in one go. Dylan experiences recording an album like a torment and has released ragged LPs: they wouldn’t endure the painstaking process of a Simon.
It is true that the modus operandi Paul’s has its risks. He begins by shutting himself up in the studio with instrumentalists perhaps culturally far removed from their origins: Jamaicans, Chicanos, Antilleans, Africans, Cajuns, Brazilians. They do not always work on pre-existing songs: they look for rhythms, melodic sequences, unusual hybrids, which are then combined, reworked and, finally, completed with lyrics.
Like Dylan, Simon has suffered accusations of plagiarism, in his case from Los Lobos and some South African musicians. He defends himself by explaining that he pays much more than what is demanded by union fees, under the legal model of the work for hire (commissioned work). Outside of those cases, he is usually generous: he presented a check to Claude Jeter, lead singer of the gospel group The Swan Silvertones, simply for the inspiration of the title of Bridge over turbulent waters. The same happened with the arrangement of Scarborough Fair, ancestral ballad recreated from an arrangement by Martin Carthy. When he learned that English had not received royalties, Simon sent him a personal check. Accustomed to the miseries of the folk scene, Carthy commented that Simon had behaved “honorably.” Not like Dylan, who also drew on Carthy’s traditional repertoire … without giving him credit or compensation.