One of the guilty pleasures of vinyl record collecting in the 60s and 70s was taking advantage of Columbia House Record Club’s introductory teaser offers, usually 12 records for a dollar, to purchase in bulk. (Did I hear you say that there must be a catch? Of course, but I’d love to know what percentage of takers fulfilled the reciprocal obligation to buy 12 more at list price.) I am sure we gave no more thought to how the artists were making out on the deal than do today’s file-sharers. Now representatives of some of the leading recording artists of the 1930s-50s have filed a lawsuit that will require all of us former Columbia House abusers to do a little soul-searching.
The plaintiffs include Count Basie (somehow legal entities like “The William J. Basie Testamentary Estate” seem unworthy of our attention, so I’ll stick with naming the deceased principals), Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughn, Frankie Laine, Woody Herman, and the Mills Brothers. They allege that the defendant, Universal Music Group (the conglomerated successor of such oldtime labels as Decca, Mercury, and Dot), made deals with record clubs that involved receiving large lump sum advance payments for the entire catalog and only small royalties on actual sales. Only the latter were shared with the recording artists, with the result that “Universal recieves a much larger proportion than had the recordings been distributed via normal retail channels.” The Complaint goes on to allege many other irregularities, such as faliling to account to the artists for Universal’s settlements with Napster, Grockster, Limewire and others.
For those of us interested in the history of the American popular music business, especially the legal aspects, this case may bear watching. If litigated to the hilt, it could provide a trove of information and documentation about a critical period in the development of the recording industry.