The £100m Reggae Robbery: Part 2

£100m reggae robbery

Below is the second of a three-part report, originally published in New Nation newspaper in 2004, exposing how record companies and so-called ‘collection societies’ deprived reggae artists of millions of pounds in publishing and royalty revenues. Read part one here:

Singer Max Romeo Max Romeo claims he received $2,500 Jamaican dollars (worth around £450 today) to record the classic album War Inna Babylon in 1976, and has received no royalties since.

In 2003, intellectual property lawyer Andre Bertand went to court in France on Romeo’s behalf in a case against Universal Records, the parent company of Island Records which claims to own the album.

The court ruled the exploitation of War Ina Babylon without a proper contract was unlawful and the case will be reopened in November (2004) to ascertain who produced LP.

War Ina Babylon, Max Romeo, Lee Perry, the Upsetters reggae album

Romeo is pleased Bertrand has taken up the battle on behalf of Jamaican singers. He told Bashment Vibes: ‘I think it’s a brilliant idea that somebody is coming to our rescue because over the years we have gone through hard times knowing we have written music that is recognised all over the world, but no money is coming to us.

‘Some of us are living like dogs,’ he adds. ‘It’s terrible, but I’m happy to know Andre is handling the situation. In the early days, Jamaican singers and songwriters were naïve to the copyright situation.

‘Only a few of us were exposed to the copyright laws and things like that, so record labels and others took our songs, acted as if they were the writers, arrangers and producers, and shouldered us out.’

Another case Bertrand is fighting involves the compilation CD Absolute Reggae, released in 2001 by EMI in France. The album includes singer Johnny Clarke’s cover of Declaration of Rights Decleration of Rights - Head 2 Head and MPLA M.P.L.A. - Mpla by 1970s rapper David ‘Tappa Zukie’ Sinclair, (below).

Previously, EMI subsidiary Virgin Records claimed Zukie’s music had not sold enough copies to generate any royalties. However, midway through the trial, the rapper received a £500 royalty cheque from the label; his first in more than a decade.

Similarly, Virgin claimed to have produced Clarke’s Declaration of Rights, but two months ago, a French court acknowledged Edward ‘Bunny’ Lee as the producer and awarded him £4,000.

Bertrand says the ruling is significant because it establishes a figure (£4,000) for the reproduction of a song on a compilation without the permission of the producer or artist.

He claims two of Clarke’s songs featured on Absolute Reggae appear on at least 10 other compilations and believes the singer is owed around £40,000 for the unauthorised use of his music.

Jamaican producers are often criticised and accused of either not paying artists or conning them out of royalties. However, Lee, (below), confirms that many were themselves duped by major labels.

Reggae producer Edward Bunny Lee

He says: ‘How can the producer be a robber? We come from a tiny Caribbean island; we never knew about things like publishing. These guys had their lawyers and accountants and would ask us to sign blank contracts.

‘We signed and took the little £200 because we wanted to go back to Jamaica and make more music. Then, the next time you see the contract it’s marked “in perpetuity”; we never knew that meant we’d signed away our music forever.

‘When we realised what was going on it was too expensive to take out an injunction and they knew we couldn’t do that because we were only visiting England for a little while.’

In 1980, singer, producer and broadcasting pioneer Michael ‘Mikey Dread’ Campbell produced the UK top 20 single Bankrobber Bankrobber - The Singles (below) for British punk band The Clash, but after several bad experiences with labels,  he decided to go to university to study copyright law and music contracts.

Campbell says he will never again be fooled into signing away the rights to his music. He told Bashment Vibes: ‘I’m more educated now and have learned how contracts are written, what is mine and what belongs to the record company.

‘There are certain words like “in perpetuity” and “relinquish” that people should know about. I’m afraid of those words because I know what they mean.

‘In the contract for my first album with Trojan Records, it said I gave them the rights to manufacture and sell my record in any format now known or hereafter devised.

‘I crossed that out because I thought “If it is not available yet, why should I grant you the right to transfer my music to a different format?”

‘That was in 1979, and it was the best thing I ever did because now I have the rights to release my music on CD, MP3 and any other downloading format that’s available. And if Trojan or anyone else tried to put out my music on CD I will sue them.’

Bertrand is engaged in actions against Virgin on behalf of U Roy, Mighty Diamonds and the Gladiators. All three acts recorded hugely popular albums for the label throughout the 1970s, but the label claims none have sold enough to generate any royalty payments.

Bertrand disagrees. ‘I have the sales figures and those guys are all selling albums by the thousands around the world,’ he says.

What the Labels Say:

Trojan Recrods reggae label logo

John Reed, General Manager of Special Markets at Trojan/Sanctuary Records: ‘This is a difficult and multi-faceted subject which is both sensitive and difficult to answer succinctly.

‘Most “Trojan” recordings were, of course, made in Jamaica. In many instances, the producers claim ownership of these recordings even if they’ve been assigned to Trojan in perpetuity. Our position has been, on the whole, to accept this view.

‘The producer/owner would usually be accountable to the artists, in terms of royalties. However, it is our experience that this rarely happens. So we have agreed to pay artists a royalty for these recordings, which are effectively under exclusive licence to Trojan/Sanctuary.

‘We have met with dozens of “Trojan” artists and producers in our bid to deal with such issues – and will continue to do so. Further, we would actively encourage any artists to approach us with this in mind.’

Virgin Records logo reggae

Darrell Rushton, Head of Royalties at Virgin Records: ‘Tapper Zukie has always been accounted to by Virgin Records. He regularly gets sent statements and received a cheque from us in April last year.

‘The Mighty Diamonds’ albums Right Time and Ice on Fire have regularly been accounted to (lead singer) Fitzroy Simpson. The last accounting for December 2003 sales (sent in March ’04) showed the account to be unrecouped.

Johnny Clarke has been sent statements regularly but these have been sent back to us. As we have no forwarding address we have held on to the money which he’s owed. We are not willing to disclose the sum to you.’

Island Records logo

Despite numerous attempts to contact representatives from Island Records, no one responded to our calls and emails.

Read part three here

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