How Frank Zappa helped me negotiate my record deal

So I’m hunkered down with Frank Zappa.

He’s already shown me his new toy – a portable piano keyboard he can take anywhere. He demonstrates how it works.

He shows me how he can write and compose on an aeroplane! Who would have believed such a thing possible?

And now he’s telling me this story.

Seems Frank had been signed to a  deal with MGM Records which was going nowhere and he wanted out.

Being Frank Zappa, he hadn’t just signed any old deal without reading it. He knew that, on a particular date, the record company had to formally advise him they wanted to continue with him.

He also knew that the contract was locked away, as he put it, “in an old filing cabinet in the basement”. Nobody was left at the label who was there when he signed; he calculated no-one would remember to let him know they wanted him to stay at the label.

So he kept his cool, waited for the day. No word from the label. Then he served notice that he was no longer under contract, and no longer wished to record for them. He was free!

This is a rare story in the music industry – one where the artist uses the contract to his own advantage. I kept this story in my metaphoric back pocket for five years until I was negotiating my own record deal.

Record companies always ‘recoup’ artists’ costs. You spend £500,000 recording an album, filming a video, releasing a single: the record company is going to recover those costs from your sales before you see a penny.

Of course, if you don’t sell any units, that’s their loss, although you will carry that debt for the term of the contract and possibly beyond. According to the last royalty statement I received, I still owe somebody £22,000 for an album I made over 30 years ago.

So here’s what I did in 1978, employing the ‘Zappa Strategy’.

I negotiated an initial three month deal for one single – Car 67 – after which the record company would have what’s called ‘an option’ to pick up the deal for an album.

My calculation was that by the time we recorded the single, it was scheduled for release, made its way onto the Radio 1 playlist, and started to chart, we would be way beyond three months.

What this meant, in practical terms, was that if Car 67 was a hit, I would get paid. The album would be under a new contract at the record company’s risk.

For their part, the record company was not going to commit to an album until they knew the single was selling.

And I was right. The deal was signed in September, the single was released in November and it didn’t hit the top 30 till January.

So when the letter arrived telling us the record company was “picking up its option” for an album, I had the great joy of telling them they were out of time. And I offered a silent prayer of thanks to Frank Zappa.

We renegotiated, got a small advance, a much higher royalty, and off we went to record the album.

Of course, it didn’t end happily ever after. Never underestimate the power and sheer venality of the record industry. When pay day came, no cheque. Instead, a statement showed that we owed the record company money.

And this is the reason they gave: the second contract was simply an extension of the first, and as such was the same contract.

In reality, as the managing director said to me, quite baldly and blatantly: “Look Paul, we’ve got the money and you don’t. So why don’t you just go and make some more records, and the money will follow”.

I’d seen some stuff in my time in the record business that had, literally, reduced me to tears. The way struggling artists were treated was beyond belief. I had been determined to avoid this pitfall.

But greed and incompetence were the order of the day. One of the industry’s most beloved figures back then – and rightly so – was a guy named Maurice Oberstein.

One of the cleverest people I have ever met, Obie (as he was known to everyone) had, for instance, foreseen the oil shortage in the early 70s. Crude oil was a vital ingredient in making vinyl. So what Obie did was, he bought up pretty much Europe’s existing vinyl stock to ensure CBS Records would outride any oil shortage.

And yet, this brilliant man once said to me, vis a vis the record industry: “You know, Paul, this is the only business I know where you can be wrong nine times out of ten and still be a genius”.

Is it any wonder, then, that far from being starry eyed and naive, I was cynical and sceptical? Which brings me to this week’s song. It was the title track of the only album I made before I walked away from the record industry disgusted and defeated in 1981.

The song is Hey Mister Record Man and the lyrics are self-explanatory. It is an artist more or less begging just for the opportunity to play a song to a “record man”.

As the song progresses, you will hear the artistic integrity disintegrating until, finally, the “record man” is bribed with “co-authorship” on a piece of dross he wants, that the artist will hate himself for recording.

And if you think this is satire, believe me, it’s impossible to satirise the record industry. Then or now.

For those who are interested, Hey Mister Record Man will be reissued on May 12, along with 20 other Driver 67 and Tax Loss recordings. I’ll keep you up to date with that.

If you listen to the end, you’ll hear that the song segues into Car 67, which is how it is on the album. But I haven’t let that song play out. There’s a limit to your patience, I know!

3 Comments

  1. Hi. I bought ‘Hey Mr Record Man’ for 50p in a charity shop years ago simply because I thought it looked interesting – and fell in love with it. ‘My Crazy Friend’ and ‘Folk Like Us’ are still two of my favourite songs. I much prefer the (non-Brummie) version of ‘Car 67’ on the album. Just thought you might like to know. Thanks for writing the songs – and the blog.

    Like

  2. Amusing but unfair! After hearing your music I was amazed you weren’t much more famous and celebrated. Great song-writing talent. Enjoying your insights into the Beatles and Apple, as well. I’ve read all the books you mention about the Beatles but you provide another insider’s view on what was an amazingly creative time. Thanks!

    Like

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