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The 80/20 split explained, or how you know when the fat lady has sung herself hoarse

I was in a music publisher’s office on the corner of La Brea and Sunset, Los Angeles, sometime around 1997. Across the desk from me was one of the olympians of the music industry, responsible for a string of hits over four decades, who was about to prove that even immortals can, on occasion, have feet of clay.

I was in LA to visit record companies and managers in an effort to resuscitate the stalled career of one of my roster, a musican/writer/producer team who had enjoyed some stellar moments in mid to late ’80s working on recordings by David Bowie, Charles & Eddie and Pet Shop Boys, but whose current trajectory was, to put it mildly, in a southerly direction. They hadn’t produced a hit in three years and hadn’t worked on anything other than their own, unreleased, material in nearly twelve months.

The role of the publisher is generally a shadowy one. Their job, as far as recording artists and songwriters are concerned, is to oversee royalty collection and to help develop the performer’s career by arranging collaborations and placing songs on movie soundtracks and commercials. In the hands of a creative A&R executive and a talented synchronisation team, a writer’s progress up pop’s greasy pole can receive a substantial leg up, and my host that day was widely recognised as one of the masters of his craft. Currently, however, from where I was sitting these guys weren’t exactly covering themselves in glory, and I was getting it in the neck almost daily from my client.

“So what have you got for us?” I asked.

“Got for you? In what way?”

“Oh, you know, some co-writes, production gigs, maybe a remix? Who’s doing what at the moment? Anything that might suit?”

“Not really, no. Not much around. Seems to me that their appeal has become more….ah….niche based.”

“Can I be honest here? Your heart doesn’t seem to be in this.”

“How so?”

“Well, I suppose it’s got something to do with the fact that you never return my calls and I haven’t spoken to you for a year.”

“Look, it’s like this….”

I could feel the kicker approaching.

“The deal is 80/20, right?”

“Right….”

“Well that means that you do eighty per cent of the work and we do twenty.”

I wondered if I might have the brass neck to use the same argument next time my client phoned for another whinge.

Probably not, which goes a long way towards explaining why the guy sitting opposite me that day was a multi millionaire and I wasn’t.

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