A Case For Copyright Extention

When I was stacking singles on my Dansette after school, I didn’t envisage a time when the musicians who played on them would be pensioners. But then, neither did I dare to foresee a future that would endorse Danny & The Juniors’ brash assertion that rock’n’roll was here to stay. Half a century after those records rescued me from homework, however, the outlook for their makers is bleak, because 50 years is the copyright term for sound recordings, a cut-off which means an end to an appreciable source of income for musicians in retirement.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament voted to extend that term from 50 to 70 years. Labelled “the Beatles Extension”, since it would prevent the Fab Four’s first hits losing copyright protection in 2012, an arrangement that would suit neither Sir Paul McCartney nor EMI Records, it might more aptly have been called “the Cliff Richard Extension”, since his earliest releases have already lapsed into public domain, an arrangement that suits neither Sir Cliff nor EMI Records.

The question – to extend or not to extend? – has been asked with increasing urgency the closer loomed the confluence of that 50-year limit and the demi-centenary of pop. If Eddie Calvert’s ‘Oh Mein Papa’ or David Whitfield’s ‘Cara Mia’ went out of copyright, who cared? Records like that had the fusty ring of post-war rationing or National Service. But the hits we – the first generation of modern teenagers – grew up with? They still stir memories, set toes tapping. The very best remain thrillingly alive.

In 2005, Gordon Brown – then Chancellor – commissioned the former Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers to advise on the future of copyright in the digital age. Published a year later, the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property rejected the case for term extension, an unexpected conclusion which provoked an instant response from more than 4,500 members of the UK’s music community, whose names, printed as compactly as the credits on an album sleeve, crammed a full-page ad in Gowers’ old paper, overprinted in red with an appeal for “fair play for musicians.”

Sceptics, unsurprisingly, pointed to the rich and famous among the signatories, suggesting, as the Times did, that “for many campaigners the extra income is probably not essential for paying the winter heating bills.” But by no means all the signatories were household names with money to burn. Although the Rs, for instance, included Robbie Williams, Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey, listed alongside them was Ronald Prentice.

Unless your special subject is session players of the 1960s, there’s no reason why you should know a name unmentioned on the labels of the records he played on. Google “Ron Prentice”, and the English bassist is outnumbered 20-1 by a vociferous American opponent of same-sex marriage. Even in his heyday, Prentice was a secret unshared with the pop public, and yet he played on more hit records than those other three illustrious Rs, among them Cilla Black’s ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’, Tom Jones’ ‘It’s Not Unusual’, Sandie Shaw’s ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’, and Dusty Springfield’s ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’. By then he had been a musician for more than a dozen years. Catching the music bug from George Formby 78s as a wartime evacuee, he joined the jazz revival when “trad” was a cult confined to the back rooms of pubs, but prudently realised a living could be made playing strictly slow-slow-quick-quick-slow in dance bands.

When ‘Rock Around The Clock’ topped the UK hit parade in November 1955, the sheet music propped on Prentice’s stand scored the week’s other big hits – ‘The Man From Laramie’, ‘Yellow Rose Of Texas’ and ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, tunes couples could waltz, quickstep and tango to – and for two more years at least there were enough new ballads, cha-chas and mambos to keep dancers on the floor and bands with ten-piece brass sections on the rostrum. But slow as rock’n’roll was to catch on, ultimately it was unstoppable, and as record companies sought home-grown singers to recreate American hits, they needed musicians to replicate the backings: real musicians, of course, since it stood to reason that a sight-reading professional would be more dependable than a kid with a quiff, three chords and a pelvic thrust.

Discounting Tommy Steele’s earlier travesties, British rock’n’roll was born in Abbey Road Studios on 24 July 1958. The opening guitar figure of the debutant Cliff Richard’s ‘Move It’, as zesty as a pools winner bounding downstairs to greet the postman, was an unequivocal announcement that you didn’t have to be a Yank to rock’n’roll. Wary of trusting Cliff’s teenage guitarist to pull off the riff in a take or two, the musical director recruited an experienced player, Ernie Shear. If there had been any doubt before, there was none after. Producing a pop session, you hired a pro.

With booking information as scant as date, time and location, session players rarely knew in advance the name of the artist they would be backing and had no sight of the score until they arrived at the studio. Both A- and B-sides of a record would be scheduled in a two-hour half-session, so the moment the big hand ticked past the top of the clock, everyone had to be on the ball. “Occasionally a mistake would occur in the run-through,” Prentice recalls, “but if it happened a second time, the MD would inquire sarcastically, ‘Is there a problem with your part?’”

Uncredited they might have been, but these players’ contribution to a record could be audibly conspicuous. It’s impossible to sing along to Tom Jones’ ‘It’s Not Unusual’ without vocalising the instrumental ‘ba-da-ba-da-ba-da’ line, while there can be few people on the planet whose pulse hasn’t quickened as Prentice danga-dang-dangs his six-string bass guitar over the opening credits of a James Bond film. And although many sessions required note-for-note reading, being confronted by a simple chord chart could be a sharper spur to creativity. When Big Jim Sullivan wah-wahed his way through Dave Berry’s ‘The Crying Game’ in 1964, he “made up that whole guitar part – nobody had heard a sound like that before, and that’s what made the record.” True.

Spending so much time in the studio that they rarely had the opportunity to hear their work on the radio didn’t mean they were unaware when a record had done well. “You’d make a single with some unknown singer, and when you went back to make the second one, he’d drive up in a Rolls Royce,” Sullivan reflects without rancour, since neither he nor Prentice had cause for complaint. In 1964, when the average weekly wage was £16, a three-hour session paid £9, plus 10 shillings porterage, an automatic bonus for bringing your own instrument. By Monday lunchtime, with a busy week ahead, they were already well up on most nine-to-fivers.

It would be cheering to picture the pair of them in comfortable retirement, but when you work for yourself, there are always more pressing payments than putting something by for old age. Now neither can afford to keep his feet up. A 1996 amendment to the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act produced an annuity of sorts in the form of a broadcast royalty for “non-featured artists”, but the response of those musicians who had known for years about their US counterparts annually banking six-figure cheques as their share of income channelled through their union, was not a thankful tug of the forelock, but a chorused “About time too,” if not “Too little, too late.”

What’s more, to qualify for payment, musicians had to prove which records they had played on. Even those with dusty work diaries in their attic were pushed to provide evidence, because a date, a time and a studio aren’t as conclusive as, say, Marianne Faithfull: ‘As Tears Go By’. Sullivan played on every Tom Jones record from 1963 to 1975, but it took a letter from the singer’s manager to corroborate what was common knowledge throughout the music business, while Prentice has abandoned hope of establishing some bass lines as his own, aware that another musician must be wrongly receiving his share.

Reluctant to pry into the finances of people I barely know, I quizzed a session-playing pal: last year’s income from broadcast royalties amounted to £8,000, less than a fortune, but more than the annual state pension for a couple – a significant top-up. The first records Prentice played on were released in 1958, so his royalty payments ceased as corks popped last New Year’s Eve and, if the copyright term remains unchanged, remuneration from 1959’s hits will stop in three months’ time.

Gowers’ advice to the government not to tamper with the term didn’t convince the last Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, who suggested in December 2008 that there was “a moral case for performers benefiting from their work throughout their lifetime.” Dismissing this as “pretty silly”, Gowers restated his view that “copyright extension has high costs to the public and negligible benefits to the creative community.” But the argument was soon to gain a wider airing in Strasbourg, and the law was passed – by 377 votes to 178 – on 23rd April.

Besides approving a 70-year copyright term, the legislation also establishes an entirely new fund – for session musicians, not superstars – in the form of a 20% share in record sales to complement the broadcast royalty; allows artists to renegotiate 50-year-old recording contracts, signed in the dark age of analogue serfdom; and contains a use-it-or-lose-it clause to restore unissued or deleted recordings to the ownership of the artist. But what appeared in April to be a significant breakthrough is still several signatures short of implementation.

Though approved by MEPs, the legislation has yet to be ratified by the European Council, and the EU presidency is currently held by Sweden, whose six-month stint is more likely to focus on climate change, health and “dignified ageing” than copyright, a touchy topic domestically following the April imprisonment of the founders of file-sharing site Pirate Bay, sentences which provoked such a tide of public antagonism that a hastily formed Pirate Party now has a seat in Strasbourg.

When the EU first moved towards extending the copyright term, Feargal Sharkey, the head of the industry group UK Music, declared, “I am especially pleased that the announcement focuses on the ‘invisible’ members of our industry… who could derive real benefits from this move at a time in life when their earning power would be severely diminished.”

All music fans with a grasp of pop history should be equally pleased. We should applaud the prospect of a more comfortable retirement for those invisible, invaluable musicians. So, fingers crossed they won’t have to wait too long for “the Prentice Extension” to finally come into force.

(Originally published in September 2009)

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