No More Song Lyrics In My Books — Ever

No More Song Lyrics In My Books — Ever

When a writer wants to add a feeling of time and place that resonates with readers, one technique is to include a few words or lines of a popular song from that period. This works even better when the lyrics themselves tie into the scene action.

My final draft of When Red Is Blue included about 10 words from Harper Valley P.T.A. and four lines from Down In It by Nine Inch Nails. I had grown attached to these lyrics, having spent hours contemplating which songs to use and then becoming thrilled to discover NIN lyrics that tied in beautifully with the scene I wanted to use them in.

When I mentioned to Brion (my designer) that I was working on getting licenses to use them, he “strongly recommended” that I save myself time, money and pain and pull both sets of lyrics out of the book. Of course, being stubborn, optimistic and in love with the words that were now part of my work, I ignored him and proceeded to try to get permission.

First issue – finding the right music company that was the keeper of each song. I started with a search engine for song lyric copyrights, which I would include here, if it weren’t for the fact that it was wrong for both songs. It ended up taking me a good month to finally locate the companies I needed: in this case, Warner Chappell for Harper Valley P.T.A. and Bicycle Music for Down In It. So now you must be thinking: all right, it was just a month – so? Warner Chappell came back fairly quickly (another two weeks-ish) with a price for the US and UK of £100+VAT. Okay, that’s reasonable, I thought, and paid for the license. Bicycle Music, on the other hand, took several more months of email harassment on my part to finally get me a price of $250, which is about £170, but with a 10-year limit. Reasonable as well, I thought, though I was a bit unhappy about the limitation, realizing I would have to renegotiate the license periodically. The transaction was further complicated by the fact that they don’t have a UK subsidiary so I had to wire the money, which added hefty bank fees on top of the cost (don’t get me started on banks).

Okay, so here I was with two licenses for the US and UK (the two big markets – good enough for now). So the book was launched in March and I went about my life, happy in the knowledge that I had successfully navigated the song lyrics copyright quagmire. Then I started getting complaints from folks in Italy about not being able to download the book. “Sorry,” I said, “just US and UK for now,” as I began contemplating the new global economy that would certainly include e-books…hmm. Then a couple of weeks ago, an organization that works with people who have mentally ill parents contacted me. “Congratulations!” they said. “We’d like to present you with an award for writing such an honest, poignant story about being a child of a mentally ill parent.” “Wow – fantastic, I’m truly honored…where did you say you were located? Australia. Oh.”

Cripes – here I go again. Back to Warner Chappell about changing the license to worldwide. What started out as a conversation about territories, however, morphed into the epiphany that I did not have an unlimited license for Harper Valley, but one that only allowed me to sell 1,000 copies. What?!? This was never stated in any of the emails, the paperwork I filled out or the license itself. The response I got was: “Well, that’s how we always do it.” My contact then went on to explain that if I sell more than 1000 copies, I would then have to go back to them and “guess” how many copies I will sell in the future. They would then charge me £50 per 1000 copies. So…if I thought I could manage to sell a modest 10,000 copies, I would have to fork out another £500 – for ten measly words. Oh, and, by the way, worldwide would be another £100+VAT – thanks ever so much.

Great…wonderful. Just my luck, Warner Chappell, that I’m not a traditional publishing house that’s dealt with you a thousand times, but a first-time indie writer who is now jumping for joy over the fact that you never bothered to mention this massively important little detail.

While I mulled over the repercussions of breaching my limit, Bicycle Music told me that another $100 would cover the worldwide license.

After looking at the extra fees for worldwide licenses, coupled with the extra per 1000 charges from Warner Chappell and Bicycle Music’s periodic re-licensing, I came to the heartbreaking conclusion that I needed to pull both sets of lyrics and be done with it. As someone who wholeheartedly believes in artists being paid for their work (how the heck could I not), for 10 words of a song from the 60s, I just can’t get my head around an ever-increasing fee. And of course, if my little mevel does do well, I’m sure Bicycle Music would ask for more money next time around.

So there you have it – no more song lyrics for me. Ever.

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