Deconstructing Pop Culture

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Kate Bush’s Option

September 7th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

One of the few records worth listening to in 1985 was Hounds of Love, by Kate Bush. At the time I was a Vice President of Capitol Records in Hollywood, California. Capitol was (and still is) owned by EMI, a multi-national music industry conglomerate, based in the U.K.

Ms. Bush originally was signed to one of EMI’s labels, not to Capitol. However, she also had a separate contract with Capitol for North America. This in and of itself is somewhat unusual. The geographical territory for most recording contracts – that is, the countries in which the record company has the right to release records – typically is the world. But because Ms. Bush was a successful recording artist, she was able to “split territories,” with different contractual arrangements for each.

Another band that had done this was Pink Floyd. Note that all of their U.S. records, up to and including Dark Side of the Moon, are on Capitol. However, after that, all of their U.S. records are on CBS (now, Sony). They still remained signed to EMI for the rest of the world. Hmmm, David Gilmour is Pink Floyd’s brilliant guitarist, and he also produced Ms. Bush’s first record … maybe there’s some kind of a connection here.

Anyway, an arrangement like this obviously requires a high degree of coordination between the repertoire-originating territory, and the marketing territory. These relationships typically are set forth in an inter-company licensing agreement; in the case of Capitol and EMI, it (somewhat forebodingly) was called a “Matrix Exchange Agreement” (“MEA”). This sounds a lot more complicated than what it was, in practice. Basically, it sets forth the various responsibilities of the repertoire-originating territory (such as recording the masters), and the marketing territory (such as selling the records). It also established an inter-company royalty rate. This arrangement somewhat was short-circuited in Ms. Bush’s case, as there were two separate contracts, one with Capitol for North America, and one with EMI for the rest of the world. And this fact lead to the problem that I’m about to describe.

Before I can do so, though, you need to know one more fact about recording contracts. The way they work is that the record company contracts for the artist’s personal services to perform and deliver a master sound recording. The record company then typically has “options” for more sound recordings. There may just be one option, or many; there may be conditions and constraints governing their exercise, e.g., the option for a subsequent sound recording must be exercised within a certain period of time following the commercial release of the prior sound recording. In this way, the record company can “hedge its bet,” and see if the record’s doing well, before committing to another one.

Ms. Bush’s contract with EMI, and her separate contract with Capitol, both had options, which both companies had dutifully exercised. This brings us up to Ms. Bush’s astonishingly wonderful record, Hounds of Love. Evidently what happened is that, after this record was released, EMI exercised its option for a subsequent record … but Capitol did not. Not that it didn’t want to; through some complex process of administrative inadvertence, it simply forgot. As a result, the option could not be exercised, because it now was past the date that the Capitol contract had established, for this to occur. Note (as I’m sure you already see), this would not have happened had there just been one contract, with records in the U.S. being released under the MEA; because EMI’s exercise of its option would have been effective for the entire world.

Given the critical and commercial success of Hounds of Love, this obviously caused some consternation among Capitol and EMI executives, and precipitated much finger-pointing. A Capitol executive was dispatched to the U.K. to plead Capitol’s case with Ms. Bush, but came back empty-handed. At this point, I was called in (I don’t think the original Capitol executive, who attempted to induce Ms. Bush to permit Capitol to exercise its option late, knew of my mission).

I’m not completely sure why I was selected for this task; perhaps it was though I would be able to commune more successfully with Ms. Bush, as the artiste she was; or maybe it just was my dark and moody nature, what with being a Pisces and everything. So, on my next trip to Loondon, there I was, in Ms. Bush’s fey and rather eccentric Bronte-inspired compound, telling her all of the reasons why she still wanted Capitol as her U.S. record company. I believe that I ingratiated myself to her, I have an easy kind of conversational approach in these types of situations, that tends to put most artists at ease. While I did not beg, or plead, I did cajole, in much the same manner (or at least, this is how it felt) as a medieval court jester. I offered money, which usually is how these things get resolved.

Ms. Bush had been well-briefed by her representatives, though, and I regret to report that my efforts were for naught. And this is why Ms. Bush’s next record – The Sensual World – and, indeed, all of her subsequent records – came out on CBS in the U.S., and on EMI for the rest of the world.

I have to say that I don’t highly regard Ms. Bush’s oeuvre post Hounds of Love. This has nothing to do with her rebuff of my efforts; rather, in my opinion, the songs just aren’t that good. Maybe I was changing, too. One has to be in a particular frame of mind for an album to “click,” or resonate, in the way that Hounds of Love did for me. It’s a fortuitous conjunction between the performer and the listener, a moment when their experiential and emotional arcs intersect, if you will – kind of like what happens when a comet, or an asteroid, collides with a planet. No calculus can plot those parabolas, though, so the circumstances of this nexus are, and will continue to remain, wholly opaque. Or, whatever. But I remain grateful for the propulsive momentum that songs like “Runnin’ Up that Hill” provided in my life, lo those several decades ago.