Hank Medress died the other day. He was 68, and he had lung cancer, and he used to sing with a doo-wop group called the Tokens, back in the 1950s and ‘60s. The Tokens had a huge hit with a song called “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in 1961, and then some more minor songs on the charts, and then Medress moved on to producing records for other groups like the Chiffons, and Tony Orlando and Dawn, and even David Johansen in his “Buster Poindexter” incarnation. The last thing Hank Medress was doing before he died was working as a consultant to Sound Exchange, which was described in his obituary as “a nonprofit group helping musicians collect royalties.”
That’s kind of ironic, because Medress got rich off royalties for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” but the guy who actually wrote the song and recorded it in 1939, Solomon Linda, never got a penny of royalties in his life. Mr. Linda died in poverty, in segregated South Africa, in 1962, aware that his song—sung by some white guys from Brooklyn—was a worldwide hit. It’s only within the last few months that Linda’s daughters, who have also spent their lives in poverty, have settled a legal case for payment of a share of back royalties estimated to total some $15 million. I don’t know whether Hank Medress or Sound Exchange were involved in the settlement, but I kinda doubt it.
But maybe it was just that Solomon Linda was on Sound Exchange’s list of “Missing Artists.” This is a roster of people whose royalties can’t be paid because they’ve totally disappeared. For instance, Ted Nugent. God only knows what happened to him—he’s like the Judge Crater of pop music. And what happens to the royalties for these missing artists? Does Sound Exchange just keep them? If so, they’ll be keeping a lot more money once the new royalty rates for online streaming go into effect 0n July 15.
The whole RIAA/Sound Exchange royalty issue is pretty complicated, so rather than try to explain it here I’ll just refer you to Liz Berg’s post, below. Just be aware that this new, unilaterally declared royalty system is going to be especially punitive to listener-supported radio stations like us, WFMU, because although we’re not a commercial station, we’ll be charged commercial rates. So that’s why I’ll be boycotting RIAA/Sound Exchange music on my show this Friday, and many of our other DJs will be doing the same on their shows all this week.
Whimoweh, my ass.