By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
“We’ve had them for five years and we’ve done amazing things film- and TV-wise,” enthuses Brad Rains, another creative director at Bug Music. “How many records have they sold? Ten thousand if we’re lucky. How much money have they made from their publishing? More than they ever expected.”
Bug Music sits on a palm-shaded corner of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, an unremarkable 1950s office building distinguished chiefly by the giant plastic fly clinging to its facade. Started by brothers Dan and Fred Bourgoise in L.A. in 1975, with Del Shannon as their sole client, Bug (a name derived from Dan’s childhood moniker) has ballooned into one of the world’s largest independent publishing companies, with 75 employees in three countries.
Last year Bug acquired fellow music publishers Windswept Music and Trio/Quartet, expanding its catalog to some 250,000 copyrighted compositions, including sing-in-the-shower standards like “What a Wonderful World,” “Under the Boardwalk” and “Fever,” and contemporary hits including “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child, and Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady.” Bug’s vast client list includes Johnny Cash and Willie Dixon, and bands ranging from Animal Collective, Sonic Youth and Suicidal Tendencies to the Go-Gos, Los Lobos and the entire musical oeuvre of classicists Beavis and Butt-Head.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, big winners at last month’s Grammy Awards (Album of the Year for Raising Sand), and Kings of Leon (Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals for “Sex On Fire”) are both Bug clients. Kara DioGuardi — American Idol’s newest judge and hit-writer for the likes of Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion and the Jonas Brothers — also just signed up. Less established songwriters such as Laura Veirs and Joe Pernice would be lost at a bigger publisher. Recent Bug placements include Michelle Shocked’s “When I Grow Up” in Kaiser Permanente ads; “Baby Please Don’t Go,” written by Muddy Waters, in a T.G.I. Fridays campaign; and Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch,” used in the movie Tropic Thunder.
Though it might seem confusing, the music-publishing world relies on a fairly simple principle: A song can be bought, sold, licensed — and stolen — as intellectual property. The function of a company like Bug is to manage that property on behalf of songwriters in return for a cut of the revenue their tunes generate.
“The publisher fulfills two functions,” Hirshland explains. “One is the management function, which is to register copyrights . as well as licensing the songs to record labels, film and TV users, advertising agencies, Internet companies — any and all third-party users of songs. The secondary function is to exploit copyrights — to find uses for them.”
Some of the blues greats, including Dixon and Waters, were famously ripped off in past deals, and Bug’s fair treatment of these artists contributed to the company’s unusually decent reputation in an industry not known for ethics.
“A lot of bands that are legendary for just not signing anything with anybody — a lot of our ’70s and ’80s punk bands, but also more modern bands like Sleater-Kinney and the Faint — came over to Bug because they knew that they would own their own rights,” says Schwartz.
So in this cold digital age of downloads and ring tones, the organic seed of the music industry, the song — a crafted expression of the head and heart — is perhaps more pivotal than ever. Yet, for all the fresh opportunities presented to songwriters by shifting trends and technologies, most musicians make just enough to get by from their art. It’s telling that, while Bug president Hirshland encourages his teenage sons’ hobby bands, he’s quick to stress, “They’re not going to be in the business.”