WHY DIDN’T YOU INCLUDE THAT TRACK?
A compiler’s answer to the most frequently asked question among Ace collectors…
By Tony Rounce
Many Ace fans of a certain age will remember the Perry Como TV show of the 50s and 60s. Those that do will particularly remember the request segment of Perry’s show that always kicked off with “Letters, we get letters – we get lots and lots and lots of letters…”
Well, old Perry was not the only one to get lots and lots of letters. Ace gets lots and lots of letters too – mostly in the form of e-mails these days, but letters nonetheless. And like Perry’s letters, those that arrive at Ace Towers are mostly requests too. Many are requests for information, asking things like ‘When’s the next volume of Golden Age/London Year-By-Year/The Songwriter Series etc. coming out?” They’re pretty easy to answer, as we usually know within a couple of months when such releases are due.
But we also get letters that seek to take us to task over track listings for certain projects, and that pose questions like ‘why didn’t you include such a track on that compilation?’ or ‘how come you continue to ignore so-and-so’s recordings when you put your projects together?’ These are perfectly valid questions that require a reasonable answer, and we always do our best to give one.
But not everyone who buys Ace CDs, and then sits at home fretting over the fact that we didn’t include, for example, a favourite London track from any given year, writes in to ask why we didn’t. For those people, and for others who are simply curious for more information on Ace’s A&R decisions, I’ve put together a few short paragraphs that I hope will answer a question that comes up again and again…
...Why didn’t you include that track?
Putting together a project is a lengthy and often arduous process, and compilations often go through many changes on their way from concept to finished CD. On a multi-artist, multi-track compilation – such as any of those in the London series, for example – there are 28 different licenses to apply for and, invariably, at least a dozen licensors to clear the required repertoire from. Most of the licensors that Ace deals with know what we’re about and will go the distance to try to clear repertoire for us, but in some cases (and an increasing number of cases, sadly) it is simply not possible for companies to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they own the repertoire that we wish to license.
A licensor not having sufficient existing paperwork to prove conclusively that repertoire we want to use is theirs is by far the most common cause of tracks being denied for license these days. This may be frustrating, but it’s also understandable. Especially where labels have been part of several sales of catalogue.
Let’s take the originally independent Dot Records, for example – purchased from its founder Randy Wood in the mid1950s by Gulf And Western (later Paramount/Gulf And Western), which became part of the ABC-Dunhill group of labels in the early 1970s, which then ended up being sold to MCA Records at the end of the 1970s, which in turn became the cornerstone of the Universal empire in the 1990s. It’s an awful long road from modest beginnings in Gallatin, Tennessee to being part of the catalogue of the world’s biggest repertoire owners, and it’s not too surprising that not every bit of vintage contractual paperwork has made the long journey with Dot. Or that Universal is understandably reluctant to license out material that they can’t support their outright ownership of via a contract. (I’m not picking on Dot or Universal for any particular reason, you understand; I’m merely using the label as one example among hundreds that I could have chosen).
Some licensors who can’t find contractual paperwork, but who do have a pretty firm belief that they own a catalogue, will let licensees take material on a ‘quit claim’ basis – which in layman’s terms means something along the lines of ‘we think it’s ours, but if we license it to you and later find out that it’s not, then on your heads be it’. But this is becoming an increasing rarity among licensors, particularly at a time when more and more veteran artists are challenging the validity and/or existence of a contract that was entered into more than half a century ago. Again, it’s easy to understand their desire to avoid a lawsuit, almost as much as it is to understand Ace’s frustration at not being able to bring you certain ‘must-use’ tracks on some compilations.
It’s fair to say that a lot of the material that is currently non-licensable is over 50 years old, and thus is technically in the public domain. You might say, this being the case, that there’s no reason why Ace shouldn’t go ahead and use it anyway. The reason we don’t do that is that Ace does not – and will never –play the OOC game. We enjoy harmonious relationships with our friends at all the major and independent licensing divisions, and have no desire to spoil those relationships by going ahead and putting out any unapproved OOC repertoire that might impact upon any future licensing requests for repertoire that will never go out of contract.
Licensing material by iconic artists can often be a minefield, too. Certain artists (e.g. the Beatles – together or solo) are currently and probably always will be unlicensable. A lot of acts who sprung to fame in the 1970s have ‘no cross-compilation’ clauses in their contracts, originally inserted to stop their work appearing randomly (and against their will) on endless “20 Great” Ronco or K-Tel-type collections. They’re not usually artists that one might expect to see on Ace, but the likes of Elton John, Steely Dan, David Bowie and Paul Simon (with and without Art Garfunkel) fall into this category. There are many other acts of similar ilk that have to be asked personally if a track may be licensed, and who do permit at least some of their material to be licensed – but who tend to do so on a project-by-project and track-by-track basis. And then there are those high profile acts whose contracts permit the licensing of non-hit material (album and EP tracks, B sides etc) but not anything too ‘famous’. In all these instances, sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t.
There are also occasions on which an artist’s repertoire is owned by different companies on different continents, and is not licensable for the world under one all-inclusive deal. In these instances it’s often impractical to strike separate licensing deals for separate territories. To do so can sometimes be the difference between breaking even on a project and losing money on it. And losing money on a project usually leads to no more projects in that particular series.
A bit closer to home, there’s also Ace’s own unofficial ‘policy’ of not duplicating too many tracks from CD to CD, mindful of the fact that many of our customers support many different Ace series. When we started the London Year By Year project, the aim was to avoid already-available-on-Ace repertoire if possible, and to avoid duplication with “Golden Age” completely. Several volumes on, this is still the case and we feel confident that we’ve built a strong and representative series with no more than minimal repetition on each volume from other, non-GA projects. It’s not just with LAYBY that we do this, but that’s as good an illustration as any.
Finally for now, there are a handful of repertoire owners who think that what they own is the audio equivalent of the Lost Ark and who simply require too much money to use it. It’s not fair to name names, and I won’t, but over the years many great tracks have priced themselves out of inclusion on an Ace project (and, we would assume the projects of other reissue labels) because their owners have unrealistic financial expectations. I should stress that these repertoire owners are invariably individuals looking to make a quick few bob, rather than major repertoire sources…
These are by no means the only reasons why ‘we didn’t include that track’ but I hope that they will help to give Ace fans some deeper understanding of why some classic songs have never appeared (and, in many cases, never will appear) on our compilations.
Feel free to write us more ‘letters’ (or e-mails) if you have further questions!