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Pop Music | L.A. Sounds

Brothers Build Loyal Clientele With Scrappy Publishing Firm

March 26, 2000|NATALIE NICHOLS | Natalie Nichols is a regular contributor to Calendar

"How exciting is it to say, 'Today, I made more money for AOL'? A Bug employee gets to say, 'I just got money for John Lee Hooker.' "

Bug Music chairman and chief executive Dan Bourgoise, 56, is explaining the intangible rewards of ensuring that songwriters ranging from Hooker to Iggy Pop get paid for their work every time it's recorded by another artist or used in a television commercial, movie or other medium.

The unique music-publishing company, founded in Hollywood 25 years ago by Bourgoise and his brother Fred, 49, has built an independent empire encompassing hundreds of dizzyingly diverse acts, from Robyn Hitchcock to Freddy Fender to Willie Dixon to Beavis and Butt-head.

In the process, the firm became a prominent player in the evolution of Los Angeles rock. Back in the '70s, the Bourgoise brothers went where no other publishers dared: into the heart of the nascent L.A. punk scene, where they signed up such bands as the Blasters, Los Lobos, the Germs and the Weirdos, along with such emerging indie labels as Bomp! and Slash.

"The other publishers didn't really have a person [in the clubs] at that time," says Fred, although nowadays it's common practice. Adds Dan, "Certainly all that would fall under the radar in the corporate world. For us, it was going on right down the street. While it wasn't selling a lot, the energy was intense."

At a lively anniversary party for the company earlier this month at the Masonic Temple on Hollywood Boulevard, Bug's L.A. legacy showed up in force, with the Blasters' Dave Alvin, Louie Perez of Los Lobos, former Go-Go Kathy Valentine, the Runaways' Cherie Currie, Tito Larriva and more joining the 1,000-plus guests who celebrated while wolfing down fried chicken and waffles from Roscoe's, chili dogs from Pink's and other landmark L.A. chow.

Bug differs from the major music-publishing houses in one crucial way: Rather than owning a share of its songwriters' copyrights, it handles the accounting, collections and promotion of songs for the copyright holders, whether they're the original artists, their heirs or some other party.

Bug encourages songwriters to keep their copyrights rather than sell these potentially valuable rights to a record label or a conventional publishing house. "We compare publishing to real estate and other hard assets," says Fred, Bug's president.

In a world where popular music is becoming ever more entwined with other media, thanks to both corporate mergers and cultural trends, Bug's advocacy-style approach to publishing administration is likely to become even more important for its clients.

Bug has grown considerably since 1975, when '60s rocker Del Shannon asked Dan, his former manager, to help him get back the copyrights to his songs for a cut of whatever profits turned up. The company's longtime Hollywood Boulevard offices now occupy three floors, and it has satellites in Nashville, New York and London.

Bug has engendered an astonishing amount of goodwill. After a quarter-century in the music-biz trenches, why do the Bourgoises have so few enemies?

"I know it sounds weak and sentimental, but they're more honest and sincere than most music-biz types," says former Blaster Dave Alvin, now a prominent solo artist. "The few publishing-biz people I've heard bad-mouth Dan and Fred are people you wouldn't trust cleaning your toilet, let alone handling your publishing."

Most of their clients are still living, but Bug has also had success with artists' estates, notably that of bluesman Willie Dixon, the author of such classic numbers as "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and "Back Door Man." After he moved to L.A. from Chicago in the '80s, Dixon hired Bug to administer the copyrights he had already reclaimed. After his death in 1992, his widow stayed with Bug.

"They have been instrumental in enhancing the catalog and increasing the income," says Marie Dixon, who has approved the use of her late husband's work in recording samples, beer commercials and other endeavors. "They are very protective of Willie's songs, and they make sure he gets the credit."

*

Indeed, sometimes it's not the artist who needs to be educated about a copyright's value, but the bidder. Dan recalls a negotiator from Coca-Cola who asked to use a Dixon song in a commercial, then balked when Bug asked for top dollar.

"She argued, 'Well, this is not Neil Diamond. It's just a blues song,' " he says, still incredulous at the comparison. When the woman admitted she'd never heard the tune, Dan offered to send her the record, then hung up the phone. "I wouldn't talk to her until she listened to it," he says, adding that she ultimately made the deal.

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