Opinion: What’s in a Title?

I’m sure many fans of David Bowie and Robert Fripp are watching the news threads about Fripp’s struggle to be acknowledged by England’s PPL—a music rights, licensing, and royalty-collection company—as a “Featured Performer” on Bowie’s Heroes and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) albums.

Few music fans on the planet would dispute that Fripp was crucial to the fabulous music on those albums. So there may be a bit of a “Why now?” or “Why does he need ‘official’ acknowledgement?”

After reading some media reports on what Fripp himself characterizes as a “Catch 22” battle with the Bowie estate and PPL, one might assume that this is all about ego and clickbait. It’s not.

But in less-than-comprehensive accounts about the situation, a significant piece of data is either left by the wayside or not explicitly detailed—this may be more about Fripp’s ability to collect royalty payments from commercial exploitation of the two albums.

Excerpted rom the PPL website

Performer Claims is a vital service that helps Performers ensure they receive accurate payments
when the recordings they created have been used.

Contracted Featured Performer
A Contracted Featured Performer is a performer who is bound by an exclusive agreement with
the relevant record company to perform on the sound recording and who is credited as the lead
artist or conductor on that recording. This does not include agreements to do session work, or
producer/remixer agreements.

Evidence that a Contracted Featured Performer can submit to PPL to support a claim
• Copy of an exclusive recording agreement with the commissioning record label, under
which the claimed track was recorded
• Official correspondence from the record company confirming an exclusive contract with
the commissioning record label at the time of recording
• Royalty Share Agreement/Record company Royalty Statement (PRS for Music, MCPS or
Music Publishing statements are NOT acceptable)

Fripp agrees that by the current rules, he has not met the criteria for a Featured Performer—a term that was not even in use when Heroes and Scary Monsters were recorded in 1977 and 1980, respectively.

His argument is to correct an oversight from the past that affects musicians’ revenue status today.

“Rules are not God-given laws to maintain the universe—they are created by people to organise and facilitate interactions in a fair and equitable fashion; which, in the nature of things, can never be exactly foretold,” Fripp stated on his Facebook page. “So, with intelligence and goodwill, where the rules do not allow for what is Right to be acknowledged and addressed, the rules are modified to take exceptional/novel situations into account. This is the Principle of Progressive Approximation: rules are fine-tuned to serve what is Right and True in our society.”

Similarly, our fellow Guardian of Guitar Steve Hunter—through the Herculean efforts of his wife, Karen—has been seeking revenue on records where he played an integral role as a session musician to provide “hooks” on songs/albums by other performers. This quest has necessitated Karen requesting stars such as Alice Cooper to officially acknowledge Steve’s contributions so that Steve can receive a small but important stipend for critical work done on huge commercial compositions.

Back to the PPL action vis-a-vis Fripp and the Bowie estate run-arounds, it’s not hard to see the reluctance to acknowledge Fripp’s status as a classic stalling action.

I’m sure it’s daunting for PPL to look back into the past at all the mega-selling albums they administer and think, “Wow. If ALL the performers back in the day when ‘Featured Performer’ status was not an active designation start seeking that designation today, we are going to be in a massive administration and payment debacle.”

It’s not clear to me at this time whether royalty payments for past Featured Performer work would come out of the PPL share or the original artist’s/songwriter’s share.

Whatever was going on in 1977 and 1980 with record-business dealings, if current artists receive royalty payments from work such as what Fripp did on Heroes and Scary Monsters, Fripp certainly deserves payment for services rendered.

Whatever we may think as Fripp fans, two people “officially” essential to one or both of those albums have come forward to acknowledge Fripp’s claim—producers Tony Visconti and Brian Eno.

Visconti Statement

Dear Officials of PPL,

My name is Tony Visconti. I am the Record Producer of 12 studios albums and 2 Live albums by David Bowie. I’ve also produced many single recordings and worked on special projects with David Bowie. He has been my colleague and friend for 48 years.

It is my opinion that Robert Fripp is considered to be a Featured Artist on two of David Bowies very important progressive albums, Heroes and Scary Monsters.

Mr. Fripp was chosen because of his unique style, a total original, as a featured artist in his groundbreaking work in King Crimson and his collaboration with Brian Eno on several albums. Indeed, for Heroes, Mr Eno and Mr Fripp were both invited to add their one of a kind collaboration to that album.

It must be made very clear that Mr Fripp is not a workaday session musician. In Rock and Pop he is an artiste of the highest caliber, the equivalent of cellist Yo Yo Ma in the Classical world. He is a first class soloist and for that reason alone his work with David Bowie on Heroes and Scary Monsters is consider Classic. As the producer of these albums I can testify that Mr Fripp was not ‘told’ what to play. We asked him to invent new parts as only he can for us. We were in awe of what he played, something we could never have imagined.

Featured Artist and Featured Player are terms that were invented in the 1990s by record companies. But it also applies to artistes that played on records back to the beginning of the recording industry from Thomas Edisons’ time. Its absence on a record sleeve can not be held against an artist who is featured on recordings before Featured Artist and Featured Player came into use.

Mr Fripp’s weaving, bending notes over David Bowie’s vocals on the iconic song Heroes alone proves that his counter melody are an enormous contribution to the recording. Without his invention Heroes would be pale shadow of what it is. The same applies to every track Mr Fripp was featured on, instrumental components I consider to be a duet with Mr Bowie.

Ask any Bowie fan and they will say the same thing. I can only speak for myself. If people who represent David Bowie officially deny that Mr Fripp is a Featured based on older album liner notes, I can only guess that their intention is to preserve their self-interests, not Mr Bowie’s opinion of how great Mr Fripp’s contributions to his were.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Visconti,

9 May 2019
New York City

Eno Statement

To whom it may concern:

My name is Brian Eno. I am a musician and producer and worked with David Bowie on 4 of his albums. I also made 3 albums with Robert Fripp and worked with him on the Bowie album HEROES.

Robert Fripp’s contributions to the David Bowie albums are of a singular nature. He is a unique musician who doesn’t do ‘sessions’ in the normal sense: when people work with him it is not only for his prodigious gifts as a player, but even more for his unusually fruitful and original imagination. He has the ability to send a piece of music into a quite different direction, and indeed did so several times on these albums.

In the case of the albums in question – HEROES and SCARY MONSTERS – I will restrict my specific comments to the former, because I wasn’t personally involved in the latter. (That said, however, I did speak later to David about Robert’s contribution to Scary Monsters and he was both thrilled and surprised by what Robert had come up with. It was, as usual with Robert, not a case of somebody walking into the studio and being given a chord sheet to strum along with).

Regarding HEROES: Robert arrived one evening from New York and we played him one unfinished song after another. There were no chord sheets and indeed no indications of song-structure at all. He reacted to each song with little or no direction from anybody else in the studio – and in each case discovered parts and moods that really were not implicit in the music. David, Tony (Visconti – the producer) and myself watched in awe – I think we were all dazzled. Nobody else would have come up with what he brought to the project. The title song of the HEROES album is a case in point: the guitar motif that underlies the whole song ( – and which is integral enough to its identity to be quoted in every other version of it I’ve heard) was entirely Robert’s invention. Without doubt much of the character of that song grows directly out of those elegant and unusual guitar parts, which in turn came directly from Robert’s imagination. The same is true of all his contributions on that record.

If the terms ‘featured artist’ and ‘featured player’ have any meaning at all, this is surely a case where they should be used. Robert was already right at the top of the list of ‘great creative guitar players’ when he worked on those albums, and his extraordinary contributions to them consolidated his position further. I think this is entirely common knowledge among musicians and I am actually very surprised that there should be any debate about it. I know the record covers don’t use those phrases – but at that time no record covers did! As far as I recall the idea of ’featured artist’ and ‘featured player’ came along at least a decade later.

David himself held Robert and his work on these albums in the very highest esteem and I am sure would have had no hesitation in supporting his claim to be regarded as a ‘featured artist’.

Brian Eno
London, August 1 2019

A Plea for All-Encompassing Fairness…

It should seem obvious that as record-business practices evolve to be—shock—more fair to all the musicians involved in making a sound recording that past projects should fall under the revised and currently accepted rules.

For example, current songwriting credits are sometimes designated as “top line” (melody), “drum programming,” and the like, so a producer who programs beats—but no top-line melody, critical riffs, and/or chord progressions—is typically included as a songwriter of the work in question, and is also included in royalty payments for the same.

I can almost hear a drummer such as the late John Bonham screaming from the grave, “What? The person who came up with the groove gets a piece of the pie? Arrgghhhh. I’m gonna f**king haunt Page and Plant!”

Funny, huh?

But if the music-publishing industry changes the “rules,” then those rules should not have a “start date” with no option to take care of legacy performers and performances.

For all the fine musicians who have done so much to make the recordings we love so compelling and wonderful and commercially successful, we hope Fripp prevails. Fair is fair.


Author: Michael Molenda

Founder of Guardians of Guitar. Longest-serving Editor in Chief of GUITAR PLAYER (1997-2018). Long live Link Wray and Mick Ronson!

One thought on “Opinion: What’s in a Title?

  1. Interesting read. I bet Fripp will wind up being compensated, but it’s hard to believe that anyone with less name recognition than his will fare as well.

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