Triumph of the Underdogs

For 25 years, Bug Music has protected the rights of songwriters. In the process, they've gotten Willie Dixon's songs back from Led Zeppelin and transformed Iggy Pop into a TV-commercial composer.

At a time when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is lobbying Congress to pass a law that would make all recording artists nothing more than "workers for hire" (essentially making them even less than a label employee), it's refreshing to see there are still people like Dan and Fred Bourgoise out there trying to preserve the rights of artists. The brothers -- whose Bug Music publishing company celebrates its 25th anniversary this month -- inspire admiration in even the most difficult-to-please. "I can probably count on one hand the people I have good things to say about in the music business. They are two of them," remarks Lisa Fancher, president of long-running indie label Frontier Records and a woman not known for her kind opinions. In an effort to help with journalistic objectivity, she adds: "If I could think of anyone who hated them, I would pass it along. But I really can't."

When Bug was launched in 1975, there wasn't anyone doing what the brothers did for songwriters in the song-publishing field -- and, for the most part, there still isn't. Elder brother Dan came to California from Detroit in 1965 as the late Del Shannon's tour manager. He spent the intervening 10 years working with Shannon, managing bands, "being a hippie," and eventually doing A&R for UA records. The latter gig "totally disillusioned me about being in the corporate world at all," he recalls. "I ended up getting fired. I was told I wasn't a team player, so I was like 'Okay, I guess I'm going to have to start my own team.'" Dan was more than amenable to a pitch from Shannon, which was, basically: "Get me my old songwriter copyrights back [including the very lucrative 'Runaway,' which even Elvis had recorded] and I'll split them with you."

The process of tracking down Shannon's old copyrights and collecting what was due took approximately two years, but in the meantime, Dan began running with the music-rights quest Shannon had inspired, convincing others like Asleep at the Wheel, the Alpha Band, Moon Martin and indie labels like Bomp! and Rollin' Rock to let him help them sort out that side of the business. Once there was enough work for two people, Fred quit his job as a singles buyer for Tower Records, joined his brother, and Bug was born. They understand how others might find working with a sibling difficult, but for them, it's never been a problem. "Maybe it's because we're Polish!" jokes Fred.

Fighting the good fight: Bug Music founders Dan and Fred Bourgoise.
Fighting the good fight: Bug Music founders Dan and Fred Bourgoise.
Dave Alvin and the late Willie Dixon: "He would come into the office to get his checks, and he would just be so proud."
Dave Alvin and the late Willie Dixon: "He would come into the office to get his checks, and he would just be so proud."

In August 1976, they moved into the Hollywood Boulevard building they remain in to this day, although they've since leased a lot more space and have opened offices in Nashville (1985), London (1992), New York (1996) and Munich (1999). They've grown from one person administering approximately 20 copyrights, to a company of about 40 people (including two lawyers) handling 70,000 copyrights. Bug's current roster includes songwriters as diverse as Iggy Pop, Johnny Cash, Los Lobos, the Dixie Chicks, Atari Teenage Riot, Peter Case, James Intveld, Nashville Pussy, Buddy Guy, Melle Mel, Dave Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock, Eddie Palmieri, John Lee Hooker, Steve Wynn and Pere Ubu, as well as the estates of Willie Dixon, Gram Parsons, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Janis Joplin and the Germs' Darby Crash (whose mother "still gets a good-size check every quarter," according to Fred). And that list barely scratches the surface.

According to Fancher, success hasn't changed them. "It's so rare when people do well in this industry and they don't turn into idiots or become evil and power-grabbers," she says. "Fred and Dan started out doing everything the right way, step by step, slowly building the business and never getting out of hand." Songwriter Dave Alvin, who's been with the company since the Blasters' early days on Rollin' Rock in the late '70s, admits one thing has changed from the early days, when spontaneous office parties were the norm. "You can't just drop by to drink all their beer anymore," he chuckles. "It used to just be Dan, Fred, and one other employee, and Fred would usually answer the office phone. Now, a receptionist answers and it's like 'David Allen?'" Despite the slightly less personal environment, Alvin claims that he "trusts them" more than anyone else in the music business. "Slash Records [the Blasters' second label] had all this rhetoric about being different from the major labels and corporations; and I bought into it at the time. It turned out they were as big crooks as anybody. But Bug never had any rhetoric at all. They really were different. They were honest."

When Bug began, many singer-songwriters had abandoned traditional music publishers (most of which didn't have any use for up-and-coming artists), simply leaving the business of administering their copyrights to lawyers and accountants. "Bug Music really began as a hybrid of the things old-time, traditional [Tin Pan Alley] music publishing companies did, pitching songs to outlets and encouraging writers," explains Dan. "The major publishers, at that point, had really given up on anything that was associated with street or new music. They were content to just have their big names that made big money, and they basically acted as banks. Most of the writers we began working with fell under the radar."

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