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.

"There are writers out there who don't even know who owns their songs," says Fred. Dan offers an example: "We were walking to lunch with Marshall Crenshaw -- this was a while back, so the songs have probably changed hands three times since then -- but he was talking about a company that owned his early stuff. Marshall says, 'I don't know who owns the company now.' He was drinking a Coca-Cola, and we told him: 'Well, you're drinking it!' Coke had bought his old publishing company. And he was like [baffled], 'Coke owns my songs?'

"In the early '80s, we started delving into old blues royalties because a lot of these guys were being totally ripped off," says Dan. "We'd cut our teeth on all this renegade punk stuff, so it was like, 'Blues? Okay, give us those guys!'" John Lee Hooker enjoyed a big career revival after signing with Bug, and a big smile forms on Fred's face as he recalls the late Willie Dixon, perhaps the greatest blues songwriter of all time, who finally got what he was entitled to because of Bug's efforts. Before signing with Bug, Dixon was victimized by events like Led Zeppelin ripping off his material to create "Whole Lotta Love" without giving the great bluesman credit. (The song, of course, was credited to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.) After signing, Dixon was getting royalty payments in the tens of thousands for, among other things, Etta James singing a snippet of his "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" in a Coke commercial. "He would come into the office to get his checks, and he would just be so proud," Dan recalls fondly.

Marie Dixon, Willie's widow, recalls that her husband's old publishing company "would give him a statement, but it was always difficult to decipher what it really meant -- it wasn't a clear statement in which you could determine where your money was coming from or how much. After Willie went to Bug, we didn't have that problem anymore." She calls the increase in their income "significant," because not only did Bug take a smaller fraction than the other company did, but they also actually worked his catalog, placing songs in commercials and films. "We were able to finance the Blues Heaven Foundation [which educates songwriters about publishing, aids artists in need and provides scholarships to inner-city youth] after Willie began working with Bug Music."

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."

Alvin laughs as he recalls one event in which he was stuck between Bug and one of its big corporate rivals. "I was dating this songwriter, and she'd just left Bug for this big-money publishing deal," he explains. "She made me go with her to the BMI awards, the sort of event I hate, and we had to sit with her publishing company. For some reason, they kept saying bad things about Bug. The Bug guys, who were sitting at another table, kept teasing me for sitting with these other guys, but I had no choice. Finally, after I'd had a few beers, I turned to these people and started screaming in their faces: 'What have you done that's so great? Did you go to England to get Willie Dixon's royalties back like Bug did?'"

Bug is looking to the future, with both brothers cautiously optimistic about the future of the Internet and digital music as another avenue where writers can make income. "The only good thing about AOL buying Time-Warner and EMI is that what they essentially did was buy the largest number of copyrights in the world, millions of them," says Dan. "Since AOL is a digital company, they're not going to create a situation where this asset is given away for nothing." He gets excited when he begins to use his imagination. "Maybe someday you can dial up guitarplayeronthestreetcorner.com on your computer, and a guitar player will come up on your screen with a little box that lets you give your credit card number to throw coins into his guitar case, so to speak."

You can be certain that when it happens, Dan and Fred will be there to make sure the guitar player gets his or her royalty check.

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