The Barbershop Blues

I sing in a barbershop quartet.  It’s a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it.  Barbershop music is an interesting genre because it is a clearly defined style that is trying to be preserved.  Therefore, four-part, a cappella male singing does not always guarantee that something is technically “barbershop”.  So what’s my point?

Because of the rather precise parameters, it presents a fun challenge for an arranger to find a song that can really work in the barbershop style — especially songs from the last 4 decades.  (Reasons for this are many and this blog is about copyrights, so again…I’ll get on with it.)

One night listening to some classic 70′s music, I said to myself, “It would be great to have a barbershop arrangement of ‘Desperado’ by The Eagles — not just some a cappella stuff, but real barbershop.”  Fantastic!  I couldn’t get it out of my head and arranged that thing in record time.  I sent out communications to the copyright holder about this new arrangement and waited.

Well, that was a year and a half ago.  Nine months after I had been trying, I passed the job of securing the permissions on to someone at the Barbershop Harmony Society who specializes in this sort of thing.  Nine more months…. nothing.  We’ve not heard a peep from these people.

Oh, the rumor is that Don Henley (original Eagle and composer of “Desperado”) has to personally approve all print license requests.  Really?  Don Henley is a very busy, rich man that owns companies and has paid lawyers major money to manage the copyright nightmare, and they tell me that he personally has to approve a barbershop quartet arrangement of one of his songs.  Really?

Another person defended this ludicrous scenario saying, “Well, it’s not fair for you to make money off Don Henley’s song by arranging it and selling it without his permission.”  And therein lies the real point behind this post.  Let me point out a few facts for our Desperado Defender:

  1. There was no “real” barbershop arrangement of this song before I wrote it down.  Anybody who wanted to sing a barbershop arrangement of “Desperado” could not have done so because one didn’t exist.  So how much money was Don Henley making by selling barbershop arrangements of “Desperado”?  None.  So how much money could I have been “stealing” from him by having a barbershop arrangement of “Desperado”?  None!
  2. Don Henley is an extremely talented songwriter.  He really is.  “Desperado” is a great chart.  That’s one of the reasons I thought it would barbershop well — it’s a great song.  I am so glad Don Henley wrote that song, but you know what?  Don Henley didn’t come up with the idea for a barbershop quartet to sing that song — I did.  Why should Don Henley be able to make money off of my idea?  I came up with those harmonies.  I made it work in a completely new setting, and yet they say I’m stealing from him.  Thanks a lot.
  3. Don Henley is a very famous, talented millionaire who will be remembered for generations for his great music.  Wow — what a position to be in.  I created a barbershop arrangement of one of his masterpieces, and many barbershoppers love it.  Thanks to that, he’s more famous now because there has been renewed interest in his work by a new audience.  That’s adding to the accolades.  It’s free advertising for him.  It further secures his place in music fame because of this new arrangement.  Geesh, maybe he should be paying me!  (Actually, I’d just settle for “legal” permission to use “his” work).
  4. (WARNING:  This may not be a great reason, but it’s one worth pointing out as you consider the whole copyright issue…) We’ve already noted that Mr. Henley is rich because of his singing and songwriting fame.  The barbershop world is relatively small (less than 30,000 men in North America).  My arrangement is pretty popular, but it’s also kind of difficult.  So that narrows the audience of who would actually purchase this thing.  I would be absolutely stunned if it ever sold 1000 copies.  (That’s 250 quartets at 4 copies per quartet), but just to give him the benefit of the doubt, let’s say my arrangement over the next 20 years sells 5,000 copies (whoah!).  The average per copy fee that is forwarded to the copyright holder is about $2 per copy.  That’s $10,000 divided by 20 years which comes out to $500 a year.  Now, you or I might not scoff at that, but Don Henley has a lot of money.  Maybe that’s why I haven’t heard from him — it probably costs him more than that to pay his lawyers to grant permissions to me!

This entry was posted on Friday, December 28th, 2012 at 8:50 am and is filed under Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “The Barbershop Blues”

  1. Fran Wilson Says:

    Hi Jeremy,

    I’m on your side. I’m also new to this website. I too arrange many songs in the “barbershop” style and think it’s ludicrous that we have to pay for “permission” to arrange someone’s song (usually about $60). Consequently, most of my arrangements are not published since I can’t afford the fees.

  2. Joanne Silvia Says:

    So how does one get in contact with Mr. Henley to ask for permission? I want to refer to the song Desperado in the book I’m writing, Perfect Timing, about my high school sweetheart finding me again after 39 years of no contact. I sang the song to myself to overcome my fear of coming down from my fences. I changed the words some in singing it to myself. I wonder, do I need permission from Don Henley if I just mention this in my book? Or that I was not going to let the fears that were teasing me hurt me some how…. or that some fine things had been laid upon my table…..that I was summoning the courage to come down from my fences and open the gate of my heart. ?

  3. Jeremey J. Says:

    Hi Joanne — I’m not a copyright lawyer, but I don’t think you would need his permission to mention the song or quote a line in your book. That’s no different than referring to or quoting part of another book in your text. With proper citing, that would not be a problem. It would be a problem if you reprinted the entire book within the confines of your own. Similarly, if you wrote out the entire lyric to “Desperado” in your book, then you might need permission. This all comes down to lawyers and music business tycoons making money by telling other people what they can and can’t do with their own property. So, if you perceive your book will be a big seller, it might be worth the consulting fee to see what a intellectual property lawyer says. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem worth their time to mess with small fries.

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