Grocery Store Music, The Clash, and Lessons in Family Law

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Most grocery store music is designed to not be noticed. It’s not there to remind you that Dan Fogelberg was once a thing.

Grocery store music exists to cover up the clicks, whirls, thuds, groans, creaks of the store to create a better shopping environment. Industrial psychologists figured this out during the Eisenhower administration.

There are, however, lessons to be learned from a few strolls down the dairy aisle.

Let’s start with two premises – first, when someone forms a band they are forming a company; second, songs are assets.

Singer-songwriters and bands produce songs. Songs are currency. To paraphrase George Bailey, every time you hear a song on the radio, Spotify, and a million other places an artist somewhere is getting paid. As much as seventy-five cents – or more – per play. It adds up.

That does not happen with most grocery store music. Those songs were sold to compilation companies for pennies on the dollar. Selling to a compilation company is seldom done voluntarily. It’s a bad deal. It’s like cashing in an annuity for a tenth of its value to pay the rent.

This happens for a few reasons – the death of an artist and a bad, or no, estate plan; a band breaks up and the members want fast cash; bankruptcy; addictions. Businesses fail in the same ways, it’s just that you’re not aware of them until you drive by an empty factory or hit an inactive website. Music business failures are in very public places, if you chose to listen.

Perhaps the number one reason a song ends up in a grocery store compilation is divorce. Songs are solid assets, annuities, really, as royalties are paid for decades. They are handled the same way any marital property would be handled. When things go bad, either in mediation or trial or anywhere else along through the process, and cash has to be raised, they can be sold just like houses and stocks and bonds.

That’s why you hear a song like Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl at the deli counter – sold, somewhat ironically, to pay part of the divorce settlement to Uptown Girl, Christie Brinkley.

There’s a flip side to this: you will never hear David Bowie, or Springsteen, or Elton John, The Who, Nirvana, The Beatles, on a compilation. They were smart and planned ahead.

You also won’t hear the seminal punk group, The Clash. The Clash bassist, Paul Simonon, and his wife, the band’s manager, Tricia Ronane, divorced after 18 years of marriage and two children. They agreed to form a new, post-divorce company to hold Simonon’s royalties and to split them equally between them.

They were united in protecting The Clash’s musical integrity and insuring an equitable split of royalties for the rest of their lives and their children’s as well.

Last year, however, Ronane tried to sell her half of the company to an investment fund for about $6.5 million. The lawyers who had drafted the divorce decree and subsequent company to hold the royalties had foreseen this contingency and inserted language to specifically prohibit such a sale.

The court not only denied the sale, they awarded attorney fees to Simonon.

The lessons are clear, solid, smart lawyering from family law attorneys who knew and understood business saved The Clash from a date in the seafood department.

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