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Robert Fripp goes public about dispute with David Bowie estate and PPL

By | Published on Thursday 26 September 2019

Robert Fripp, David Bowie, Tony Visconti

Musician Robert Fripp, best known as founder and longest serving member of King Crimson, has taken to Facebook to discuss an ongoing dispute with the David Bowie estate and collecting society PPL about how his contributions to Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and ‘Scary Monsters’ albums have been classified. Which may seem like mere semantics, but such classifications impact on how PPL royalties get shared out.

PPL licenses the use of recorded music on behalf of the record industry in scenarios like radio and when tracks are played in pubs, clubs, bars and cafes.

In copyright terms, this is when the so called performing or neighbouring rights of the sound recording copyright are being exploited. Because of a thing called performer rights, in these scenarios, any performers who appear on any one record have a statutory right to share in the money generated, even if and especially when they are not the copyright owner.

So when PPL collects royalties, it pays half of the money out to the copyright owner (often a record label) and half to the performers who appear on the record. All performers who appear on a track (pretty much) then share in that latter payment, including the main artist whose name appears on the record – what the music industry traditionally called the ‘featured artist’ – and any backing singers and session musicians.

Quite how that money gets shared out between the performers is set out in PPL’s own rules. There are some complexities, but generally more is allocated to the featured artists than the session musicians. So therefore it’s generally better to be listed as a featured artist than a non-featured artist in terms of how PPL monies get distributed.

Which brings us to the dispute involving Fripp. He says that he is classified as a session musician on the Bowie tracks on which he played guitar, even though it’s generally agreed that his contribution to those records was more significant than what you would usually expect from a session player. So much so, were those records released today there’s a high chance they’d be billed as David Bowie featuring Robert Fripp, which would be sufficient to get Fripp featured player status. But such billing was not so common way back when.

In a blog post on the dispute, Fripp’s business partner David Singleton explains: “There is a huge injustice in the way that current rules are applied to historic recordings. In particular to those who would now be called ‘other featured artists’ – outside artists who made defining contributions to recordings. This would include Robert Fripp’s performances on David Bowie’s albums, but could also extend, for example, to Eric Clapton on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ or Duane Allman on ‘Layla'”.

“We argue”, he goes on, “that such historic iconic performances should rightly be categorised as ‘other featured artists’, as they almost certainly would be if they were recorded today. That category, however, had not been invented at the time – so PPL insists on downgrading them to ‘non-featured artist’, an honourable but very large category, where they also place all session musicians and backing singers”.

In his Facebook post, Fripp says that the Bowie estate and PPL have been basically passing the buck back and forth to each other regarding his status on these recordings, sending him in a loop that is stopping any resolution from being reached.

He writes: “Essentially, the David Bowie Estate argues that [my] featured performer status is not acknowledged by PPL rules; and PPL argues that as the David Bowie Estate does not accept [me] as a featured performer, [I am] therefore not a featured player – and their rules confirm this. Anyone read ‘Catch 22’?”

Responding to the posts made by Fripp and Singleton, PPL says that it distributes royalties to more than 100,000 performers and labels “according to a set of ‘distribution rules’ that have been in place for some time and were approved by individuals representing a broad cross-section of the recorded music industry including both featured and non-featured performers”.

The society’s spokesperson adds: “Whilst we are unable to comment on individual cases, performers are classified using a performer classification system set out in PPL’s published distribution rules. All classification is made based on applying the information we receive from the relevant parties to these rules”.

“It is important to point out”, they go on, “that the classifications within these rules do not seek to make any value judgement on the quality, importance or extent of a performer’s contribution on a recording. PPL is always mindful of the different ways in which all of our members can be affected by our policies and we remain committed to operating a fair and straightforward system of distributing revenue to all performers”.

It’s possible that PPL might be concerned about opening the flood gates if it introduced new flexibilities in the definition of featured artist. At the moment, a musician’s status as a feature performer – as set out in those distribution rules – is generally linked to their contractual relationship with the copyright owner and/or whether or not they got formal billing on the record’s release.

Of course, where the other featured artists who appear on a track do not object to someone else being granted featured status, even if that person doesn’t currently qualify under PPL’s definition, then having some new flexibility in the system need not be a problem. But if it led to disputes about each musician’s relative contribution, you can understand why the society wouldn’t want to get involved in any of that.

Either way, it has to be said that in Fripp’s case there is a very strong argument for his featured artist status on these tracks. As Singleton notes: “In Robert’s case … there is abundant evidence from all those involved – the producer, Tony Visconti, the co-writer, Brian Eno, and David Bowie himself – who described the performance as a ‘duet’ between him and Robert. They [are] all on record as describing Robert Fripp’s performances as far more than that of a session musician. Even so, PPL are determined to categorise him in that way”.

It remains to be seen whether going public over this dispute aids Fripp’s case to have his contribution to the Bowie tracks reclassified.