When royalty for Bollywood musicians is out of tune

Aug 11, 2013, 08:17 IST | Shubha Shetty-Saha

The issue of royalty for musicians is not a new one. In fact, India's nightingale, Lata Mangeshkar, too, tried raising her melodious voice for it. With the Copyright Amendment Act now being contested in court, Shubha Shetty-Saha explores the issue

It was a fight, which started way back in the 1960s. India’s nightingale Lata Mangeshkar led a movement claiming royalty for singers and others related to making of a song, from the music companies. The movement didn’t really amount to much, except that it led to a rift between the country’s lead singers, Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi.

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

Lore has it that Mangeshkar called for a meeting of singers, lyricists and music composers to stress on the demand for royalty and Rafi refused to be a part of it. According to his son Shahid Rafi, the senior Rafi at that time, put his foot down and said, ‘Our job is to sing and we get money for that. There is no point in getting greedy’. After a heated debate, Rafi openly declared that he will not sing with Lata Mangeshkar ever.

Mangeshkar stormed out of the meeting, leaving the royalty issue unresolved. For years afterwards, the two didn’t sing duets together, till it is said that composer Jaikishen (of Shankar-Jaikishen fame) intervened and things cooled down between the two legends. Mangeshkar later expressed regret that since everyone hadn’t supported her, she had to drop the idea.

Lata Mangeshkar,Didi
When Lata Mangeshkar demanded royalty for the songs, it did not go down well with Mohammed Rafi. The two legends did not work together for a long time. File Pics

The saga continues
But that issue still remains unresolved. Almost 50 years later, taking the lead from where Mangeshkar left, was lyricist Javed Akhtar and some other members of the music fraternity, asking for a 50:50 cut from the profit for the musicians involved in the making of the song (which includes singers, lyricists and music composers).

Their long struggle seemed to see some light at the end of the tunnel. On December 25, 2009, the Union Cabinet approved the legislation to amend the Copyright Act 1957, allowing authors and creative artistes to retain control over their piece of work and enjoy royalties. But incidentally, instead of rejoicing, some singers had raised doubts about the growing lobby of music directors and lyricists.

M Rafi

Even as a kind of cold war within the music industry grows, not much progress has been seen in the implementation of the approval of legislation even today. Once the legislation was approved, producer Mahesh Bhatt had openly disapproved of it on a social networking site.

He had tweeted, “A wrong perception has been built up, giving the impression that composers do not make money from a hit song. The fact is that the composers and singers make millions by performing on hit songs by way of live shows. The producers take the entire commercial risk. How can you ask for an equal share in the profit when you don’t share the loss?” Bhatt, among one of the producers who makes music-dominated movies and has always been against giving a share to the musicians, seemed to have a valid point there. However, he got an emotional reply from Javed Akhtar when he replied with “No one is asking for a penny from the film’s profit. We are asking for our rights and dignity.”

A R Rahman

This was a mild altercation compared to the one that happened between Aamir Khan and Javed Akhtar and Sonu Niigaam and Vidhu Vinod Chopra. At a meeting held to discuss the possibilities of royalty, it is said that Niigaam lost his cool when Chopra said the demand is unreasonable. After an ugly spat, the two have never worked together.

Khan and Akhtar had a war of words when Khan suggested that lyricists shouldn’t be demanding loyalty because they don’t really contribute much to the song, to which Akhtar had retorted with, “Your first big song was Papa Kehte Hain. Did it make you a star or did you make the song run?” The buzz is that after this incident, Akhtar and Khan are still not on great terms.

Law and behold!
Four years after the Union Cabinet’s approval, not much has changed on the royalty front. On May 23, 2012, the Lok Sabha cleared the copyright bill and passed a Copyright Amendment Act (2012), ordering royalties be given to the lyricists and musicians lifelong (stipulated 60 years).

On July 9 this year, Javed Akhtar had called some members of the music fraternity to discuss the royalty issue with them

But even that didn’t seem to have convinced the music companies such as Super Cassettes Industries Pvt Ltd and Venus Records and Tapes Pvt Ltd, who challenged the decision in court. However, Akhtar now seems buoyant about the implementation of the law. He says, “I am in no doubt that within this year the law will be implemented and we will start getting the royalty.” However, producer Rohan Sippy says the implementation might still take a while. He says the producers will definitely abide by the law and implement it as soon as it is sorted out,” he says.

Akhtar adds, “From what I have understood of the matter from experts, the law is not very well crafted and some people have contested it. It will take a couple of years for it to get amended and finally be implemented. Once that happens, I don’t think anybody would have an issue implementing it, because after all, we all belong to the same side. I hear some music companies have challenged it in the Supreme Court or high court, but I guess once the crystalisation happens, everyone will adhere to it. We have been following what is happening globally in other areas, so why not in this one too? Sooner or later it will happen here.”

While Sonu Niigaam (above) has not worked with Vidhu Vinod Chopra after the latter deemed the royalty demand unreasonable (below) Salim-Sulaiman’s decision to ask for royalty has apparently cost them a Yashraj project

In the meanwhile, the cold war between the producers and the music composers continue. Some composers are in no mood to wait for the implementation of the law and have already been demanding their rights. Akhtar had earlier admitted to MiD DAY that the producers had got together against him and decided to not give him work and thus, he has practically been unemployed for the last one year.

Salim Sulaiman

The buzz is that music composer duo Salim-Sulaiman had to walk out of Karan Johar’s Ungli as they demanded royalty and they also lost out on an opportunity to work with Yash Raj films, after they made their demands clear. The producers are now opting for newer music composers, who they know will not make demand for royalty at such an early stage of their career.

Producers say
Bhushan Kumar of T-Series, one of the leading music companies of the country, says that the amendment law needs to be lot more clear than it is. Only then will the producers and music companies will agree to its implementation. “Right now the law is not at all clear, so some of the music companies have taken the case to the Supreme court.

Our issue is that we are okay with paying royalty but only after we get back what we have invested. If we start paying royalty from day one, what about the time we run into losses? We take financial risks with each movie. Every year the film industry is running into losses. Out of 20 music albums, only about five manage to make profits. So how can we start giving royalty when there are losses?

Even the big stars who get share from the profit, don’t take it from day one. They get it only after the invested money is recovered. If they demand that we pay them royalty from day one, it is not workable for us. We are all coming to our own conclusions about the royalty rights and there is so much confusion that everything is in a mess right now. Nobody is happy about the situation. Once it is sorted out, I hope there will be some solution to this.” Till then it looks like the deadlock will continue.

The exception
The fight might be on, but it is said that the ‘king’ of composers, A R Rahman has been commanding royalty for his music for years now. Any producer working with him knows that he has to be paid his share from the profit. 

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