The day I saw “Searching for Sugar Man,” I received my first-ever royalty check from MGM/United Artists for a union film I worked on back in the 80s. ”Sugarman” won the 2012 Academy Award for best documentary. The movie is a mind-bending story from the 1970s that goes against the grain of typical show business success stories. It’s about how success can be achieved by someone no one ever heard of, in a place that doesn’t count, then be forgotten and re-discovered in a series of weird coincidences. It is a common story in show business.
“Searching for Sugar Man” tells the story of singer-songwriter, Sixto Rodriguez, who played bars and coffee shops around Detroit. Rodriguez came up in the wake of Bob Dylan. A former executive at Motown Records agreed to a record deal after Rodriguez was discovered by two respected Detroit record producers who agreed there was money to be made in the world of protest singers and folk music. Sounds like the big break every artist dreams of, but the public disagreed, and like so many other singer-songwriters of the time, his records didn’t sell, and he vanished.
If Rodriguez had moved to Greenwich Village, like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary and others, to be a part of the hyped-up singer-songwriter scene there, it may have been a different story. But Rodriguez was not interested in offering himself up to the hype machine of New York record labels.
Rodriguez would have sunk into eternal obscurity, except a bootleg of his record was smuggled into South Africa. His protest songs charmed the local white progressive population who suffered under the apartheid regime of white supremacist thugs, and yearned to join the world-wide counter-culture ushered in by artists like the Beatles and Dylan.
South Africa at the time was the world’s pariah, and Western artists avoided the country like the plague, starving the progressives of the music and culture they wanted so badly.
Rodriguez’s bootleg record filled a void, and his rebellious songs became underground anthems for millions— the South African equivalent of “Kumbaya” and “ Satisfaction” rolled into one. Rodriguez’s albums circulated by the hundreds of thousands, year after year in South Africa, in censored and uncensored and legal and bootleg versions. A myth grew around Rodriguez in South Africa that he had committed suicide on stage to protest a cold, unfeeling world. To the contrary, Rodriguez had remained in Detroit, worked as a laborer and quietly raised a family. His professional music career abruptly ended after his second non-selling album tanked and his recording contract was yanked.
A South African journalist tracked Rodriguez down in the late 90s, and brought him to South Africa where sold-out several concert tours—and he was revered for helping bring down the apartheid system.
My fresh $10.67 royalty check from MGM/UA on my desk, I was intrigued that South African record distributors claim they regularly sent royalty checks to A&M Records in the for the hundreds of thousands of Rodriguez albums sold. Some say more than a million records were sold. Rodriguez had no idea that more than a handful of his records had sold anywhere—he never received a royalty check either. Sussex Records, the original American label was sold several times, and Clarence Avant, its founder cannot trace Rodriguez’s contract after forty years.
So, here’s the classic Show Biz Question: “Where are my royalties?” The answer? ”There are no royalties, or, hire an attorney and just try to get them.”
Anyone with the slightest involvement in royalties knows this dialogue. Of course, some stars do just fine collecting them. Though certainly not a star, I’m astounded that the Directors Guild of America tracked me down after many decades to pay me a measly $10.67. If it weren’t for a union contract, I’d never have received that. I wish the Waters’ films I had worked on had DGA contracts. I’m sure hundreds of others, who worked on low-budget-hell productions that eventually paid off, even decades later, would agree.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all unions had no/low budget agreements and welcomed all to share in the spoils—rare as they are? But how un-capitalist is that? And former low/no budget filmmakers love capitalism, especially when they finally have the wherewithal to hire good attorneys.