“Think of it as six mince pies in a pack,” suggests Peter Rowan, reaching for a suitably festive analogy to explain the complex subject of music royalty division. “The record company gets three mince pies, the artist gets two mince pies. And everybody else, the session musicians, gets the last one between them.
“The one mince pie for the session players has already been put in a cupboard,” Rowan adds. “It’s just that somebody has to go and fill the forms in to get it.”
As an ex-musician turned royalties expert, in a lot of cases that form-filler is he (at a percentage). Particularly when it comes to songs that fall under Rowan’s chosen specialism of Christmas hits featuring kids choirs. Let’s call him the Ghost of Christmas Choir Royalties Past. Which is a lot kinder than what a member of Pink Floyd once called him. “I’m very proud to have been been called an ambulance-chaser by Roger Waters in Rolling Stone magazine,” states Rowan.
It all began with the song which, 40 years ago this month, became one of the biggest and undoubtedly most unlikely Christmas number ones ever. Pink Floyd’s satirical disco takedown of strict British schooling Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 stormed the pop charts during the winter of 1979, sold four million copies, and to this day has ensured that most of the former members of a kids choir have received a nice little fund for their Christmas shopping every year.
“Another Brick in the Wall is probably the biggest known record of all time with kids on it,” says Rowan, of a moment of epiphany he experienced around the turn of the millennium. “So I started to hunt down who was on the record.” A task which proved harder than he imagined because it turned out that no official list of who was actually on the record exists.
“It was all kids from Islington Green School in North London, everybody knew that,” he continues. “And it happened that way because the engineer [Bob Ezrin] – who was stuck in Pink Floyd’s studio in Islington while they were stuck in LA for tax reasons – got a phone call to say ‘go get us some kids for this record’. So he went round to the school next door and happened to find this maverick music teacher called Alun Renshaw. He brought the choir round and they did the session. He didn’t tell the headmistress.” The kids were given an album each, and tickets to a Pink Floyd gig at Earls Court in 1980. “Some went, some weren’t bothered,” says Renshaw. The school got £1,000.
With its much-misunderstood choral refrain of “we don’t need no education” and “hey teachers, leave those kids alone” – which rapidly became a playground anthem that drove teachers up the wall – Pink Floyd’s only UK and US number one single was attacked by the Inner London Education Authority as “scandalous”, and was apparently “hated” by then-PM Margaret Thatcher. Renshaw, knuckles rapped by his superiors, later emigrated to Australia.
Fast-forward 20 years, and Rowan launched his quest to track down ex-choir singers from Islington Green, a task made easier by the launch of proto-social networking website Friends Reunited. The first of them was signed up in 2002, and to date Rowan reckons he has more than half of the 12 or so singers on his books, all of them now in their 50s. The money rolls in annually on a hit which – thanks not least to its association with Christmas – will never go away.
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The other golden goose-a-laying every festive season for Rowan and his clients is 1973’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by Wizzard, another festive hit featuring a kids choir – in this case from Birmingham’s Stockland Green School. “They were easier to find,” Rowan says, “because some of them were still in touch with one another.”
Wizzard’s Roy Wood, like Roger Waters, doesn’t have Rowan on his Christmas card list. “He was critical of me once in a radio interview, I don’t recall exactly what he said. As I remember, he thought we were trying to get money out of him or the record company.” But Rowan stresses that the PPL royalties he helps his clients to claim – distinct from PRS royalties, which are paid to writers of music – don’t actually cost artists a penny. PPL money is paid out for radio plays and usage of songs in public places such as shopping centres or cafes or bars (“If you walk into a shopping centre and you hear I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, I hear ‘ker-ching!’,” Rowan laughs). The cash comes from licence fees paid by broadcasters and other organisations. The part that goes to session singers or musicians is a distinct portion – remember the mince pie in the cupboard? – and each player or singer’s part will remain unclaimed unless they actively go after it.
Before anyone goes assuming that the choir members or Rowan or anyone else is getting rich off any of this, know that the sums being collected – which are shared between sometimes dozens of individuals – are typically very small. “They’re not gonna retire on it,” Rowan clarifies. “It’ll help with the Christmas presents and the holidays, it’s that kind of money.” He can’t reveal the specific amounts his clients earn, but will say that at a rough guess the record has earned around £3m in PPL royalties to date, of which £1.5m has gone to the record company, £1m to the band members and £500,000 to all of the singers and session musicians. Split 12 ways over 40 years, that’s around £1,000 each a year.
There are hundreds of people out there who are not getting the money
But it begs the question: how many other performers on seasonal perennials might be missing out? What about the kids on Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe & Wine or St Winifred’s School Choir’s There’s No One Quite Like Grandma, or The Darkness’s Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)? What about the bagpipers on Wings’ Mull of Kintyre?
Rowan has tried looking into some of these, as it happens, but admits it can be hard finding and convincing people to sign up after so many years. “What I do know absolutely is that there are hundreds of people out there who are not getting the money,” Rowan emphasises. And there are rare cases, he says, when the payments can be big. “The best thing to be is the only session musician on a record,” Rowan explains. “For example there’s a cello player I couldn’t track down who’s on a Beatles record. And I think he’s worth a fortune, because it was one of their big hits, but I don’t think he ever signed up.”
Are you a long-lost kids choir singer or session musician on a Christmas hit? Or even better, a solo cellist on a Beatles song? Have you just learned that you’re possibly owed a pile of cash? If so: Merry Christmas from us to you.