A Case for Arrangers’ Rights

Many parties involved in making recorded music receive residual income. Why not the arranger?
Richard Niles
Richard Niles '75

For his book, The Invisible Artist: Arrangers in Popular Music (1950-2000), author Richard Niles transcribed 222 musical examples of the work of the most influential arrangers in popular music. In the following excerpts from the book, Niles examines the role of the arranger and whether or not there has been fair remuneration for their work. —Editor

I’ve been a professional arranger working in popular music since 1975. Most people—even some musicians—have little idea what that entails. Many think that studio musicians make up their parts in a joyous act of spontaneous inspiration. So what do arrangers do, anyway?

Consider the explosive, instantly recognizable brass melody in the opening bars of “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas. Who wrote it? It wasn’t the songwriters (Marvin Gaye, William Stevenson and Ivy Hunter). Paul Riser, a Motown staff arranger, composed that melody and decided on the instrumentation of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones to play it. Riser—usually uncredited—composed instrumental lines such as this to enhance many hits and act as hooks that encouraged listeners to buy records.

My book The Invisible Artist presents the work of some of the most influential arrangers in pop music, artists who have been uncredited, undervalued, and misunderstood. Yet despite being “invisible” to the public, during a critical period of popular music history arrangers have played a significant part in the evolution of musical genre and content.

I contend that current copyright laws should be adjusted to better compensate arrangers for their contributions. The financial rewards of an arranging career are limited. Arrangers are paid per job, and the fee isn’t huge. If they keep working and get jobs every week, they can pay their mortgages. Arrangers receive no royalties unless they write an arrangement of a public-domain work. A copyright covers only the melody and lyrics of a song, but in the eyes of the law, the songwriter and publisher own the rights to every note an arranger writes. Arrangers receive no residual income if a song becomes a hit. In the cases cited below, I’ll illustrate how unfair this policy has been.

Bobby  Martin: The Rightful Composer of “The Horse”

Bobby Martin, born June 3, 1941, in Manhattan, New York, began as a jazz pianist in the 1950s with saxophonist Billy Lynn Hope recording for the Premium label. He learned arranging by writing charts for the group. After moving to Philadelphia, Martin began working as an arranger for Newton Records moving into production with Patti Labelle and the Blue-Belles’ million-selling “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” which was recorded in 1961. It could be argued that Martin also arranged and produced the name of this artist. It was his idea to name the group after the Bluebell record label and change the lead singer’s name from Patti Holt to Patti LaBelle.

During the 1970s, Martin became an important part of MFSB (a collective of 30 top Philadelphia studio musicians) and worked for Philadelphia International Records, arranging and sometimes producing many hits, including “I’ll Always Love My Mama” and “Cowboys to Girls” by the Intruders, the jazzy “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul, “For the Love of Money” and “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby” for the O’Jays, “When Will I See You Again” and “Dirty Ol’ Man” for the Three Degrees, “Free Love” by Jean Carne, “There’s No Me without You” for the Manhattans, “Never Had a Love Like this Before” for Tavares, and even Motown’s “Show You the Way to Go” for the Jacksons.

As mentioned previously, arrangers sometimes write instrumental melodies that go beyond merely enhancing a vocal melody and become an integral part of the composition. Despite that, it’s hard to find instances where arrangers have received cowriting credit for their work. In current practice the arranger’s contribution is considered the property of the writer and the publisher. 

But what would the argument be if the original vocal melody were totally removed from the track and the only melodies heard were those composed by the arranger? Would the writer still deny the arranger any writing credit whatsoever? Bobby Martin described being in this exact situation.

“On one [single], they used a singer, Cliff Nobles, on the A-side,” Martin recalls. “But they’d sometimes just take the vocal off the track and use the instrumental as the B-side. The disk jockeys didn’t like the A-side. But one of them turned it over and played the B-side, and all the lights started flashing in the studio with people calling up the station. 

“Then a disk jockey I knew called me up and said, ‘Bobby Martin? You’ve got a smash here! It’s a song called The Horse.’ I said, ‘I never recorded a song called ‘The Horse.’ He was jumpin’ up and down and said, ‘Listen to this!’ And while he’s playin’ it, he’s talkin’ over it the way disk jockeys do, sayin’, ‘Come on, baby, do the Horse!’  

“Then I realized what it was and said, ‘Yeah that is my music. Is my name on there?’ And he said, ‘Yes it’s on there as the arranger.’ I asked, ‘Isn’t it on there as the writer? Because they took the voice off and just used my track with my horn lines, but I never got credit. I think that song sold 2 million copies.”

According to Mike Boone of the Soul Review website, “The Horse” was “the first instrumental to establish MFSB [Mother, Father, Sister, Brother]” and “one of the baddest, funkiest tunes in the soul universe!”

The original song was titled “Love Is All Right,” recorded by Cliff Nobles & Co. and written by an artist known as The Fantastic Johnny C (Johnny Corley). As was common practice, rather than going to the expense of recording another track, they simply muted the vocals and released the resulting instrumental as the B-side, giving it a different name: “The Horse.” 

The song reached number two in the U.S. pop charts in July 1968. Nobles invented a dance he called “The Horse” to capitalize on the record’s success. He went on to make a career based on a song he did not sing that was composed and conceived of—at least in significant part—by Bobby Martin. 

U.S. copyright law of defines a song as a melody and lyric. No lyric was used in this case. Martin wrote all the melodies played by the instruments in the recording of “The Horse.” Although none of Corley’s melodic material or lyrics were used and it was Martin’s brass and string melodies, riffs, and rhythms that constituted the composition the public was listening to and buying, Corley refused to give Martin any writer’s credit. Since Martin was denied credit, he did not receive financial compensation for his compositional work, and Corley based his subsequent career on an instrumental written by Martin.

This exemplifies a deeply problematic aspect of the arranging profession. Success in the music business has too often permitted behavior that is grossly unjust. Rather than go through a costly lawsuit he had no chance of winning, Martin just accepted his position.

Every Buck You Make

Another case is that of Sting’s song “Every Breath You Take” which was a massive hit for the Police. Since its release in 1983, the song has earned Sting an estimated $40 million. Preparing to record the tune, the Police had worked on it unsuccessfully for six weeks. Then guitarist Andy Summers contributed the instantly recognizable guitar arrangement—an arrangement that, to use Richard Carpenter’s words, “makes the song.” But the rights to Summers’s arrangement are owned by Sting and his publishers.

When Puff Daddy released “Missing You” in 1997 he incorporated a sample of Summers’s guitar accompaniment (but not a note of Sting’s vocal). All the royalties went to Sting and his publisher. Summers got nothing, a situation he described as “the biggest rip-off of all time.” Drummer Stewart Copland added, “So Sting’s making out like a bank robber here while Andy and I have gone unrewarded for our efforts and contributions.” 

But are arrangements really considered worthless? In a 2013 case, the Marvin Gaye estate sued Robin Thicke, T.I., and Pharell Williams for infringing copyright on Thicke’s track “Blurred Lines”, saying that it contained “elements” of Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” The only elements relevant to copyright law are the melody and lyrics, neither of which was used in “Blurred Lines.” Thicke didn’t even sample Gaye’s track. He merely programmed similar bass and percussion parts, elements of Gaye’s backing track. So Thicke’s instrumental track uses part of Gaye’s arrangement in which there is no copyright. While the lines are still slightly blurred, the case has been dismissed as of this writing.

Both Sides Now

This question of backing tracks and arrangements has further relevance these days. Since the 1980s, it has been common for producers and programmers to record a backing track and ask someone (usually a singer or songwriter) to write a “topline” over it. The producer, now in his role as songwriter, then usually offers the “topline writer” a small percentage of the writer’s share of the song and none of the publishing royalties.

But if an arranger supplies a backing track (as arrangers often do) to a songwriter who gives the arranger a recording of his topline, the arranger is not ordinarily offered writer’s credit or royalties.

First, let’s get honest with terms. What is today called a “topline” in fact constitutes the melody and lyrics. Terming it a topline seems like a calculated way to diminish the contribution of the person who is actually writing the song. Posing as the main songwriter, the producer/arranger is merely asking someone for a topline. Perhaps that sounds better than asking someone to write the song. 

When I signed a publishing deal with Rondor in 1990, I was asked to write melodies and lyrics to backing tracks written by DJs. I said, “If I’m writing the melody and the lyric, I’m in fact writing the song and I’ll expect 100 percent of the writer’s share. I don’t mind splitting the publisher’s share. They were shocked at my attitude. I was told this was how songs were written today and I was “living in the past.” I replied (rather heroically, I thought), “I’d rather live in the past than die in the future because I let someone rip me off.” Rondor dropped me.

But the situation can’t logically work both ways. If the backing track or arrangement is legally part of the song, the arranger deserves royalties. Paul Riser’s brass intro to “Dancing in the Street” and John Altman’s whistling melody in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” should have made them millionaires. But if the law states that every note of the backing track or arrangement is owned by the writer of the melody and lyrics, why should any self-respecting topliner share writing credit or royalties with the creator of the backing track (e.g., the arranger) whose work is not valued in copyright law?

As Motown arranger David Van DePitte pointed out, arrangers were not salaried, but were paid per job. If an arranger also plays on the track or conducts, he or she receives payment as a musician. But the payment is a usage fee only for the performance, not for the writing. So the songwriters, publisher, artist, and record label all receive income for a hit record for a very long time while the arranger, according to current copyright law, receives nothing beyond his or her initial fee. 

Can we really say that arrangers are undervalued when the music business seems to value them enough to ensure publishers’ ownership of the rights to their arrangements? Beyond what the law states, is it morally just—or, to use a legal term, reasonable—that arrangers have no rights whatsoever for their work? I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions, but I believe that it’s time to address this inequity.

Richard Niles, Ph.D., has been a producer, arranger, broadcaster, and author since graduating from Berklee in 1975. He has worked with Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, James Brown, Pat Metheny, and others. His book The Invisible Artist is available from Amazon and as an e-book on Kindle. Visit richardniles.com/the-invisible-artist.