He Scored the First Platinum Hit. 45 Years Later, His Family Is Fighting for Every Penny
By Jonathan Bernstein | November 2, 2021 | Rolling Stone
Johnnie Taylor in 1973.
Fonda Bryant wanted to know what had changed. One of nine heirs to the late R&B singer Johnnie Taylor, Bryant had spent the past decade attempting to navigate an inscrutable labyrinth of royalty statements and corporate jargon. Though he never earned the enduring acclaim of contemporaries like Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, Taylor — Bryant’s biological father — was a major force in gospel, R&B, and disco for two decades, and recorded on a variety of labels throughout his career.
Taylor started as a mentee of Sam Cooke before signing with Memphis’ Stax Records in 1966. The venerated label released a series of Taylor’s indelible late-Sixties soul classics (“Who’s Making Love,” “Taking Care of Your Homework”). But it was the singer’s tenure at CBS/Sony in the mid-Seventies where Taylor’s disco-influenced Eargasm would provide him with the biggest mainstream exposure of his career.
Not coincidentally, the label Bryant was particularly frustrated with was Sony, where her father had recorded the sole crossover Number One hit of his career, 1976’s “Disco Lady.” Since at least 2011, Bryant had been asking why Taylor’s heirs weren’t receiving any royalty earnings from their father. By the summer of 2020, she had become openly distrustful of the label. After learning that the company was donating $100 million “to support social justice and anti-racist initiatives” last June, she pointed out what she saw as corporate hypocrisy. “If you guys are supposedly getting involved with social justice, clean up your backyard first,” she wrote to a Sony vice president in August 2020. “Take care of the Black artists and their heirs that you have taken advantage of for decades! Until then, it is just talk!”
Over the next few weeks, Bryant had a series of conversations with Sony, expressing frustration at what she viewed as a lack of transparency. By September 2020, nearly a year before the label would announce a sweeping new companywide initiative aimed at correcting past royalty grievances, Sony reversed course, making the surprising decision to forgive the unrecouped balance on Johnnie Taylor’s account. The account had been steadily earning income since Taylor’s death in 2000, but, like many artists who take out large advances with labels, the debt to Sony still needed to be paid off before his heirs could begin earning money in royalties.
“I started wondering, ‘What’s going on?” says Bryant. “Why aren’t we getting the money?”
Last September, an executive at Sony explained to Bryant that the label would be wiping out the $72,000 balance on her father’s account and “voluntarily make a collective, one-time payment” of $97,000 to be divided among Taylor’s nine heirs.
Bryant’s persistence resulted in what some might call a success story in the world of royalties. While it’s not uncommon for labels to forgive unrecouped balances of legacy artists on a subjective, case-by-case basis, attorneys and royalty experts tell Rolling Stone that such occurrences tend to be hard-won over a period of years, and often take place as part of a larger settlement between a label or an artist.
“I’m not surprised it took a long time, and I’m glad she hung in there,” says Cedar Boschan, the head of a firm that regularly audits labels over royalty payments. “I’m glad [Sony] turned on the faucet; that’s what’s really important.”
“It worked,” says Tim Langridge, a longtime royalty manager who has previously answered inquiries from Bryant while managing Taylor’s royalties under a different label. “[Fonda] did good; she got them to pay attention.”
According to a source familiar with the matter, Bryant’s questioning also came at a time when Sony was already in the process of evaluating how “to do right by its legacy artists.” “When Fonda Bryant came to [Sony] concerned that [her father’s account] was still unrecouped, her timing was right,” says the source, who asked not to be identified. “If it had been 10 years ago, or even seven years ago, [Sony] may not have done the same thing.” (Sony declined to comment for this story.)
In June, nine months after its decision on the Taylor account, Sony Music shocked the industry when it declared that it “will no longer apply existing unrecouped balances to artists.” The financial structure of the record industry has long been centered around the idea of an “advance”: An artist receives a substantial payment upfront, and then is essentially in debt to their record label until their recordings earn enough money to pay back the advance.
For the untold number of recording artists who, for decades, hadn’t seen a penny in recording royalties because their advance had never been recouped, Sony’s new program (dubbed Artist Forward) meant that artists on at least one major label could actually start receiving the money their recordings had been earning all along. In an industry built on empty promises, many saw the announcement as a rare sign of substantive change. “I’m actually smiling,” said veteran music attorney Ron Sweeney, who had long advocated the major labels to institute this exact reform. “Something really good finally happened.”
Since at least 2011, Bryant had been inquiring about the status of her late father’s unrecouped account with Sony in a series of increasingly exasperated emails to various royalty managers and label lawyers. “I want to know if you guys have now recouped the advances my father owed,” Bryant wrote to Sony in 2014. “If I am reading the royalty statements correctly, it looks like we have. Would someone please let me know for sure?”
“You should be receiving a payment this quarter,” a Sony employee wrote back to Bryant.
In reality, Bryant’s account had not yet recouped, and Bryant did not receive any payments. That correspondence, full of confusion and misunderstanding, is illustrative of the opaque world of catalog royalties, a barely understood sector of the music industry that can seem, at times, exceedingly byzantine. It’s a little known, yet vital sector of the music industry where, even when labels seemingly go further than usual to accommodate artists’ heirs, those very heirs can still be left with mistrust and misunderstanding.
“Nobody knows royalties; even people [who work in] royalties don’t understand it,” says Langridge. The system, he says, is “so convoluted and crazy so artists don’t understand it. Of course heirs don’t understand it, and most people in the music business don’t even understand it.”
“From the outside looking in, it might seem like, ‘Oh, this should be more simple,’ ” says Laura Arias, a former copyright royalty analyst at Sony. “But when you’re on the inside, you see how many things go into it.”
To Bryant, the about-face from Sony had a simple answer: After working for years to receive explanations for the status of her father’s Sony account, the label finally taking action in the summer of 2020 struck her as nothing more than a corporation trying to save face.
“If George Floyd hadn’t been murdered, I really don’t think we would’ve gotten that money,” she says. “I guilted them into it.”
When Johnnie Taylor arrived at the Sony-owned CBS/Columbia Records in 1975, the 41-year-old singer was a veteran hitmaker, having placed a whopping 19 singles in the Top 20 of the R&B charts in the past decade. But Taylor’s Sony debut would prove to be the biggest of his career: “Disco Lady,” which arrived in the early stages of the Seventies disco craze, was so popular that the Recording Industry Association of America, which certifies record sales, created an entirely new designation to celebrate such titanic sales figures. The song became the first-ever platinum record, in 1976.
Anchored by “Disco Lady,” Taylor’s first Sony/CBS album, Eargasm, easily earned back the singer’s initial advance, according to a source familiar with the matter. The source says that Sony then gave Taylor additional advances for subsequent albums, none of which came close to replicating the success of Eargasm. (Bryant says she’s never been shown documentation of any specific advances.)
In the post-soul, hit-driven days of disco, Taylor’s story was a common one for Black artists at major labels, according to Nelson George’s The Death of Rhythm & Blues. By the mid-Seventies, writes George, CBS relied on a strategy of reducing R&B radio — Taylor’s stronghold — as a space to audition records for their crossover pop potential. “For many of the soul singers who signed with CBS in hopes of attracting crossover audiences … this strategy proved a disaster,” he writes. “Black radio emphatically rejected many of their ‘pop’ efforts … and since CBS had an overabundance of acts to promote … all the veterans … suffered at CBS.”
“No one at the company thought of them as career artists,” an anonymous Columbia staffer told George. “They were artists we tried to get a hit on, and when that hit was over, it was over.”
By the time Taylor’s stint at CBS had ended, according to the source familiar with the matter, he allegedly owed the label hundreds of thousands of dollars.
By 2020, Taylor’s catalog had earned enough money to reduce that number to less than $75,000.
Bryant may have been more persistent than most artist heirs who can’t afford legal representation — according to Boschan, many give up after a few years of strained communication — but her feelings of frustration and distrust are borne out of the illegibility of the royalty system.
“Overwhelming and stressful, those are the two words,” says Amy Jackson, a consultant who works with veteran artists and heirs to find royalty payments they may not have known existed. “The thing with a lot of heirs is that they have their own lives and careers. To try to jump into the music industry and figure this out [is] next to impossible.” (Sony has said that its Artist Forward program specifically focuses on “prioritizing transparency with creators,” and the company recently hired an executive to implement “additional offerings that will further increase transparency.”)
Arias, the former Sony analyst, witnessed communication difficulties with heirs firsthand. “It’s a very sad story,” she says. “More musicians need to get more lawyers involved, because [the royalty system] is just not in the artist’s favor.”
Making matters more complicated, Taylor’s case is particularly confusing due to the large number of heirs (Taylor had nine biological children), intrafamily disagreements, and lack of a formal executor of the estate. (Bryant began inquiring with Sony after a 2004 legal battle with the singer’s other children determined that Bryant, who never knew her father, was a biological heir of the R&B singer.)
Despite their differences with Bryant, several of Taylor’s children who, unlike Bryant, were raised by the singer, have had similar frustrations in their separate dealings with Sony.
“For the past 20 years since our father’s death, Sony has been opaque about his royalty account,” the singer’s son Jon Harrison Taylor writes in a statement. “Until very recently, they have been difficult to communicate with, and, to this day, continually fail to provide a fully comprehensive picture of his royalty situation. … At best, our dealings with Sony can be described as confusing accounting combined with a lack of transparency.”
Singer Latasha Taylor echoes her brother Jon’s feelings. “In my experience as an heir trying to recoup unrecouped royalties, some record companies seem to use ‘past loans’ that have no clear paper trail as a moving target to rationalize keeping a deceased artist in the negative on an ongoing basis,” she says in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Our father passed away in 2000. There have been no studio cost[s], no touring cost[s], or artist overhead of any kind for 21 years. His catalog continues to generate income on this label, and yet, we can’t seem to get a clear answer on their math. … Like anyone, we would need complete transparency to understand the bigger picture of these numbers, as opposed to partial information, which continues to keep us in the dark.”
Bryant’s royalty statements included only her own fractional one-ninth share of her father’s unrecouped balance, which by 2020 was less than $10,000. In communications with Sony, however, the label sometimes referred to the cumulative unrecouped balance of the entire Taylor family, which was roughly nine times higher, leading Bryant to believe the unrecouped balance was actually increasing over time, when it was in fact slowly and steadily decreasing.
Sony declined Bryant’s repeated requests for documentation of the advances her father had taken out at CBS/Columbia. While it was a cause of distrust for Bryant, several royalty experts agree that in a contentious account like Taylor’s — where heirs have competing interests and no one is formally authorized as an executor of the estate — it’s a necessary practice to withhold documentation (if such documentation even exists). “A label is not just going to turn over a bunch of financial records to anyone that asks for it,” says Erin Jacobson, a music-industry attorney. (In a 2011 email, a Sony attorney argued as much to Bryant, declaring that, per the settling of the estate in 2004, Bryant, despite being a legal heir, had no legal rights to receive copies of Taylor’s contracts. Both Jon and LaTasha Taylor also say that Sony has been unwilling to show documentation or paperwork detailing their father’s past advances from the label.)
One of the only measures available to heirs who are distrustful of a label’s accounting is to audit the label, a helpful yet costly option (audits can cost anywhere from around $25,000 to $75,000) that is unrealistic for most heirs like Bryant. Moreover, even an audit would only give Bryant the rights to check the books on the last few years of the label’s accounting. “What I would tell people when I was [at Sony],” says Arias, “is that if you feel like you’re not getting paid and there’s a 70 percent chance you’re not getting what you deserve, or what legally belongs to you, then you need to audit.”
There are many good-faith reasons for any label to not account for all of an artist’s royalty income or have difficulty communicating with heirs: Clerical errors, outdated bookkeeping, incorrect contact information for heirs, a system based on thousands of micro-payments, and underresourced royalty departments all contribute to an environment where artist accounts at labels across the industry regularly have small inconsistencies and minor income streams unaccounted for.
According to Arias, Sony is cautious in the payments it issues, with multiple analysts ensuring that royalty calculations are correct, for fear of incorrectly sending out money to an artist that they have not properly earned. “If there’s a pending payment, it stays pending, because we’re not sure if they’re supposed to get the payment. … Sony feels like if you pay someone $5,000, you’re not going to get it back, so it’s the obligation of the company to make sure those payments are withheld until it’s confirmed by several people. That’s probably not the best way to handle business, right?”
“The money that labels are holding on to, they can’t go spend it or invest it or do anything with it; it just sits there as a liability [to a corporation], so labels work really hard to get that money [to the artists and their heirs],” adds Langridge. “Ideally, a label would have nothing on the books and all the money flowing perfectly.”
None of this is much comfort to Fonda Bryant, who remains unsettled by what happened with Sony a year after the label forgave her father’s remaining balance. Bryant handles her father’s royalty dealings on top of her day job as a mental-health advocate, and she has grown weary, exhausted, and resentful of how much work it’s taken to investigate the small share of Taylor’s royalties she is owed.
“It’s almost like they’re thinking, ‘OK, if we give them this money they’ll go away and won’t bother us again,’” says Bryant. “I guess [Sony] thought, ‘OK, Fonda knows they got the money now, and they’ll be OK.’ No, I’m not OK. … I think they’re lying through their teeth.”
You can take a black guy to Nashville from right out of the cotton fields with bib overalls, and they will call him R&B. You can take a white guy in a pin-stripe suit who’s never seen a cotton field, and they will call him country. ~ O. B. McClinton