Black Hole Zion: Running on Empty Surprise and Why

Monday, March 20, 2023

Running on Empty Surprise and Why

 Hey folks,

Some of you already know that Running on Empty is now available on streaming.  Here is a link to it on Spotify in case you did not.  I gotta say that I am pleasantly surprised by people's reactions so far.  It's a big departure for me, vocally.  Although I sing "clean" plenty of times, you don't really hear that on any Black Hole Zion stuff.  Although I had a great time working on the track, I was sort of expecting to hear things like "no screaming?  what?!", or something else along those lines.  While we don't make music to just try and appease folks, it is certainly nice to hear compliments.  I was genuinely surprised over the last few days to hear so many nice words and see people sharing the song with their friends.  Black Hole Zion has always been about more than one style of music even though the heart of the band is slightly more on the heavy rock side of things.  What I'm saying is, thank you, and I am glad that the folks that like us have an open mind when something a bit unexpected comes along.  Also, you'll hear plenty more clean singing, and also plenty more heavy things from us too.  We've got a whole album of cover tunes that were recorded a while back.  I'm slowly mixing them, but that's a story for another time.

A story for now is how the hell Black Hole Zion ended up doing a cover of a Jackson Browne song.  Well, a few folks that run a Twitch channel and do a podcast on the Shadowrun gaming universe have asked me to do some custom music for them in the past.  They came to me with the idea of doing a little theme/stinger for their Shadowun podcast.  It's called.....Shadowrunnin' on Empty.  The idea was to do a little parody of the Jackson Brown song and set it in the Shadowrun universe.  I was open to it because it seemed like such an usual thing, but also still fit with our band.  I have played Shadowrun tabletop before, and enjoy the whole world.  The song turned out so unique and unexpected that I thought maybe it would be cool to release.  Here's where things get complicated....

A lot of folks THINK they know what parody is, but they really don't.  I was once in that group too.  We hear Weird Al tracks and think, oh yeah, that's parody for sure.  While it is in a sense, what most folks don't realize is that Weird Al actually enters into agreements with the copyright owner(s) of the original songs and gets what is called an arranging license.  This allows him and the copyright owner(s) to share in the revenue of what he parodies.  It's great for all of them involved.  They make money, he makes money, and it also generates interest in the original track.  While the "Shadowrunnin' on Empty" track I recorded meets the legal definition of parody for the podcast, it might fall short under release as a standalone track.  The reason:  MONEY.  While there is no hard legal definition of parody, one commonly accepted pillar in determining legally accepted parody/fair use is that it is not done for commercial purposes.  Although the payout is very small, streaming a song on Spotify generates at least a bit of money for the artist, and thus becomes commercial.  Even if I gave the track away online, there is a small possibility that the copyright holder could say my version has a negative impact on the market value of the original work.  Sigh.  OK, what was I to do next...

I reached out to some licensing agencies and also to the publisher for the song.  I did not hear back from the publisher at all despite repeated inquiries.  One of the licensing agencies DID have an in with the publisher and came back to me.  The publisher of Running on Empty would need AT LEAST $500 USD just to get a conversation started on MAYBE NEGOTIATING an arrangement license.  No guarantees though.  By my probably-somewhat-inaccurate-musician-math, it would take something like 114,500 streams on Spotify just to make the $500 to TALK to these folks.  Whew!  That's a risk for something where they could just say, "ehhh... no, we don't like this.  You can't release it."  I was starting to feel pretty defeated, and not really comfortable with the risk of "it's parody, just release it anyway" kind of advice I was getting from some folks.  I had talked to a couple of lawyers, and they strongly advised against doing that.  I didn't want to get sued for back royalties AND potentially damages.  Ouch.  I know folks that have been sued for even giving away music like that, and it was way more than $500 for sure. 

Instead, I decided to do something that I KNEW was protected by copyright law.  I purchased a compulsory license.  See, under US Copyright law, musicians can record someone else's song without permission as long as they pay a fee.  The fee is a whole lot less than $500, so I was ready to go.  The catch is, I couldn't change the lyrics.  I went through the process and paid all the necessary fees.  Then, I went back and re-recorded the track using the original lyrics by Jackson Browne.  Did it take longer?  Sure!  Probably not as long, and definitely not as expensive as just trying to get a license to officially parody the track though.  It took me about 24 hours and around $50 or so to get that compulsory license.  If Black Hole Zion was Weird Al, maybe it wouldn't be so hard.  That said, I'm not interested in doing tons of parody songs anyway.

The take away(s) from all this:

1.  Parody isn't what folks think it is.

2.  The fact that I put so much effort into getting this song out and folks responding positively to it means a great deal to me.

Thanks!  Live long and prosper.


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