SKY SAXON, the singer and songwriter behind the 1960s garage-rock band The Seeds, died in June 2009. However, for most of his career and to the end of his life, he received no royalties at all from his record company or his music publishing company. The reason? According to those companies, Saxon sold his artist’s and producer’s royalties in 1973 for $350, and his music publishing royalties for $250. Despite repeated requests over the years from Saxon, and, recently, his widow, the companies have flatly refused to pay any royalties at all, and the matter is now in litigation in the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Saxon signed a record deal in 1965 with GNP Crescendo Record Co., Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that specialized in jazz recordings, run by Gene Norman, a former concert promoter and disc jockey. At that time, he also signed a music publishing deal with Neil Music, Inc., which is a sister company of GNP. The Seeds and Saxon went on to have hits in 1965 and 1966 with “Pushin’ Too Hard,” “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine,” and “Mr. Farmer.”
But for 37 years, since 1973, GNP and Neil Music have stubbornly refused to pay Saxon, or his heirs, any royalties whatsoever. These companies maintain that Saxon signed away all of his royalties, forever, based upon three minor transactions: A $500 payment for “Pushin’ Too Hard” in late 1972, a loan for $250 in mid-1973 (that Saxon did not pay back), for all of Saxon’s other songs, and a loan for $350 from late 1973 (that Saxon also did not pay back), for all of Saxon’s record and producer’s royalties.
The Estate has brought a lawsuit against GNP and Neil Music for rescission of Saxon’s record and publishing deals, and for royalties for the past four years. In response, the companies (which are now run by Neil Norman, son of Gene Norman) have taken the position that the three petty deals from 1972 and 1973 are “buy-outs” of any and all royalties forever. The Estate has asked the court to set aside these three transactions, on the grounds that they are so oppressive and unfair that they should be void, as a matter of public policy, that is, “unconscionable.” “Unconscionable” contracts are deals that are so oppressive and one-sided that they literally “shock the conscience” of the court and of civilized society, or which have no place in the legitimate business world. In that the alleged “buy-outs” fit that description exactly, the Estate has asked the court to set them aside. The Estate has also asked that on account of the 37-year failure of GNP and Neil Music to pay any royalties, that the original 1960s deals be rescinded, and the Estate be given back all of the musical properties.
In recent years, GNP and Neil Music have exploited Saxon’s songs and recordings to a substantial extent. “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” has recently been used in a commercial for Axe Body Spray. “Pushin’ Too Hard” has been used for numerous film and television projects, as have other songs by The Seeds. The songs have been covered over the years by numerous artists, including The Ramones, Johnny Thunders, Billy Corgan, Garbage, Alex Chilton, Murder City Devils, and Yo La Tengo.
The motion to determine the issue of unconscionability will be heard on March 8, 2011. A legal brief filed by the Estate on February 22, 2011, which gives more information, background, and legal authority, is also available.