Cashing In With The Satans Of Swing

Twenty-five years ago, I happened to find the complete tablature for Dire Straits’ “Sultans Of Swing” during a late-night session browsing USENET on the university VAX. I printed the whole thing out, for free, because back then my school let VAX users print whatever they wanted for free. Amazing, right? When I think of all the things I printed out at school just because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever find them again. We had no way of knowing that Google would end up buying most of the USENET archives. We had no way of knowing there would be a Google. We still thought that the Internet would end up taking us to the Singularity. What fools we were. Anyway, after printing the tab out I tossed it in a 3-ring binder. Then I forgot about it.

About five years ago, I found that binder, pulled out the tab, and fussed around until I was more or less able to play “Sultans Of Swing”. I was reasonably proud of myself for having done so. It’s a brilliant tune and there are parts where the timing is more than a little tricky. I never shared this accomplishment with anyone, so I’m not sure why YouTube thought I’d want to see the above video. Maybe the almighty algorithm knows me better than I know myself.

There are two talented musicians at work in this song, and it’s a pleasure to watch, but what impresses me the most is how well it’s been monetized. After the jump, I’ll explain all the ways that this “Sultans Of Swing” cover is making cash. Less clear than the how, unfortunately, is the who. Who’s actually getting paid? It’s not as simple as you might think.


Let’s start with the obvious part: YouTube is paying Leo Moracchioli for this monetized video. It’s been watched almost 3.2 million times; this could be worth anything from two grand to $22,000. Apparently, if you have a “high-quality audience” who watches your videos all the way to the end and doesn’t skip the ads, you can make $7,000 for every million views. Is there anybody who has that kind of audience? I’m not sure. I’ve heard that the automotive YouTubers usually make $800 or so for every million views. That’s still pretty good money for just standing in front of a car and being a clown. I’m inclined to think that Moracchioli has a “higher-quality” viewer base than your average “car guy”. I could be wrong.

The problem is that he might not get all that money. Once YouTube realizes that you’re doing a cover song, they have the option to divert some or all of the cash to the original rights holder. If you’ve ever heard the story about how the Rolling Stones made millions of dollars for music they didn’t actually write, or how Fatboy Slim had to give away 100% of the royalties for his most popular song, then you know how difficult it can be to obtain a fair deal for licensing fees on a cover song.

Morrachioli also has a Patreon page where he earns about $5,200 for each video he releases, minus Patreon’s five-percent vig on the take. From what I can tell, he averages between two and three videos a month, which makes sense because they are vastly more difficult to create than, say, a Smoking Tire “One Take”. Morrachioli does all the arrangements, plays all the parts, learns all the solos, mixes the tracks, and creates the videos shot-by-shot. There are people who work even harder than he does and possess even more talent…

…but they are rare. And all Giulio Carmassi has been able to do is catch a couple of gigs with Pat Metheny (props) and Emily Rossum (heyyy-o). He’s not making five grand or more for each video.

If you became a patron of Morrachioli, he will also give you a download of every song he’s covered. This should require what’s called a “mechanical” license, which is 9.1 cents per download. I doubt he’s paying it, because

a) the publishers can’t track what he’s allowing people to download from his private site
b) they probably don’t know it’s happening.

If they ever find out, though, and if they can compel him to produce his server logs, he might be in big trouble. Then again, he might not be. He’s not in the United States and our laws don’t necessarily apply to him. The worst that could happen would be that he would be banned from the services he’s using now, which would kill his income stream but which would not punish him retroactively for past, er, misdeeds against corporate rock.

It’s also possible to buy Leo’s music on iTunes for 99 cents a song. At least 9.1 cents of that goes to the publisher and some of it also goes to Apple. He’s likely clearing about $0.70 per purchase. I have no idea how many songs he’s sold.

Depending on how YouTube is treating him, how iTunes is treating him, and how closely the major publishers like ASCAP and BMI are tracking him, this “Sultans Of Swing” video could have made him anywhere from five grand to thirty grand or more. That’s not rockstar money, but it’s not Starbucks money either. And it’s a sharp riposte to the people who complain that the digital age has made it impossible for musicians to earn money. They’re only half right. It’s no longer possible to make a lifetime’s worth of income on a single tossed-off composition and performance, the way that many people did in the pre-Internet era. But if you are willing to work hard, build an audience, and do what it takes to preserve that audience, you can make six figures or more just performing other people’s music.

Ah, but there’s a little catch. The songwriters and performers of years gone by had a solid system in place to collect, and distribute, their earnings. Jimmy Page could give away his entire fortune today and he’d be a millionaire again by the end of the year, just from sitting in his house. The same is true for many other musicians. Their rights, and their future earnings, are very difficult to steal or even challenge.

For the modern players like Leo Morrachioli, unfortunately, their earnings are subject to the whims of coastal elites. His YouTube channel could be “demonetized” tomorrow without so much as a by-your-leave. (Remember that YouTube shooting that was memory-holed once the gender and race of the shooter turned out to be inconvenient? She went on her little rampage because YouTube demonetized her without warning.) iTunes could decide to drop him. Somebody might claim that he was violent towards women, and without a shred of proof he might be dropped from streaming services as a result. He has no power whatsoever. His earnings, and his career, are in the hands of people whom he will never meet and who can “unperson” him with a single mouse click.

Does that sound familiar? It should. That’s the world in which many Black musicians lived until recently. They were forced to sign contracts they couldn’t read and then they were held to the letter of those laws while their publishers got rich on their backs. Often, they were bullied or deceived into giving up the rights to their own music. They could be fired from their own bands and replaced with whomever the studios wanted. In other words, they weren’t treated like human beings. They were property, de facto if not de jure.

Twenty-five years ago, I thought that the Internet would remove the distinctions of class and race between human beings and allow us to understand each other better. It didn’t turn out that way. We are more divided than ever, whipped into a froth by race hucksters like Ta-Nehisi Coates and class-warfare specialists like Bernie “Vacation Home” Sanders. We are less and less willing to hear someone else’s opinion without an immediate, and negative, response. And those of us who create for a living are learning an ugly truth: we’re all on Parchman Farm now, and the foreman is some Tesla-driving dweeb from Burlingame. Better put your back into it, son.

27 Replies to “Cashing In With The Satans Of Swing”

  1. John C.

    It would be nice if modern artists could do more than rip off some 40 year old song singing it not half as well. When I was young in the 80s, there were only two songs that covered 30s stuff from my fathers youth, “putting on the ritz” and “just a gigalo.” If almost every song wasn’t a rip off of something very old, the system of record companies selling albums and paying their acts lavishly would not have collapsed for everyone except Taylor Swift.

    On getting paid on the internet. I wonder at what point it is worth having someone selling ads directly. I expect Google’s revenue from a million views is way more that they are paying their content provider. The content provider will know his audience better as well.

    Reply
    • Josh Howard

      Except that every song seemingly is derived from another song. Like any art, music is derivative with there only being small spurts of new creation. There are several remakes of old songs that I think are better than the originals. The whole reason you think there were only 2 songs that covered 30s stuff when “you were young” is simply because your frame of reference was very small. We had no internet. No Youtube. Media wasn’t on a 24hr cycle like it is now with very far reach. A camel twitches it’s nose in the middle east and someone’s making a video about it. Keep in mind that TONS of bands got their start by covering and playing the music of other artists. The peak of this was Nickelback which amounted to a cover band of a cover band. Look at where movies and video is headed. Kung Fury, Turbo Kid, and those like them are throwbacks. Art is regurgitation and repetition. We like to pretend it’s new and different, but it seldom is. Until I learned this, I was a TERRIBLE designer. My drawing skills were incredibly weak. I thought I HAD to be different. Reality is that no one truly is unique or different in the art realm. We’re all just monkeys banging on typewriters.

      Regarding the music featured here: Frog Leap Studios is an extremely talented guy who really enjoys doing covers of popular songs. This does raise awareness of some of his own music(not that there’s a ton of it, but the production of these covers is an artform to itself). It is my understanding that he works helping other people out with original soundtracks and music to sell. This is sort of a way to gain mindshare in a crowded environment by doing something different(Metal versions of Disney songs???YUP). And, yes, it’s clickbait. It puts money in his bank acct and food on his table for his little girl featured in “Let it Go”. This is the reality of today’s world. You need a hook. One of these days I’ll find mine.

      Reply
      • John C.

        I am all for being inspired by or even in the tradition of. The original song itself, while enhancing 70s cred by not giving a dang about any trumpet playing band, definitely tells a story placing Dire Straits in the tradition of the 30-40 years before English dance hall music. Without the full throated homage of the Kinks or even Wang Chung.

        I also see the cleverness of ripping off Dire Straits in the style of Metallica if Metallica didn’t have their own stuff. Or course also adding the plastic voice girl to slow it down a little and make it more radio friendly. I wish them the best and find the quandary of how to monetize what they do fascinating. Artistry is a higher level though

        Reply
    • James

      This is not exclusive to the current crop of artists. Seems to me more than a few of the big 60’s and 00’s artists including zeppelin, beatles, stones, hendrix, cream, clapton,… made their bones covering and sometimes ripping off predominately black blues artists. The Honeydrippers, a star studded band from the 80’s covered numerous older generation tunes.

      On the music industry past, I personally think that technology, and changing tastes, like many things converged to bring about its demise. Being paid lavishly has been pretty much the preserve of the top tier acts. Have a read on the storys of the Yardbirds, Badfinger, The Animals, talent, timing, opportunity and a rapicious music industry.

      Reply
      • John C.

        Wasn’t the ripoffs though mainly album filler in the early years. You are not going to hear Muddy Water on “Abby Road”” perhaps on Please Please Me”. On the Mickie Most stuff, or the Monkeys for that matter, there was a chance for the artists to broaden themselves and their income potential, by writing their own stuff. The results however…. Not commercial. What the record companies did do was put the artists in touch with professional music writers. Doing so earned them the bulk of the artists proceeds. It just would not have happened without the two sides coming together. This was also true with Motown, most of whose artists were nowhere once the hit making machine broke down.

        Reply
  2. safe as milk

    thanks for the info, jack. i knew the broad strokes but this really fills in how this all works. it’s still not a bad system. before youtube, it wasn’t just poor uneducated musicians who were taken advantage of. everybody had to go through the record companies and their a&r system. it was just a corrupt elitist club not unlike our political system. i still think that what we have now is for the most part better.

    i’m fine that fatboy slim didn’t make composition royalties on the rockafeller skank, he didn’t write it. he still got paid for his performance. sampling and arranging may be creative but it isn’t creation.

    Reply
    • Daniel J

      Back in the day I liked Myspace music because it gave an opportunity for many unknowns to get their stuff out. It seems Facebook may have taken over some of that, buy with Facebooks new policys who knows.

      I’m a huge fan of EDM, but when Fatboy slim came along, I was really not a fan. I’m more into DJs and producers who make their own stuff, even it’s behind a computer these days instead of a synthesizer.

      The internet started out as a communication mechanism. But like all good intentions, someone was ultimately going to find a way to make money. Historically, it reminds me of the interstate highway system. The government never intended for it to be used for the transportation of freight. Someone is always going to try to make a buck.

      Reply
  3. cwallace

    “…without so much as a by-your-leave.”

    Wow, the relative obscurity of that reference, and how it dovetails so damned well with the broader point, is fantastic.

    Reply
  4. Bark M

    This doesn’t even take into account the thousands of “ad agencies” who are selling this space on YouTube, and how a significant portion of the money being paid by advertisers to YouTube is being taken by these middlemen simply for facilitating a relationship that the advertisers could do themselves.

    Reply
  5. Dirty Dingus McGee

    Everything old is new again.

    I became a Dire Straits fan because of this song, but even tho my current taste runs to bluegrass, I do like this version. Thanks for opening my eyes to Leo.

    25 years ago I was laying around my house recovering from kidney stone issues and was channel surfing. Happened upon the old Nashville Network and these guys were playing. It takes a creative mind to decide to cover old Motown songs as bluegrass. Since then there have been tons of bluegrass covers of newer songs, some great, some not.

    Reply
  6. Ronnie Schreiber

    That’s the world in which many Black musicians lived until recently. They were forced to sign contracts they couldn’t read and then they were held to the letter of those laws while their publishers got rich on their backs.

    Leonard Chess would always arrive late for contract meetings with the musicians on the label he and his brother ran. His secretary would tell the musician to wait for Leonard in his office, and help themselves to Chess’ private bar.

    Marshall Chess, Leonard’s son, once said (paraphrased from memory), “You can say that my father ran a plantation, but more than anything else the musicians he worked with wanted a song on the radio. That meant they’d have gigs booked every weekend and be driving a Cadillac with a fine bitch at their side. My father made that possible.”

    Two points: 1. Most of those black musicians would be unknown to us were it not for the sometimes sleazy businessmen who recorded and sold their music. 2. Barry Gordy exploited the black (and white) musicians working for Motown no less than white, Jewish and Turkish (the Ertegun bros at Atlantic – who may have been related to current Turkish dictator Erdogan) music producers.

    Reply
  7. Rick T.

    Heard Steve Cropper say recently on the Nashville Songwriters show that he didn’t make and money for co-writing “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” Hard to believe but true:

    “For anything written before 1972, the record companies got 100 percent, and everyone else gets nothing from a $500 million annual payout in digital royalties.

    ” “It’s okay you leave your house and your clothes and your things, but I have a catalog that is very large and I want to give it to my family,” Cropper said. “They can live on that for a long, long time.” ”

    http://fox17.com/news/local/ferrier-files-artists-recording-before-1972-get-no-revenue-for-digital-downloads

    Reply
  8. Widgetsltd

    For additional detail on the various machinations affecting the pay of musicians & composers, have a look at the trichordist: https://thetrichordist.com
    That site appears to be largely the work of David Lowery, front man for the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. It appears that he spends some significant time studying and subsequently breaking down the details of topics such as streaming revenue, DOJ consent decrees, and proposed legislation.

    Reply
  9. stuntmonkey

    I’ve often wondered about those cover Artists on YouTube. Do the bigger ones go to the trouble of getting the licensing from the publisher first, or do they just monetize and let YT divert a cut automatically?

    Reply
  10. Panzer

    I remember back when Bittersweet Symphony (the song the stones claimed the rights to) came out in 1997. I was six years old at the time and my dad liked the album too, so he bought it on cassette. The album was called ‘Urban Hymns’ and the band was called ‘The Verve’.
    Everyday after school I would race home, sit down in front of the stereo and listen to the album from end to end hanging out for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and ‘Lucky Man’ especially. They’re still some of my favourite songs more than 20 years later.
    It still makes my teeth hurt thinking about that story. The Stones not only got ALL the revenue from that song (which was substantial, because it was extraordinarily popular, I even remember seeing it called the ‘soundtrack of the 90’s’) but they EVEN GOT THE FUCKING SONGWRITING CREDIT TOO. The worst part of it imho, was that if you actually listen to ‘The Last time’ cover by the ‘Andrew Oldham Orchestra’ that the song actually samples, it’s clear that only the note structure was sampled for one rather than the song directly.
    On a side note, ‘The Andrew Oldham Orchestra’ was a side project of Andrew Oldham, who was the Stones manager in the 60’s. He basically wanted to create orchestral covers of the biggest Stones tracks like ‘Can’t get no satisfaction’ and ‘As tears go by’ etc.. ‘The Last time’ was one of the tracks covered, and this was the track that was sampled by ‘The Verve’ for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’.
    I would highly recommend the ‘Andrew Oldham Orchestra’ album, their reinterpretations of these Stones tracks is something to behold.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      It gets worse. When the guy from The Verve stopped licensing the song for commercial use, the Stones had it re-recorded and started selling it.

      Reply
  11. Zykotec

    I’m already a huuuge fan of Leo, even if I discovered him a little late. One of Norways most famous youtubers and hes about my age and lives about a days drive from here, and he has a great taste in music 😉
    I’m a real sucker for cover versions of songs though. Not all of Leos covers are brilliant, but not all the source material is either.
    He does go into detail on how the copyrighting and monetizing works, so I think he has that part covered.
    One thing I like about him, besides the cover songs, is how he goes into detail on how he does everything, from technical/recording details to how he plays and sings, and how he makes money on his videos, so anyone with some talent who is willing to put in the hard work can do the same as him.
    And a plus for including his family and even dong childrens songs.

    Reply
  12. Pingback: Transgenre Music – Musings from Brian J. Noggle

  13. Scout_Number_4

    Jack, thanks for sending me into a youtube vortex–can’t get enough of Leo or Mary for that matter.

    Reply
  14. jbbush

    Long time reader, first time caller. Or something.

    I think Leo uses this service – http://soundrop.com/ – to license and distribute his covers (at least, distribute through some channels). Does this cover everywhere and everything? No idea. Love the guy’s music, though, and I don’t even really consider myself a “metal guy.”

    Reply

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