April 26, 2015

Sometimes, To Get Ahead, You Have to Turn Down Opportunities

With the death of Whitney Houston a few days ago, I was doing a case study of her life and the lessons that can be learned from her successes and failures.  One of the big ones has little to do with Whitney Houston per se, and more to do with her connection with Dolly Parton.  For someone in business or the arts, it is a life changing warning if you heed it well.  Let me explain.

Dolly Parton Composed I Will Always Love You

Dolly Parton, who has seen her song I Will Always Love You go to the number one spot on the charts three times so far, once turned down Elvis Presley's request to record it based on a demand he take a 50% interest in the publishing royalties. That took courage.

I Will Always Love You was composed by Dolly Parton.  She wrote it in 1973 for her mentor, Porter Wagoner, who had worked with her, done duets, and produced her music.  Parton knew it was time to move on from the professional relationship, but she wanted to wish Wagoner the best, letting him know she still loved him and hoped he got everything he wanted in life.  She sang it to him in his office.  It was the final song they did together before Dolly struck out on her own.  It was released in the 1970’s and became a #1 hit.  

Then, in 1975, Linda Ronstadt covered a rock version of the ballad.  Not a #1 hit this time, but still well-received.

Later, in 1982, Dolly Parton used the song in the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, launching it, once again, to a #1 hit.  

A decade after the second go-around on the charts as a #1 hit, Whitney Houston covered the song for the movie The Bodyguard and it went to the #1 spot on the chart for 14-weeks in a row.  

This was the third time Parton’s composition was the bestselling song on the market and the fourth time it had generated large royalty checks for her.  That money added to her earnings streams, providing a source of financial independence to continue doing what she loved, composing and performing.

Now, with the death of Whitney Houston, some speculate I Will Always Love You will once again enter the charts.  It wouldn’t surprise me if it did.

All of that success wouldn’t have happened if Dolly Parton hadn’t turned down what seemed to be one of the greatest opportunities of her life.  According to Chris Willman in Stop the Presses, Elvis Presley was going to record the song late in his career:

Parton thought it was a dream come true when Presley decided to cut the song, and she was even slated to visit him in the studio when he did. Then she was informed that Elvis wouldn’t be recording it unless he got half the publishing royalties — a mercenary custom instigated by manager Colonel Tom Parker that, sadly, kept Presley from getting to record a lot of great material later in his career. Parton refused the deal, which was heartbreaking at the time but ultimately served her well. “‘I think stories like that are the reason why younger female artists say I’ve influenced them,” she said.

Here, a successful but by no-means mainstream (yet) artist had the courage of conviction to know that she wasn’t willing to give up half of her income stream.  The song was hers.  She created it.  The intellectual property belonged in her portfolio and, if it was good enough, people should want to perform it. The self-assuredness it takes to turn down and offer like that, and live with the consequences if it turns out to be a mistake, is what makes a strong leader.  This case study is very similar to the one about Songwriter Franke Previte, who still, to this day, collects six-figure royalty checks each year on his intellectual property after refusing to sell it at a bargain basement price.

Whether you are a software developer or an artist, a novelist or a start-up, don’t give up the farm out of fear of losing your chance.  Even if you are successful, what good does it do if all the fruits go to another person or group?  It takes talent, skill, and dedication to create something of value.  Don’t sell yourself short.

 And one final thing: Just because you are shrewd and respect yourself enough to demand a price you think fair, doesn’t mean you can’t be kind.  Before her old partner Wagoner died, there were rumors that he was facing severe financial hardship.  In response, Parton calculated the residual earnings on all of the recordings and projects they had done together, even though she had bought out his interest in the portfolio years earlier, and paid him anyway.  She had no obligation to do that.  She was entitled to every penny, but she chose to be generous far beyond what anyone had a right to expect.  That is an excellent example to emulate.  

For the stock investors among you, that is like allowing the old owner of your stocks, from whom you purchased the shares, to keep all of the dividends you had ever collected because you saw they were having trouble putting food on the table.

  • M Nix

    I’m not sure it’s necessarily such an obvious decision. For some people in certain situations, it may be better for them financially to share 50% of a much larger stream of royalties than 100% of a smaller stream. It worked out well for Dolly (although arguably we’ll never know exactly how well she would have done otherwise), but I’m sure there are plenty of examples (that you don’t really get to hear about) of less well-known artists who turn down similar proposals only to fade into obscurity. It’s a risk vs. reward decision. 

    • Joshua Kennon

      I don’t think revenue sharing arrangements per se, provided they have clear end dates and renewal options, are a form of selling the underlying ownership of the property.  In this case, it would have been.  In contrast, if they found oil on some land I had in Texas or something, I’d enter into a revenue sharing arrangement with the oil companies based on the total value of crude coming out of the ground with the right for future renegotiations and pre-determined intervals.  There is a bit of nuance here because you are dealing with non-fungible variables, players, and circumstances.  

      Personally, I once licensed a large block of content to a major network in exchange for a share of the advertising revenue but retained 100% ownership of the underlying content beyond the date of the expiration.  I still hold the copyright.  During the terms of the agreement, they use their platform to put it in front of an audience who doesn’t even know I exist, meanwhile we split the proceeds.  It worked out very well for everyone involved.  Had they tried to get me to sell the material itself, rather than the right to use the material for a limited time and on specific circumstances, I would have turned them down even if the amount had been substantially higher.  

      Ultimately, all wealth comes from either tangible commodities or ideas.  He he owns either is the one who gets the cash the checks.  I want my name on as many title deeds as possible, even if it turns out to have been a mistake to hold onto the cards.

  • NN

    This is so beautiful and so spiritual. Business ethics, self worth and generosity all wrapped up into one. 

    • Joshua Kennon

      Welcome to the site!