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Singing a Song That’s Rich in Patriotism--and Royalties

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CHICAGO TRIBUNE

From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam--and, of course, on CDs, TV and the World Series--"God Bless America,” it seems, is everywhere these days, including the top of the Billboard charts.

For every record sold, every public performance of the song, every TV broadcast, the Irving Berlin composition makes more money. Earnings after Sept. 11 alone could reach the six-figure mark. But tracking how the cash will flow is much harder, say, than following the bouncing ball.

That’s not to imply there’s anything shady about the process; Berlin’s estate, in fact, donates all the money from “God Bless America” to New York-area Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. But with so many people, especially celebrities, singing the song these days, keeping abreast of the royalties is difficult. In fact, it is impossible to monitor the hundreds of thousands of businesses and outlets that might use the song.

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“We have seen an enormous jump in performances and royalties since Sept. 11,” said Bert Fink, a spokesman for the Irving Berlin Music Co. In recent years, “God Bless America” has made about $200,000 a year, “but we are expecting that during the last quarter of 2001, that figure could triple.”

Starting with Sept. 11, when U.S. House and Senate members broke into a rendition of it on the Capitol steps, the song has made the rounds from Broadway (where it became an impromptu closer to shows such as “The Producers” and “The Lion King”) to the New York Stock Exchange reopening.

Diana Ross sang it Sept. 21 at Shea Stadium when the Mets resumed playing there; that same day, fellow diva Celine Dion used it to close the two-hour telethon “America: A Tribute to Heroes.” Dion’s rendition alone could generate more than $20,000, according to a Money magazine estimate.

Dion also sings it on the patriotic compilation “God Bless America” (Columbia), a collection featuring songs by Frank Sinatra, Pete Seeger and Mariah Carey. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts in October after selling more than 180,000 copies in its first week. That alone could mean some $14,000 for the Scouts.

Here’s a brief breakdown on the ways “God Bless America” is making (or could potentially make) money, where the cash comes from, and where it goes:

* TV: With prime-time TV specials, the show’s producer first negotiates a fee with the publisher of the song, in this case the Irving Berlin Music Co. Typically, such fees range from $3,000 to $4,000.

* Music sales: When a song appears on a CD, tape or record, the songwriter and publisher earn between 7 and 8 cents per unit sold. So when Columbia’s compilation sells another CD, the label pays a royalty to Berlin’s publisher.

* Merchandise: If a T-shirt vendor, for example, wants to put out a souvenir with the “God Bless America” lyrics on it, he’ll need permission from Irving Berlin Music. In some cases, the license can add up to 10% of total sales.

* Advertising: Advertisers also have to pay to use the song or its lyric in a commercial, with fees ranging from $125,000 to $500,000 for a yearlong campaign. For shorter regional campaigns, the song might cost between $5,000 and $30,000, depending on whether the ad runs in print, on TV, on radio or a combination.

* Private businesses: The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP, an organization that Berlin co-founded, licenses songs and keeps track of play for royalties through a “blanket license” system.

Businesses from restaurants to Major League Baseball pay to play thousands of songs in the ASCAP catalog, either live or on tape. The bigger the business, the more expensive the license.

The yearly fees are paid to ASCAP, which then splits them among ASCAP songwriters and publishers based on song surveys. So the more times “God Bless America” is sung at baseball games, the more money it collects from baseball’s yearly ASCAP fee.

* Commercial radio: Methods from computerized surveys to disc jockey logs help ASCAP determine how often “God Bless America” is played. As with other businesses, each station pays ASCAP yearly fees; based on how often “God Bless America” is aired, it earns a portion of those fees.

It takes time to gather all of this data and money, hence the distribution of royalties usually happens on a quarterly basis. As for where this money ultimately winds up, ask any Boy Scout or Girl Scout official.

Once this year’s royalties for “God Bless America” are tallied--and they’re expected to be substantial given the current wave of patriotism--a rush of cash will flow into the coffers of Scouting councils as they strive to help hurting New York City kids and their families.

The song has earned more than $6 million since Berlin and his estate formed the God Bless America Fund in 1940, donating all the profits to youth organizations. Berlin and his family were always big supporters of the Scouts, and New York Scouting groups have been the main beneficiaries.

The Scouts need the money more than ever now, although with every high-profile performance of the song, there’s more cash to spread around.

“Whatever money comes in, we’re committed to making sure it goes to help kids affected by the attack,” said Charles Rogers, assistant development director for the Greater New York Council of the Boy Scouts of America. “We know of nine scout leaders [who died], and we’re still trying to tally the number of kids who lost a parent.”

One immediate use, Rogers said, will be to pay a Scouting staffer who has been hired to serve in Manhattan, not far from where the World Trade Center towers stood. “We want to make sure as many kids as possible have a chance to participate in Scouting,” Rogers said. “These kids lived in the shadow of the World Trade Center and have to live with the terrorist attack every day of their lives.”

Over at the Girl Scout Council of Greater New York, fund-raising is down 20% from last year, said Susan Greenbaum, executive director. “We had to cancel our major kickoff at the Museum of Natural History on Oct. 27 because of concerns about security.”

The money from “God Bless America” “is going to be really needed,” Greenbaum said. “But we don’t know when we’ll receive the funds because of the way royalties are distributed.”

Berlin, who died at the age of 101 in 1989, gave away proceeds from quite a few songs, but “God Bless America” held special significance. “I think he would be extremely moved and happy that the song is being sung spontaneously,” said Linda Emmet, one of Berlin’s daughters and co-editor of “The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin” (Knopf). “The lines express what we’re feeling. If darkness is evil, then ‘light from above’ is a hope that we will go on and will recover from this.”

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Lou Carlozo is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.


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