by Steven Axelrod

TV FICTION PACKAGE: A veteran producer learns from one of his teen contestants. 2,442 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.

People have a lot of questions for me lately. How did I come to fire the most powerful law firm in Hollywood? Tear up the contract that governs how most reality competition shows do business? Lose the potential breakout star of my TV singer-songwriter contest Troubador?

The last one is the easiest to explain: Why didn’t I sue Brady James when he gave me and my series the finger and walked away?

He didn’t have a contract.

It started with me watching Crystal Bowersox on season nine of American Idol and thinking — that girl writes her own songs so let’s hear some of them. The idea took shape with Phil Phillips and this latest kid Mackenzie Bourg.  I quickly realized a new show could put everything I loved together in one package. I love music. I love songwriters. And as I’ve proved during a thirty-year career working with all four networks and a couple of cable newbies, I love TV. So why not air a performance contest for singer-songwriters? Forget LaPortia Renae standing up there in the laser show belting out some old Mary J. Blige number. My vision was 1974’s Joni Mitchell standing up with a guitar, no light show or pyrotechnics, and simply singing Big Yellow Taxi. Or Bob Marley performing No Woman No Cry for the first time on my stage. Or – why not, shoot for the stars, Danny! – Bob Dylan, scruffy and unknown, knocking the world on its ass with Mr. Tambourine Man. You’re telling me the world ran out of Joni Mitchells and Bob Marleys and Bob Dylans? Seriously?

Then check out Brady James. I knew he was the genuine article at the first Troubadour audition. And it was a big relief, let me tell you.

I’d pitched the show to three networks before the fourth one took the bait, and the idea of a Brady James was the heart of my spiel. He’s out there, I said. He’s made a recording setup in his basement, he’s sending out demo tapes, he’s playing small clubs. He’s even posted a few songs on YouTube. But let’s face it: that shit is a needle in a haystack or, worse than that, one more stalk of hay in a goddamn hayloft. Nothing’s getting shared, nothing’s going viral. He doesn’t know how to game the internet or social media.

He’s just a kid with music in his head who needs a stage to sing on — and I want to give it to him.

But I needed to be right. And for the first three hours of that first audition, in the Rabobank Arena theater in Bakersfield with a line of more than seven thousand wannabes stretching from Truxton Avenue all the way down to Fourteenth Street, it wasn’t looking good. We had tuneless ditties about mean parents sung by emo kids with black nail polish and pink hair. Protest songs about drone strikes rhyming with “bone spikes.” Kids of unspecified sexuality singing about the plight of LGBTQ kids. (They keep adding letters. I found out the “Q” is for questioning.) Body shaming laments from fat kids. Opioid addiction laments from skinny kids. And ordinary songs complaining about being ordinary from ordinary kids. We had out of tune guitars, broken banjo strings, whiny harmonicas and a couple of mandolins. One girl brought a harp.

It was a long day.

Then, around three in the afternoon, this good-looking guy with a mop of brown hair and a big halogen smile came onstage with a battered Gibson and sang this lyric:

Last night I dreamed that I was only dreaming
This dream of you.
I woke up
And the nightmare began
A solitary man, living in a world askew
Then without warning, I woke up again
And it was morning,
And the dream came true.

I can’t play you the tune, but I don’t have to. You were probably singing it in the shower this morning.

The upshot was we liked three kids and signed two of them. The trans girl’s song “Shopping Around,” about both sexes being a disappointment, actually made me laugh; the black kid’s half-rap half-hip hop screed about an LAPD stop while driving in Beverly Hills adjacent scared the crap of me; Then there was Brady James, and “This Dream Of You.”

He refused to sign the contract. He was supposed to sign before he even auditioned. Sally Penrose, my assistant, gave me the bad news.

“He sort of charmed the girl at the sign-in…”

That halogen smile. “Shit, well, get his signature now and we can all go home.”

Sally studied the parquet floor like it was a Tetris game and she was losing. “He won’t sign it, Mr. Rosenblatt.”

“Did the other kids sign?”

“Yeah, right away. No problem. It’s just this one kid, Brady James. And he tried to talk the others out of signing. Joe had to call security.”

“Are they still holding him?”

“I think so. Let me check.” She scurried out and returned to the office being used on the second floor ten minutes later, Brady James in tow. His mood was not improved by the detention.

“You know what’s funny?” he said, first thing in the door. “You sign some African American kid for his song about our police state — and then your own goons try to arrest me for exercising my First Amendment rights. And they’re not even cops. They probably flunked out of the LAPD academy. So now I can file charges of felony assault and kidnapping against them, and I plan to do just that. Unless you can give me one good reason not to.”

“How about – I think you’re a genius and I want to make you a star?”

He stared at me, tight-lipped, no sign of that smile. “You people live by hype, don’t you? First of all, I’m no genius. And if I can become a star, I don’t need you to do it for me. Especially at these prices.”

“These prices? What are you talking about? We don’t charge any fees. We’re not trying to rip anybody off.”

“No — just exploit us.”

“That’s the business we’re in, kid.”

“Speak for yourself. And this isn’t a business. It’s a crime. It’s human trafficking.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Have you even read your contract?”

"Of course I have."

He bit down in a grimace of impatient aggravation. “Not your personal contract. I’m sure you went over that document with ten lawyers and a magnifying glass. I’m talking about the contract you offer the contestants on your show.”

“What about it?”

He spoke slowly, as if to a small child. Or an idiot. “Have. You. Read. It.”

“Well – no, actually. I assume it’s just boiler plate.”

“Take a look. It might surprise you.” He turned to leave. “I assume I’m free to go?”

“Are you still planning to press charges?”

He coughed out a nasty little laugh. “I’ll let you off with a warning this time.”

So I went home and I read the contract. I set it aside, blew out a long breath, grabbed my phone, and put it down again. The lawyers could wait until tomorrow. I had more important things to do tonight.

Like investigating Brady James. Who was this kid? Where did he come from? My first stop was YouTube. I found his channel and watched a few videos, all of them set in Boston – the Public Gardens, Louisberg Square, the B.U. campus.

I found a Brady James in the Boston phone directory. Brady James, senior it turned out. It was ten o’clock at night when I called, but the father was glad to talk. Dad’s a professor at MIT. A whole family of brainiacs: Mom writes classical music, the two sisters are curing cancer with PhDs in molecular biology. Or they were. Mom and both sisters died in a car crash three years ago. Brady Jr. was the only survivor — and he walked away without a scratch.

He started writing songs the next morning. Never stopped. No band, no pals, no busking. No cheap gigs at local bars. But he started a website called – he writes love songs to order. The only condition is the buyer can never sing the song in public or try to sell it. You do that, Brady spills the beans and takes the credit. And he just dropped out of high school after selling some high concept screenplay to a major studio. The old man gave it to me in one sentence: every rock and roll death since Buddy Holly has been the work of the same serial killer. That was all Dad was willing to tell me. But that was enough.

I ended the call thinking – this teen is amazing; maybe he’s got a plan to defeat ISIS in his back pocket, too. I went to sleep thinking about his movie, like how’d the killer rig the plane crashes and set up the drug overdoses? One thing for sure: the kid wasn’t going to tell me. Not when he wouldn’t even sing on my show.

My first call the next morning was to Howell Grayson Levitt & Rhodes, our law firm. Hell, they’re everyone’s law firm in the entertainment business who can afford six hundred dollars an hour. I told Arthur Howell to get himself, Tom Grayson and Bill Levitt over to my office. They had meetings all morning. I told them to cancel. They’re smart boys who know their place. I tell them to jump, they grab a rope and play Double Dutch. They showed up half an hour later.

My first shot fired over the bow: “If you want to destroy my show, why not just find some idiot who says he had the same idea ten years ago and serve me with papers? Nothing like a rights dogfight to kill a project. You’d have deniability. Worst case scenario – you look like assholes, not fucking pond scum.”

“Slow down, Danny,” Levitt said. “Take it down a notch.”

“No one wants to kill the show,” Grayson added. “We love the show! It’s gonna be a great show!”

“It’s a show about tough-minded original artists, creative outliers. VW bus-touring hard heads and buskers and bright kids who want to get their sound out into the world. Does that sound accurate?”

Arthur chuckled. “You’re a poet.”

“And which of those self-starting survivors do you think would willingly sign this piece of crap contract you cooked up?”

“All of them! Because they’re desperate. Because they’re hungry,” Levitt explained. “That’s how we like them. Desperate and hungry.”

“So you can eat their lunch, forever?”

Levitt grinned. “Hey, you’ll be eating their lunch. We just bill by the hour.”

I walked over to my desk and picked up the papers and flapped them in their faces. “This contract – which by the way, the kids have to sign before they even get to audition for the show – makes them waive all copyright claims and future royalties to any and every song they ever write on the show. Ten songs, as you know. No one gets to the starting line without ten songs. And to even start to play our game, they have to give up all rights to those songs forever whether they make it onto the show or not.”

Grayson shrugged. “It’s the standard contract, Dan. Called a ‘contract of adhesion.’ We don’t have time to dick around with these kids. Take it or leave it.”

“And they have to waive all rights to sue the producers or the network in the future,” I asked.

“That’s to protect you,” Arthur said.

“So these artists have to give up their work, not to mention any hope of ever earning any money from it, and any opportunity to negotiate now or sue later, just to walk in the door?”

Levitt nodded. “That’s the gist.”

“You must think we have one hell of a door. A golden door. But it’s a trap door, gentlemen. They step on it and down they go. One more body on the pile.”

Arthur lifted his hands in the calming gesture I’d seen him use with distraught clients many times before. “It’s a life of the copyright agreement, Dan. That’s seventy years, not twenty. Which is SOP for this kind of contract. And yet you seem distressed.”

“Yeah, Arthur, I’m somewhat distressed. Very perceptive of you,” I said oozing sarcasm. “Because any singer/songwriter with a brain or a spine is going to spit in your face just like this Brady James kid. So the talented musicians who are the heart and soul of this program will shun us and all we’ll have left are the ignorant and the desperate, the mediocre ordinaries and the might-have-beens. Some will sign. That’s the worst part. Ruining the careers of the kids who don’t know any better and who trust us to take care of them.”

“We’ll take care of them all right,” Levitt laughed.

That was it for me. “Get out of my office, all of you. Your firm is fired.”

“What? That’s absurd.”

“Do I need to call security? Because I would enjoy that very much.”

The lawyers left. And I found Brady James’ phone number on the application form he never signed. He picked up on the second ring.

“What?” Not the friendliest guy.

“I have a new contract for you. You keep your copyright and we split the royalties fifty-fifty.”

“I own my work?”

“Yeah., We take half for the stuff you do on the show. Or later, if you decide to make records with us.”

“And if I choose to walk away?”

“I call you a cab.”

“Make that an Uber.”

“Right. Very funny.”

“Very appropriate, actually. It’s a new era, Mr. Rosenblatt. A friend of mine made a video of my audition with her cell phone, posted it on YouTube and tweeted about it with the hashtag #RejectTroubadour. I’ve had fifty thousand hits since last night. Some guy from Wired called. Apparently I’m the new Justin Bieber. So thanks but no thanks anyway.”

Brady James hung up. But the other kids were happy with the new contract and they’re telling all their friends. The audition lines have doubled. And I became best friends with the hottest young popstar in the world. Brady even tells me he’ll come on the show sometime. But first he’s getting me tickets for the world premiere of his movie. And he wrote a gorgeous ballad for my twentieth wedding anniversary. No one but my wife hears A Wedding Without Rehearsals. And no one makes a dime from it.

Brady wrote that one out of respect.

Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season

About The Author:
Steven Axelrod
Steven Axelrod is an author and screenwriter who has written for Gil Cates, Irvin Kerschner, Roger Spottiswood, Howard Intl, Hemdale, Concorde, Tapestry and Arama Films among others. Son of writer/producer George Axelrod, Steven is currently writing mystery novels for Poisoned Pen Press. This book excerpt is from his work in progress Hollywood Parking.

About Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod is an author and screenwriter who has written for Gil Cates, Irvin Kerschner, Roger Spottiswood, Howard Intl, Hemdale, Concorde, Tapestry and Arama Films among others. Son of writer/producer George Axelrod, Steven is currently writing mystery novels for Poisoned Pen Press. This book excerpt is from his work in progress Hollywood Parking.

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