Robert Fripp went to war in 1976: It's a battle he's still fighting

Robert Fripp headshot
(Image credit: Robert Fripp: Dave J Hogan | Studio: Jupiter Images)

It wasn’t on my bucket list to become an expert in music industry law under the tutelage of Robert Fripp – but it was an unexpected adventure. 

In 2013 I was Classic Rock’s online news editor and I’d run a story about Fripp discussing a potential reunion with David Bowie. Except I’d been wrong; Fripp had been writing about a dream he’d had, and asked for me to call him so I could clarify the situation.

Ever the swooping scavenger of scoops, then-Classic Rock editor Scott Rowley quietly suggested I should try to win an interview with the King Crimson icon, or find employment elsewhere. And I’m not sure how it happened, but it did. At the time Fripp was even more reclusive than he usually was (that’s changed in recent years, of course). He’d even shut down Crimson as an active art collective, citing the difficulties of fighting a legal battle against his label, which rendered him unable to give his music the attention it deserved.

And so it was that I visited Fripp and his manager, David Singleton, for an intense interview session where we covered nuance after nuance of how people chiefly interested in the business of music had brought a great creator of music to the point where he’d stopped creating. I don’t think the Classic Rock lawyer had ever been so busy – and yet, in the end, we managed to publish a story that was so effective it brought the label and artist back to the table, and Fripp soon felt able to reactivate King Crimson for the 2010s. Inviting me to a concert in Edinburgh, he wrote: “If it wasn’t for you, neither of us would be there!” and it’s one of the proudest moments of my career.

The last few years have been brilliant for King Crimson fans; they’ve had everything except new music. And although that seems unlikely now, Fripp has never been more active in making his work – and, importantly, the reasoning and motivation for it – accessible and understandable. To an extent, that is.

Also, sadly, the legal circumstances have ebbed and flowed over the past decade. Fripp did agree to offer some comments for the republishing of the story that follows, but the current situation means it’s best if he keeps his own counsel for now. The case, as they say, continues.

But if there’s ever the chance, I might just remember enough about music industry law to interview him about it.

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Robert Fripp cast himself in the role of Willy Wonka when he locked King Crimson’s gates in 2012. He became his own version of a recluse, continuing to release limited-edition collections with extended sleeve notes and online diary entries explaining, in hard-to-follow terms, how he’d concluded his career was “an exercise in futility”. 

Invitations to tour were refused with the phrase: “Rather than saying no, I can’t say yes.” To fans it boiled down to one thing, which, in his first interview in seven years, he confirmed: no new King Crimson, and probably no new Fripp music either. 

The pioneering guitarist, composer, producer and student of philosophy and ethics has form. Stories are told of his performing seated, without lights, at a concert, then reading out the set list before leaving the stage. Former frontman Greg Lake said he believed Fripp should have let the name expire with the 1970 lineup. 

But all queries were left unanswered, as the musical candyman refused requests for interviews. That’s why, when he called Classic Rock asking for me, I felt a certain panic: what on earth could Robert Fripp want? That panic was exacerbated when the boss told me to talk him into an interview, and not to come back without it. 

Astonishingly, I succeeded. In a small beige kitchen of a large thatched building in Wiltshire – HQ of his organisation DGM Live (opens in new tab) – he explained in easy-to-follow terms why he’d changed his mind, inspired by the medieval mob-rule notion of ‘rough music’: “If someone was doing creepy things with your pal’s wife at the end of the village, you’d turn up with your pots and pans. The artist has two weapons, or forms of defence. One is the withdrawal of labour, the other is access to publicity. We can say, ‘Look, these characters are behaving appallingly. And here we are.’” 

I asked the only question worth asking: “Why?” The long answer is below. The short answer is that he believes he has more than enough to rattle his kitchenware over. “I’m fighting a war,” he states.

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Robert Fripp, 67, laughs a lot – a fact that belies his usual image of sensible hair, round spectacles and faultless sartorial presentation. Many will have been surprised at his recent appearance on TV gameshow Celebrity Mr & Mrs with wife Toyah Willcox, where the deeply-in-love couple discussed his mime of pulling love from his heart and sprinkling it into her tea, observing, “It does taste different!” He’s witty, interesting, good company and difficult to keep on track, because almost everything about life interests him. Sometimes his West Country accent is more prominent than at others – possibly when he’s speaking from the heart. 

His war began, he says, on February 22, 1976 – the day his manager “looked me in the eyes and lied.” That was the day EG Music, his then label which he shared with Roxy Music and ELP, asked him to sign away his rights. 

“For the publishing they went to David Platz of Essex Music and said, ‘We want advances,’” Fripp recalls. “He said, ‘Not unless the artist gets their share of the advances.’ So how could EG present their copyright ownership to the new publisher and get all the advances for themselves? I was in the middle of a 10-month retreat in Gloucester. David Endhoven and Sam Alder of EG visited me, and Mr Alder explained to me I had to assign my copyrights to them, so they could collect royalties, defend and promote the material and, if necessary, defend the copyrights all round the world. In other words, I had to assign them my rights so they could give me royalties. This was a lie.” 

The atmosphere round the table chills slightly as a flash of negative emotion crosses his face. For an instant it appears he might burst into rage, or tears. “It was a lie,” he repeats softly. “Mr Sam Alder, a chartered accountant, looked me in the eyes and lied. So that was that – EG then got advances paid to them, which they lent to their artists, for which they were paid interest. So EG made money from their artists out of those artists’ advances.” 

King Crimson group shot

King Crimson in 1974: L-R John Wetton, David Cross, Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford  (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives )

In the 1990s, Fripp spent six years fighting Alder in a battle that went all the way to the High Court, resulting in victory. It seems like he’s been fighting ever since. “When I went to Argentina I was told Crimson were second to The Beatles there. I didn’t know, because I’d never got any royalties,” Fripp says. “In 2003 we felt we needed to audit EMI. We discovered there had been underpayment to us, and as a result EMI paid King Crimson and myself £400,000 in 2004. No goodwill accompanied the settlement. By 2007, UMG had taken over BMG, who had either failed to collect or pay me over £90,000 in publishing royalties. We discovered that through another audit. They settled in 2010.

“I was in Blowers’ Bistro in Bredonborough one morning, looking at all of this and thinking, ‘What do I do? The money owing me is going to take two or three years working as a musician to make. Therefore it’s better to stand and fight.’ The bigger thing is this: it’s impossible for me to go into a creative space – which essentially involves hope, faith, love, wonderment, joy and bliss arising – when I’m in a trench ducking bullets. 

“It’s heartbreaking, just heartbreaking. If I do create new music, how can I put it in the world when I’m dealing with UMG? It’s just no longer possible. I said to David Singleton, ‘You can’t create when you’re fighting this war.’ He didn’t quite believe me at the time.” 

Singleton, Fripp’s right-hand man, has been part of the Crimson family since the early 1990s. And he understands now. “The creative world requires you to be an innocent,” he says. “But you also have to be a businessman and be very cynical. You cannot operate the two at the same time. When Robert told me he was stopping, I thought, ‘Why can’t we do this for a week, then go and do that for a bit?’ Until you’ve had a personal experience of it you probably don’t understand how difficult it is. You’re busy trying to create wonderful things – then an email arrives saying UMG want to argue. Once you’ve read that email it’s impossible to do anything creative for the rest of the day.” 

Fripp can remember a time in the early days where a good deal of effort was put in to ensure such matters simply didn’t occur to him: “In April 1972, I saw an American manager begin handing out cocaine to the three other members of King Crimson. He was using the cocaine in order to manipulate and control the musicians. I was never a druggie, so he looked at me and I could see him thinking in exasperation: ‘How do I get to him?’ He didn’t know how to.” 

There’s a disappointing pattern emerging – so I have to ask: “You didn’t take the drugs and you don’t seem to have got all the money… did you get the sex?” 

Fripp’s face remains po. Well, almost. “I can’t remember,” he deadpans.

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I picture him as the captain of a small boat, his hand lightly on the tiller, equally interested in the way the water affects the boat, and the way the boat and its wake affects the water. He sees life as a very joined-up experience. That’s one of the many reasons his catalogue of over 700 recordings includes work with Bowie, Andy Summers, David Sylvian; his Frippertronics experiments, his pioneering guitar techniques, his live work with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai as G3. Not to mention the galaxy of overwhelming talent that passed through the Crimson gates while they were unlocked. 

That background is worth fighting a war over, but it’s a war that includes so many technical terms, details and fine-print that it’s very difficult to explain to your average music fan precisely what’s going on. Fripp has lifelong experience of people failing to understand what he’s talking about, and he’s got used to it. I have an idea: in the early 1990s, Sam Alder fought and won a legal battle against Lloyd’s of London by removing all the devil-detail and sticking to a few easy-to-argue points. I ask for the same approach from Fripp, and the result is three items.

Item One: The Sanctuary deal. Fripp designed his agreement with then-independent Sanctuary so that, if they were taken over by a major, the deal was null and void. “One of our key terms, given the preceding 33-odd years of experience, was we would not sign to a major,” he says. When UMG took over Sanctuary, there shouldn’t have been any problem thanks to the contract. 

But there was. I’ve seen a long, detailed series of emails between Fripp’s team and a UMG lawyer, arguing that a certain word doesn’t have the meaning the band wanted it to have, simply because it doesn’t start with a capital letter. DGM fought back, long and hard. Fripp’s short version: “The lawyer says, ‘Your clause doesn’t apply.’ We say it does, because both our lawyer and Sanctuary’s own CEO, who drafted it, intended it to.” 

Item Two: Illegal downloads. Even if UMG did have the right to take up Sanctuary’s deal, it was for a limited time only and never included any digital rights. UMG have at no time had the rights to sell Crimson music online. Singleton’s short version: “We found in 2007 they were offering our stuff on the internet. We said, ‘Stop it.’ But they couldn’t.” 

Couldn’t? The label’s digital system is called DAVE, and it decides what’s sold and what isn’t, based on the information typed in by its users. UMG said DAVE was infallible, and therefore if it was selling something, there was nothing they could do. “I said, ‘If you tell us you can’t stop selling our tracks illegally, then you’re knowingly taking part in piracy,’” Singleton reports. “UMG boss Clive Fisher, now retired, apologised and paid us £64,000.” 

Item Three: Crimson track Epitaph appeared as the opening song on an Emerson, Lake & Palmer box set. Singleton’s short version: “They didn’t consult us; they took it from a CD. They changed its ISRC code so when the disc is read it doesn’t even claim to be a Crimson track. They said, ‘Oh, it was a mistake. We thought we had a licence.’ We said we wanted an apology and compensation – and the only settlement they offered was to pay the royalties they owed us from the sales.” 

Translation: if there had been a deal this is what we’d have paid you, so we’ll pay you that. But since there was no deal, Fripp asks, how can they act as if they know what the deal would have contained?

Of course, there’s much more detail in the litany of issues DMG have with UMG – but it gets complex and, let’s admit it, dull. “The areas of dispute are all unconnected,” Singleton admits, “other than the fact you have to argue they must all connect. Their line was, ‘If you find any wrongdoing, prove it to us, and we’ll pay you on the bits you prove.’” 

Fripp translates: “If we break the law, you have to find out we’re breaking the law.” 

It’s a crucial element of the entire situation – especially in a world where individuals dragged into court for piracy can face steep demands. “In America, UMG takes college students to court and asks for two thousand dollars per illegally downloaded track,” Singleton reflects. “By their own standards, they owe us a fortune – millions!” “Yeah, we’ll wait for the cheque,” Fripp says with a glint in his eye.

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If there was genuinely no wrongdoing on UMG’s part, it adds up to a terrifying number of honest mistakes that surely must call into question the label’s business model. And since Crimson aren’t exactly one of the giant firm’s most bankable assets (no offence), just how much more money is being lost to artists through such mistakes? 

It’s not all in the same direction either: “In some cases they paid us 10 times too much money, because their system was listing single track sales as full album sales,” Singleton says. “DAVE couldn’t control what it sells and it couldn’t account to the artist either. In 2011 they said, ‘DAVE is faultless.’ We said, ‘We can prove it’s not. Your own accounting department reports selling downloads which you admit you have no right to sell.’ The accounting department have their own problems – after having paid us £64,000 they decided they might have overpaid us.” 

Part of the problem, Fripp believes, is that record labels have forgotten what they are. He points to the business development era that started in 1973, just after the explosion of artistic output of the 1960s began to die down. He illustrates the difference: “Ahmet Ertegun came to The Speakeasy to meet King Crimson and do a deal. If you were talking business with someone in the record company, you were cutting a deal. When you were talking to someone in Legal & Business Affairs, you were no longer cutting a deal – you were talking to a lawyer. A lawyer is adversarial: that’s the model. That’s the end of negotiation, the end of doing a deal in any way that I understood it. 

“Any process has a tendency to go off course. I saw it happen with young musicians that I’d ride in vans with, when the money came in, and I saw it happen with managers when the money came in, and I saw it happen with record company people when the money came in. It’s different when success, manifested in cash, becomes available for real. It was a world that always struck me as completely unreal – but nevertheless it’s a temptation.”

Time for another aside: how did Fripp deal with the apparent insanity before deciding to stop? “I had my rules. The first, when I lived in England, was to go to Wimborne. People I grew up with were not going to take any attitude from Bob Fripp – ‘We know this jerk.’ I lived in New York from February 1977, then a year later Eno came out, and it came close to me being fashionable. I had three more rules for staying earthed: do your own grocery shopping, do your own laundry – preferably in public – and ride on public transport wherever possible. You can’t develop too many attitudes when you do all that. I’d also say coming from Dorset is a factor…” 

On the subject of what’s gone wrong, Singleton offers a view from a different angle. “The record labels have misconfigured what they are, and what their power is,” he says. “They’re obsessed with copyright, with ownership. But their huge value is as an advertising agency, as an artist management agency. If they said, ‘We know how to handle careers,’ they’d see where their value is.” 

Declan Colgan runs Panegyric Records and is the licensee for King Crimson’s catalogue, having worked with the band in the days of their deal with Virgin Records. He recalls the Sanctuary situation as a shitstorm that could have been entirely avoided – in fact, that’s precisely what he and Fripp tried to achieve. “The people who ran Sanctuary understood where Robert was coming from,” says the Irishman. “He didn’t want any involvement with major labels. In the event of a major taking over, the catalogue reverted immediately. 

“As soon as we heard Sanctuary was being bought, we went to Universal and said, ‘Look, we know these things get messy. We’ll buy any stock you have, the contract is going to revert, and everyone can remain on good terms.’ It would have solved all problems, it was a very elegant solution – but UMG refused. They claimed they had nine months or 18 months on the contract, depending on which emails you read. We started noticing things being sold cheaply. We thought they might still be manufacturing – but they wouldn’t supply manufacturing details.”

By law, when copies of albums are created or destroyed, certified paperwork must exist to state the value of the stock. UMG told Colgan there was no paperwork, which he identified as a VAT problem, since by their own admission they couldn’t prove the value of their commercial property. All these dealings have left a bad taste in his mouth: “I felt it was unethical, and I felt it was unnecessary. The problem is, it confirms what everybody suspected about record companies, when not all people who work in major record companies are like that.”

Robert Fripp and David Singleton

Robert Fripp and business partner David Singleton (Image credit: DGM Live)

Gently pushed to be a little more Irish about it, Colgan opens up: “The attitude was: ‘We’re Universal. Fuck you.’ That’s typical. If a band audited a record label and found they were owed, say, £50,000, rather than hand over £50,000, they would try to do a deal: ‘We’ll give you £30,000,’ knowing it would cost more than £20,000 to take them to court. 

“The great thing and the worst thing about the record industry is that it attracted vast amounts of talent – and the only thing it attracted in greater volumes was cowboys, hucksters and gangsters aiming to separate that talent from its money.” 

(On the subject of auditors, Fripp cites the example of Adam Jones of Tool. “Adam said to me, ‘Do you know a good auditor?’ I said yes. He went in, and on the strength of what he did, Adam bought a house in Malibu. And that was only one member of the band.”) 

Colgan’s issue was that, despite years of discussion, things just didn’t change. Even as Fripp was discussing his decision to end his music career, UMG were trying to sell the King Crimson catalogue – which, remember, they’d never owned. “It was one of the things they’d be willing to sell in order to be allowed to buy EMI,” Colgan says. “A senior UMG lawyer told me, ‘Sorry, the European Commission took it from an early list.’ I wrote to the European Commission and they said, ‘We took it from Universal’s officially submitted list.’ 

“The general rule is if you’re found selling something you shouldn’t be, you take it off the market. The record companies have been lecturing the archetypical 15-year-old who wants to ‘share’ his favourite band about the legality of such measures. Who’s more culpable: the teenager who thinks he’s helping his band, or the copyright lawyer who’s supposed to protect music? 

“Universal boss Lucian Grange was copied in on a lot of our correspondence for many years. He wrote a letter in The Guardian, saying music piracy was the worst problem facing the industry. Well, you can’t have it both ways. You’ve got to look at your own building first. It has to work there. It’s not just for the little people.”

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Amazingly, putting the entire drama into the past was always going to be straightforward – and UMG were always aware of that. Fripp has told them often enough, but I ask him to say it to them through me. He gathers his thoughts for just a moment, then says: “You have to pay our legal fees, because you were in the wrong. And we want an apology. A real apology, not a mealy-mouthed one. If you stop, if you apologise, if you pay our legal fees, we’ll settle.” 

That simple. 

“It’s about owning up,” he continues, before reciting the Four Pillars of the Ethical Company, as listed on DMG’s website (opens in new tab). “Honesty: transparency and straightforwardness. Responsibility: accountability and owning up. Equity: distributive justice and fairness. Goodwill: common decency. And every one is missing from our dealings with Universal.” 

Is there one word to sum up how he feels? 

“Disheartened,” he says at last, his accent probably heavier in that one word than it’s been all morning. “It’s been disheartening – but only in terms of my life as a professional musician. My relationship with music is that I enjoy it as much as ever. Do I practise guitar? Yes. Do I have a creative life? Yes. But it’s not as a professional musician. 

“All my musical life outside the professional sphere is wonderful, uplifting, joyful – everything music used to be prior to its becoming ensnared in the industry. I function in respect of the Crimson catalogue, remixing with Steven Wilson, keeping up to date with technological formats, currently working on mixing Thrak in 5.1 with Jakko Jakszyk. In my private life I have never been happier. But my life in the industry is one ongoing, day-to-day, disheartening event.” 

He cites the examples of leading figures behind the bank collapses, of leading religious figures behind institutional abuse, of Jimmy Savile and others. “If everything is done in the shadows you can get away with nearly all of it,” he says. “You can’t defend your actions in the glare of publicity.” 

If DGM decided to take UMG to court, it would require a £350,000 deposit plus £100,000 a week in fees. By my fag-packet calculations, Fripp could afford that – if he was handed all the money he’s owed. But in order to win the case, there are facts and figures he’d need to know; and despite having been asked on several occasions in several ways, UMG always refused to share them. 

At first glance – and at every other glance afterwards – it seems illogical that a music label might be responsible for stopping musicians making music. Perhaps there’s more to it from their side? To that end I offer UMG the opportunity to state their case, but senior lawyer Adam Barker tells Classic Rock: “We are working hard with Robert to resolve his historical differences with Universal Music and since we are now in a position where it feels like we are very close to a resolution we think it’s best not to comment further.”

It’s word for word the answer Fripp predicted.

Asked for a response, he comments dryly: “We are working hard with UMG to resolve our historical differences with them and since we are now in a position, I think it’s best not to comment further.”

Singleton seems hopeful that there’s light at the end of the tunnel: “With a new senior lawyer in charge, they’ve begun to take steps. The things that went on are no longer going on, and everything can be stopped immediately if there are any other incidents.” 

Colgan goes into more detail, having met with Barker recently. “Adam was the first person in several years at UMG who was willing to have such a meeting, and who has come back with a tentative proposal to resolve the issues; so despite the predicted blandness of the statement, there’s an element of truth to it. 

“It’s important to acknowledge that Adam has proved willing to take steps to try to resolve things, not hide behind a PR quote.” 

Colgan emphasises: “The apology is the most important thing to Robert. That’s the thing they’ve never understood. They’ve never got that Robert’s a man of principle. Others don’t have the time, so Robert will say: ‘I’ll fight for that principle.’” 

Meanwhile, Singleton regrets, the situation has had an adverse effect on the world of King Crimson. “Us being in dispute with UGM never damaged them,” he points out. “No one got up in the morning and thought, ‘Oh no, Robert’s in dispute with us.’ But it did damage us.” 

Robert Fripp is nowhere near retirement. He’s sprightly and busy, and he needs me out from under his feet. “Thanks for your time, my Scottish friend,” he grins as he insists on a photo of us. Then he shakes my hand and vanishes into a room deeper in the thatched building, from which incredible, powerful, dynamic, moving music begins to blast. With the single word ‘sorry’, it could so easily have been new music too. 

Sadly, there’s no guarantee that the end of the war will commence a flowering of King Crimson. “There’s a difference between the choices of a working player aged 62 and one aged 67,” he tells me by email later. “Taking five years out of the life of a working sexagenarian is rather critical. What I can say is: I have seen how King Crimson might be if it strapped on, walked into the world and rocked out. What I can’t say is, whether it will.”

This feature was originally published in Classic Rock 190, in November 2013. Fripp's project to rerelease the band's back catalogue on vinyl ends with the release of the 1972 live album Earthbound on December 2.  

Freelance Online News Contributor

Not only is one-time online news editor Martin an established rock journalist and drummer, but he’s also penned several books on music history, including SAHB Story: The Tale of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (opens in new tab), a band he once managed, and the best-selling Apollo Memories (opens in new tab) about the history of the legendary and infamous Glasgow Apollo. Martin has written for Classic Rock and Prog and at one time had written more articles for Louder than anyone else (we think he's second now). He’s appeared on TV and when not delving intro all things music, can be found travelling along the UK’s vast canal network.