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John Oates Talks Songwriting, His Long Career and Living in Nashville But Sidesteps Legal Fight with Longtime Partner Daryl Hall at SXSW

John Oates carefully sidestepped the elephant in the room on Wednesday during his keynote conversation at SXSW, even as the veteran hitmaker offered anecdotes and pearls of wisdom from his more than 50 years in the music business.

Oates made no overt mention of the lawsuit and enmity that has erupted between him and longtime professional partner Daryl Hall during his hourlong Q&A, held at the Austin Convention Center as part of the SXSW festival.

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Oates’ comments did suggest a level of anger directed at his former collaborator, but he stopped short of any direct mention of the litigation that erupted between the pair in November 2023. Oates is known to be advocating that the pair complete a deal to sell the song publishing royalties to their 1970s and ‘80s hits in order to receive a financial payout sooner rather than later. Hall has vehemently opposed the proposed deal with Primary Wave Music. This dispute has fueled the legal rift between the partners.

“We used to call ourselves the two-headed monster – so let’s leave it at that,” Oates told moderator Alex Heiche, CEO and founder of Sound Royalties. Sound Royalties is one of numerous financial and investment firms working to help creators with rights tied to large content archives receive checks upfront based on future projected royalty payments for hit songs. The Hall & Oates catalogue is ripe for such a deal, given that the pair’s songs are part of the pop culture soundtrack of the 1980s with such hits as “Maneater,” “Private Eyes,” “Rich Girl,” “I Can’t Go for That,” “Did It in a Minute,” “Kiss on My List,” “You Make My Dreams Come True,” “She’s Gone,” “Sara Smile” and more. But Hall’s opposition to selling out future revenue streams of the pair’s songwriting partnership has led to significant conflict between the former stalwarts of pop R&B.

Oates deftly avoided any direct reference to the legal battle but he didn’t hide his frustration at the situation. When asked what advice he would give to young artists just breaking into the industry, he didn’t hesitate. “Get a better lawyer,” he said. He urged budding artists to better understand the terms of the record deals they are offered. In many cases, major record labels are only too happy to front money to budding artists to pay for recording sessions and tours, without making clear that this outlay is “recoupable” against the artists’ ultimate earnings from sales of recorded music.

“They gave you money to get started, make your record and everything was recoupable, which is never talked about a lot. And then you went on from there and hopefully, you went on tour, and then you need a tour support. Because you know, you can’t just travel around the country with a band if you don’t have any money. So you go to the label and the label gives you money to do that. And that’s pretty cool. And next thing you know, you find yourself in a big hole unless you have success,” Oates said.

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In an earlier era of the music business, this wasn’t a bad trade off for artists because it usually reflected the label’s level of confidence in an artist. But the business has become far more transactional since then.

“Many times these labels would invest in an artist because they believe that they might have a long career that they could then partner with and take advantage of. That’s gone. Now, it’s all about instant success, TikTok followers, all that sort of thing,” Oates said. “The good thing about the digital world and this new environment that we’re in is that it gives everyone an opportunity here; everyone can be heard. Now, the bad thing is that everyone (has a) computer and can make music.”

Fundamentally, he suggested, everyone in music would do well to remember that there is an alchemy behind the creation of music and songs that can never be boiled down to a formula.

“Writing songs is magic,” Oates asserted. “You’re pulling something from nothing. You’re taking an emotional experience and you’re creating something that perhaps other people can articulate when they hear it and it resonates within them. And that’s really an amazing thing.”

Oates was not pressed by Heiche about the state of the litigation with Hall. But Oates’ anger at the situation came through in several comments. He noted that the concept of “Hall & Oates” was created by media coverage of the pair’s early success. The real Hall and Oates insisted on keeping the billing on singles and albums as “Daryl Hall and John Oates” to reinforce the concept that the pair were individual artists who choose to collaborate on songs and albums. At the same time, Oates acknowledged that the two are indelibly linked in the eyes of the general public.

“We’ve always perceived ourselves as two individuals who work together. We never felt like we were joined at the hip. If you look at any of our albums, going back to the very first album, on every album cover, it says Daryl Hall and John Oates. There’s not one time that it said ‘Hall & Oates” because we never thought of ourselves as a group. We thought of ourselves as two guys working together for however long it’s gonna last. And it seems like a subtle distinction. But for us it was a very important distinction, because we were trying to maintain our autonomy in this thing where people are always trying to put you together. I remember one time I was in a dressing room before a show, and I was sitting in the room by myself. And one of the staff, people from the backstage area, came in the room, poked his head in the room and said, ‘Which one of you guys is Hall and Oates?'”

Oates reinforced the notion of the two as individual artists by addressing what he called “a common misperception about writing teams.”

“Look at Jagger and Richards, look at Lennon and McCartney; a lot of times they work separately, but then they came together. And it was a kind of a flexible relationship,” he said. Sometimes, the biggest contribution among songwriting partners comes in editing each other’s work rather than sitting down together to work out a song line by line, he said.

“Sometimes, as a writer you’re so deep inside your own thoughts that someone might say, well, you know, that thing that you think is the hook that might be better as a bridge? Why don’t you use this there?” Oates said. “That happens a lot. So sometimes you either you function as an editor for the other person, or sometimes it’s a true collaboration…. There’s no rules.”

Oates credited the 2009 movie “500 Days of Summer” with helping to take the Hall and Oates song “You Make My Dreams Come True” to new heights when it was incorporated into the romantic comedy. Such film and TV placements have helped keep the blue-eyed soul duo relevant in the hearts of younger entertainment consumers. Oates realized the significance of licensing activity when he took in a screening of “500 Days” with his wife and son when the film was in general release. That experience also helped Oates understand the economic value of classic Hall & Oates hits.

“This moment came in [the film] where they start doing this choreographed dance to our song. And there’s animation, there’s birds flitting around and it just seemed like it was almost really a perfect filmic symbol of falling in love for the first time,” Oates said. “And the girls started clapping when the song was over. And most people don’t clap in a movie theater. And I thought to myself, ‘Wow, we have really gotten to them.’ It really meant something to those girls, that moment in the film and that song really came together in something that elicited emotion from them. So I thought that was really cool. And that that kind of triggered my mind to thinking that there’s a lot of possibilities going on out there.”

The process of approving or disapproving the many requests that pour in for the use of Hall & Oates hits in film and TV productions is simple, Oates explained. “A lot of times, we’ll say, ‘Well, what’s it about?’ They might send over a snippet of the script, so we can tell whether if it’s offensive or crap. And if we like it, we say yes. If we don’t like it, we say no. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

The subject of how artificial intelligence tools will influence music creation was also raised. Oates didn’t hesitate in his response. “I’m old enough to not have to worry about it. Because I’m not going to be around when it takes over,” he said.

Oates sees major changes on the horizon for the live performance space. “It’s going to be very difficult to replicate the relationship between an audience and a live performer. I think there’s a there’s a certain magic there that is very, very important to preserve,” he said. “And I don’t think AI nor holographs, nor Spheres nor incredible high tech production, is ever going to be able change it.”

Oates noted that he worries about how the estates of dead artists will adapt to the changing business landscape. “What about the artists who are no longer with us? Let’s take David Bowie as an example…What’s to prevent AI from extrapolating from this incredible body of work and creating new David Bowie songs with David Bowie singing?” he said. “Pretty much nothing can stop that unless there’s either legislation or people just don’t want it to happen. So I’m a little concerned about things like that. Being an artist who is obviously older, I worry what’s going to happen to my musical legacy.”

Among the many topics discussed during the hourlong Q&A, Oates also explained why he has been invigorated by living in Nashville for many years.

“It’s the greatest collection of musicians on the planet,” he said. “There’s no place on earth to work where more talent is focused in one little place. And if you’re not good at it there, you must go home. Because it’s serious, serious level, high level.”

For all of his success, Oates said he was humbled after integrating himself into the Music City scene. “When I realized where the benchmark was, I started practicing,” he said. “And to this day, I practice probably more than I ever have in my life.”

(Pictured: Sound Royalties’ Alex Heiche and John Oates)

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