Composer's children claim label has underpaid royalties

The children of the late jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, creator of the enduring holiday album “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” have sued Concord Music Group, claiming the label has shortchanged them on more than $2 million in royalties.

David and Dia Guaraldi’s breach of contract action filed Dec. 23 in Alameda County Superior Court alleges that Concord and Fantasy Records, which was purchased by Concord in 2004, underpaid royalties “for years and perhaps decades.”

Echoing allegations of several recent actions — the most recent of them filed last week by Peter Frampton and the heir of the Knack’s drummer Bruce Gary (Daily Variety, Dec. 27) — the suit also claims Concord “has impermissibly and without justification reduced the royalty paid on sales of digital downloads…by third parties.”

The filing states, “Particularly with regard to the ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ album…Fantasy Records issued statements containing false or deceptive representations and underpaid plaintiffs based on those inaccurate and incomplete accountings.”

“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which contains the yuletide hit “Christmas Time Is Here” and several recurring “Peanuts” cartoon themes, remains among the perennial holiday bestsellers. It stands at No. 37 on this week’s U.S. album chart; according to Nielsen SoundScan, the collection has sold more than 3.1 million copies since the company began tracking sales in 1991.

San Francisco native Vince Guaraldi, who died in 1976, spent his career at Berkeley-based Fantasy. His 1962 trio recording “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was a top 25 pop hit and won a 1963 Grammy for best original jazz composition.

Producer Lee Mendelson heard the hit song on a San Francisco radio station and hired Guaraldi in 1965 to score the first animated special based on Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comicstrip, a Christmas-themed program. Guaraldi went on to score an additional 17 “Peanuts” specials and a theatrical feature.

Guaraldi and his children received ongoing royalty statements from Fantasy and Concord over the years. The suit claims that the statements “presented information in a manner which made it impossible for a reader, even on experienced in analyzing record company royalty accounting (which plaintiff were and are not), to determine from the face of the statements that they were false or deceptive.”

Action claims that royalty rates on record sales were “inaccurately low (at times, by as much as 70%).”

Guaraldi was typically paid 50% of label receipts from third-party licensees. But, the suit says, “In calculating royalty rates on third party digital downloads, (Concord) has reduced by an additional 25% the already much lower royalty rate that would be payable on records sold by Concord Music’s distributors.”

Action says Guaraldi’s children were alerted to the alleged “unlawful” underpayments by a newly formatted royalty statement in 2008, and in November 2010 they undertook an audit of Concord’s records. The label did not fully cooperate with the audit, according to the suit.

Nonetheless, the suit claims that the audit uncovered underreported sales of physical goods, unreported digital sales, and drastically reduced royalty payments. The auditor concluded that Guaraldi’s children were owed approximately $2 million, before interest.

A Concord spokesman declined comment on the suit.

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