Searching For Cold Facts

January 22, 2013 at 3:12 pm (Uncategorized)

So first of all, happy home video release day of the excellent documentary Searching For Sugar Man.  If you’ve heard nothing about this film, or know nothing about Rodriguez–the mysterious “lost” singer/songwriter the movie is about–stop reading this right now, and go see the documentary.  We’re going to spoil the heck out of it, and I don’t want to be responsible for that.

Sadly, I think the movie has been very well spoiled by now for most folks, even those who’ve not seen it.  At any rate, I thought we’d use this space to explain some things that occur in the film, make things a bit clearer, and bring other things to the forefront.  This won’t be myth-breaking; in fact, it maybe amplifies the myth a bit by verifying the whole thing.

First of all, if you’ve seen the movie, the improbability of the story is striking.  How can a fellow be a superstar in a fairly populous, modern country and not know about it?  That didn’t really happen, right?  (If you’re a writer for the Guardian in the UK, you’re doing your level best to exaggerate things the other way to destroy this particular part of the myth, up to and including being quite misleading.)

So let’s actually confirm that myth a bit, with some history behind the scenes, as it were.  Rodriguez’s first two albums did indeed stiff badly in the United States.  They failed utterly, and he was dropped from his contract with Sussex Records in December of 1971.  Rodriguez’s albums began selling–and selling well–in Australia, New Zealand…and by the mid-1970’s, in South Africa.  It is important to note that by the time Rodriguez’s albums began selling in the southern hemisphere, Mr. Rodriguez was off the label and working as a day laborer in Detroit.  It is also important to note that Sussex Records had ceased to be by then, and we’ll come back to that.  The head of Sussex Records, a fellow you see in the film (and who is sort of demonized a bit) named Clarence Avant, likely knew that Rodriguez was starting to move units somewhere in the world, but likely had next to no idea to what extent.  It’s clear he went hard after trying to shake some money loose for himself, but how successful he was we won’t know.  What we do know is that word of this got to Sixto Rodriguez very slowly, if at all.  He certainly never saw money for that mid-seventies resurgence in popularity he’d enjoyed, and there’s likely a reason for that too (that may not be what you suspect.)

We also know this:  by the late 1970’s, Rodriguez was aware that he’d enjoyed some popularity in the world.  He was aware of popularity in Australia, where he was “popular” in much the same way that fringe underground artists are popular in any music scene, but likely not in South Africa.  He wasn’t huge in Australia, but he’d sold a good amount of records there.  In 1979 and again in the early 1980’s, he did some tours in Australia where he played for large audiences, at one point being the opening act for Midnight Oil.   So was he huge in Australia?  Well…the answer is likely “No.”  Yes, he played in front of a couple of audiences of 12,000 or 15,000…but that was as an opening act for artists who were better-known in Australia than Rodriguez was.  Did he sell a ton of records there?  Well, his first album, Cold Fact, went multi-platinum upon being re-released in 1978 there, but that was without any sort of hit single, and still dwarfed by sales of pop-chart artists there.  He was known in Australia.  In some quarters well-known.  He was, however, not bigger than the Rolling Stones or Elvis there; neither of those performers would be opening for Midnight Oil, for one thing.  Bottom line:  there were music fans who knew who Rodriguez was in Australia; probably moreso than in the United States.  That said, Rodriguez was far from a household name in Oz.

Now, follow me here:  the folks in South Africa, the music fans/sleuths who go searching for Rodriguez likely knew about him having played Australia.  While the Guardian would like you to believe that this casts some aspersions on the truthfulness of the documentary, if you follow the timeline, it most certainly does not.  It actually helps put things into perspective and verifies the story told in the film by Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydrom.  While Rodriguez had sold a lot of records in South Africa, he was selling them to Afrikaners, mostly.  (Afrikaners are the white South Africans who are descended from Dutch, German, and Belgian ancestors who settled in that area; they’re considered a different cultural group from the white South African citizens of British descent in the country.)  The sad legacy of apartheid is that it was Afrikaner political groups who set it up in the postwar era, but that being said, there were liberal Afrikaners who were very active protestors.  Mr. Segerman was part of that group.  It seems likely he was well aware of the music of Rodriguez as a kid, but really took to it in the mid-to-late 1980’s when protests by white South African citizen joined with the native citizenry in calling for an end to apartheid during the brutal regime of PW Botha.  It was during this time that Rodriguez’s music became the soundtrack of these protests there.  It is also worth noting that due to the travel and cultural restrictions placed by the world on South Africa–and by South Africa on the rest of the world and on it’s own citizenry the commercial successes of a pop act, particularly one considered subversive by those in power, is likely to have not escaped that country.  That news of sales of that music had not gotten to a laborer in Detroit is particularly unsurprising.  Thus the idea that Segerman and other liberal Afrikaners who were so closely tied to the music of Rodriguez believing their hero had killed himself isn’t a leap at all.  The late 1980’s and early 1990’s is when that rumor truly took hold there, and it is worth pointing out that 1989  and the United States are far removed in the pop world from 1979 and Australia.  Clearly the belief was that Rodriguez had passed some time in that intervening period in the mid-1980’s.

The film also asks questions about money, and who was making it off of Rodriguez.  That’s a mystery likely to never be fully clear, but we can make some educated guesses.  Firstly, Clarence Avant is likely a dry camel here; shaking that tree isn’t going to make it rain royalties.  Avant’s Sussex Records was a subsidiary of A&M and was distributed through another entity, Buddah Records.  While I’ve no doubt that Clarence Avant was quite gifted at taking advantage of musicians he’d signed, it also seems likely that he got taken for a ride, too.  Sussex got shut down in 1975 when the IRS padlocked the doors over un-paid (but not evaded, just unpaid) taxes.  Avant had been steadfastly attempting to get money out of A&M and Buddah to pay that money owed Uncle Sam and the state of California, but had been unsuccessful at doing so.  Avant had liens against him from the IRS; as such it doesn’t sound like he was hoarding vast sums of money hidden from the view of his artists (although some of those artists believe that to this day, notably Bill Withers).

What should also be pointed out is that records do not get made for pennies.  If you listen to a number of the artists who recorded for Sussex, one point is inescapable:  impeccable production values.  Rodriguez’s albums alone sound as if they were incredibly expensive productions.  Producers like Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore, and Steve Rowland do not work for cheap.  The Detroit Symphony provided strings on Cold Fact; in 1969 they did not work for free on pop records.  The second record, Coming From Reality was recorded in London at one of the most expensive studios on the planet.  So, a quick guess:  taken together, we can assume that both of Rodriguez’s albums cost in the range of $10-15,000 to make, and that’s in 1970 dollars.  Who paid for it?  Likely it was Sussex and Clarence Avant.  That should clear up another mystery:  most contracts at that time for unheralded artists had their labels not paying royalties until all expenses were recouped.  It is unlikely that Avant got any money back at all from the first two Rodriguez albums based on North American sales, and it’s unlikely he saw much money from Australia and South Africa.  When Cold Fact began selling in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s likely that those sales were based on perhaps 10,000 copies in the initial pressing that hadn’t gone to cutout bins and might’ve been sitting in warehouses.  When those sold out, folks in South Africa and Australia contacted Sussex to secure the rights to a re-release.

Or so the official story at the time goes.  In reality, by this time (1977-78), Sussex was gone, and the rights to distribute and sell Rodriguez’s records likely was owned by Buddah, the original distributor.  Buddah was by then in tough financial straits of their own, and used a British holding company to license their stuff.  And so this is all informed speculation here, but what seems likely to have happened is that Buddah licensed Cold Fact for entities in South Africa and Australia to press and sell.  Those companies then paid royalties to that holding company for Buddah.  Quite likely Buddah was owed a princely sum by Sussex, and Clarence Avant was owed a princely sum by Buddah/A&M for back monies that had gone unpaid.  Thus, if cash for sales of Rodriguez’s albums was flowing freely when they were re-released in 1978 and 1979 in Australia and South Africa, it’s just as likely that so many hands had legitimate, contractual, legal claims on that money that I’d be shocked if even Avant saw much more than a few dollars from Rodriguez selling so well in other parts of the world.  By the time that revenue stream would have gotten to Sixto Rodriguez himself, it was likely dried up.

The thing is…that’s all kind of a red herring anyway.  The film makes it clear that Rodriguez has little use for money and gives most of what he makes away.  Even so, five years ago Seattle independent label (and re-issuer of gems) Light In The Attic records secured the rights to Cold Fact and Coming From Reality for distribution in the US as well as most of the world.  The sales of the 2008 reissues of the two Rodriguez albums do indeed send revenue to the man who wrote and recorded those songs.  In addtion, the Sony Legacy soundtrack to the film Searching For Sugar Man is a joint release with LITA, and again, Rodriguez gets paid from sales of that soundtrack.   What does that mean in practicality?  Well, have a look at the Amazon sales charts.  Cold Fact is sitting in the top 30 right now (it has been as high as top ten), and that record and the soundtrack compilation have been in the Amazon top 100 sales chart for 153 and 146 days respectively.  So…between album sales, a packed concert calendar, and the film itself, Mr. Rodriguez is finally getting paid for his work as a musician, probably at a time in his life where he’s going to need some of that cash.

This post has gotten rambly and may have wandered off the tracks a bit.  What I hope is clear here is that:  1.  Rodriguez was legitimately shocked by the level of his stardom in South Africa, and 2.  He probably was less-cheated of monies than might be apparent in the film, and is likely now getting all that back and then some.

What I will leave you with is this:  put the incredible story aside.  Forget the trappings and sentimentality of it all, genuine though it all is.  Instead, realize that Cold Fact is an incredible, singular, astonishing record that sounds decades ahead of its time, an amazing blend of Motown production, Donovan melodicism, and Dylan-ish folk rants of protest and observation.  Hey, I even wrote about it back in 2008, long before I knew the Searching For Sugar Man story!


  1. kathy said,

    Great article!
    Just watched the movie…and then searched for the CD.
    Thank you for acknowledging that buying the LITA CD will indeed mean Rodriguez will finally be seeing his money!

  2. France Viljoen said,

    From South Africa with love.
    A good article and very informative.
    Within a month I bought my own Cold Fact album. Over time many a taped copy was made and the genius lyrics and the beauty of the singers’ voice was introduced to countless new comers. Such was the case also with After the Fact. This type of liberal and protestor Rock wasn’t easily bought over the counter from just any music store in those years. It was not deemed acceptable music, too protest-like, too evocative. You had to know where to get it from – the right contacts or at a very liberal shop, which was really scares those days, few and and far in between. A couple in the liberal Hillbrow, Johannesburg, a few in Pretoria and then the one I knew about in Rustenburg. An Indian bicycle shop, called Standard Cycle Works, situated in the separated Indian portion of town, some distance outside the main center of the town.
    The nicest and friendliest Indian lady ran the music section / kiosk inside this shop and oh boy did she she know her music well. Over this adolescent period this remarkable woman introduced me to lots of other good music, which earned me cult-like status amongst me peers and especially from the liberal girls in town (from both the English speaking and Afrikaans speaking “different cultural groups” as you put it – which by the way, is a lot of bullshit). Some of this music even came from ground-breaking, local South African musicians at the time – like Brain Flinch and Kenny Henson with their record Playgrounds in Paradise and from other unrecognizeable international bands such as XIT. Search them on the internet, you’ll find it there.
    Back to Sixto, Dias, ‘Jesus’ Rodriques, the talented musician. His music as others’ did as well, soothed the soul, it meant something to a whole lot of informed young South Africans during our various phases of rebellion, protesting and opposing parents that were in our opinion too conservative and too misguided by the regime, against a ridiculously conservative school system, against the regime itself and every thing they stood for, against being forced to join the military and to fight for a cause we did not subscribe to or believed in, and even against the churches of the day because they stood idly by and did either nothing or too little too late to oppose the regime, against the apartheid system and terrible damage it caused a whole youth generation.
    Ironically, it is the same white generation that suffered in their own way through this transformation phase of South Africa, that at their middle age (45 to 55 plus) now experience reversed discrimination through means of job reservation, black economic empowerment, minority early job retrenchments to make space for the majority, political estrangement, publicly uninformed political accusations against me race, and forced marginalization of all minority groups.
    You see, we did not have cultural freedom songs or liberation songs. The protest, liberal Rock and Soul of our time carried us through when all other support systems failed us, and that my friend is hard, Cold Fact.

    France Viljoen, Pretoria, South Africa, 26 May 2013

  3. Ana said,

    Thanks for the interesting article. It’s nice to think that Rodriguez should get cash at this stage of his life “at a time in his life where he’s going to need some of that” as you say. But that doesn’t satisfy the frustration of the lost decades of musical output – we’ll never know what’s gone unwritten, uncomposed and unrecorded due to the lost royalties. Being content sweeping plaster beats being miserable doing it. But the hole is still out there.

  4. Barbara Todish said,

    Is ANYONE else curious about the ALLEGED suicide of the director of the documentary film: Searching For Sugar MAn? I hope that there will be an autopsy on Malik Bendjelloul,, the director of the documentary about Sixto Rodriguez. He was SO young and, according toone of the producers of the documentary, Simon Chinn, Malik was looking forward to life very shortly before the “ALLEGED” suicide.

  5. Chris said,

    I’m not sure why anyone would think the tragic suicide of Malik Bendjelloul was anything but the sad, final act of a person suffering from depression. I’m also not sure what the implication is here, but it feels poorly thought out and in incredibly poor taste.

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