by Jonathan Dekel
As the founder of Unchained Melody Publishing LLC, Abby North has unique insight into the value of one of the most popular entries in the American songbook.
Written by noted film composer Alex North (Abby’s father-in-law) and Tin Pan Alley lyricist Hy Zaret for an otherwise unremarkable 1955 prison film, “Unchained Melody” has since been recorded over 1500 times by more than 670 artists. “I consider it one of the most important copyrights ever,” North explains over Zoom from her Los Angeles home. Alongside the English version (popularized by the Righteous Brothers in 1965 and again in the 1990 film, Ghost), she points out the song has become a hit in multiple languages, including French, Spanish and Italian. “And then there’s the derivative works,” she adds. “Such as ‘Stick Around’ by Akon and Matoma.”
Like the song itself, North’s path to success was circuitous. Growing up around Los Angeles, she dreamed of becoming a musician and composer. Graduating from the film scoring program at UCLA, by the early 2000s, North was sound mixing for multiple reality series on E! Network. “All of these shows were wall to wall music,” North recalls. “I thought, I’m a composer; all my friends are composers, I’m going to start a production music library!”
Shortly after that, she met her husband, whose late father was a 14-time Oscar nominee responsible for the scores for such films as Spartacus, Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire. As she was welcomed into the North family, Abby came to understand how important keeping Alex’s legacy alive was to them. “His ability to take the character’s emotions and turn them into complex melodic or symphonic music was bar none. He was amazing,” she explains. “After Alex died, my mother in law was the one who had been pushing his music and when she passed away (in 2005) I sort of felt as though the baton had been passed to me. And part of my responsibility was to make sure that Alex’s music gets shared everywhere as much as possible, so for the next 500 years people know who Alex North was.”
Using knowledge gained by way of the production music library, North dug into the composer’s catalogue and discovered that, while many of his famous compositions had been commissioned and thus were already represented worldwide, Alex North had retained the publishing to his most famous work. “We had to do a worldwide recapture of rights,” North explains. “I wanted to learn much more about international music publishing, and ‘Unchained Melody’ was this incredible vehicle.” After speaking with lyricist Hy Zaret’s family, they agreed to form Unchained Melody Publishing LLC, with North taking care of the administration.
Representing such a valuable legacy catalogue, it didn’t take long for word to spread that North was a wiz in legacy copyright publishing. And soon, other families who control legacy copyrights wrote her asking for similar treatment. “So we started North Music Group,” she says. “Today, we have roughly 90,000 copyrights that we administer or publish.”
Among those are the work of composer Allyn Ferguson, including the themes for Barney Miller and Charlie’s Angels; Janis Joplin and 13th Floor Elevators songwriter Powell St. John; Bob Dylan violinist Scarlet Rivera; rock godfathers The Ventures, and the catalogue of legendary producer Snuff Garrett which includes Cher’s “Half Breed.”
North says her personal connection to “Unchained Melody” has led other families to see her as an ally. “I have advocacy in my heart and I want to make absolutely certain that these families are taken care of,” she explains. “Often what happens is the composer or songwriter dies and they had so much information living in their brain — rights information never put down on paper and the family is often left really not knowing what rights they have. So first we try to help them discover what they control and then how we can make money from those works. And the other thing is to make sure that it’s done fairly and transparently, because that’s extremely important to me.”
Managing an international team based in the U.S. and Portugal, North, who sits on the board of the Los Angeles Chapter of the AIMP, is a member of SONA’s Steering Committee, and describes herself as “a truly deep in the woods music publisher, hands on in every area,” says she’s been weathering the hardships brought on by the pandemic by focusing on data cleanup and building out tech-based solutions. “I’m trying to bring works registration into the hands of all publishers,” she explains. “So right now we’re doing a lot of royalty tracking, but we’re also developing software tools.”
In fact, she says, it’s times like these that make the value of a song — be it a timeless classic or a work that’s being written in someone’s bedroom right now — that much more obvious. “Songwriters will never stop writing songs, and the artists will never stop recording those songs,” North says. “The value of a song is immeasurable because it is not about money. It’s not about the number of streams. It’s not about a chart position. The song is the manifestation of its writer’s heart and soul. And when a song reaches people across continents, across musical genres, across languages and generations, it becomes a universally shared part of our lives. A great song will connect people to one another, and it takes them back to the moments of their lives, the shared moments of their lives.”
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