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The message on the envelope is printed with childlike determination. HAPPY BIRTHDAYS is handwritten in one corner, MERRY CHRISTMAS'S in another. The contents of the envelope must be precious to cover two gift-giving occasions in perpetuity.

TEN THOUSAND COPIES PLUS MADE. TO MOM WITH LOVE. FROM BILL JR.

Bill Schlegel Jr.'s mother didn't open the envelope. Strangely, Bill hadn't either. The package arrived a month ago from HillTop Records in Hollywood, California. One would think Schlegel would have ripped open the package the moment he saw it in his mailbox. More than a year ago, he submitted song lyrics to HillTop, and here it was, the finished product: a sixteen-song cassette with one of his compositions set to music.

Instead, he gave his first and only copy in an unopened package to Mom.

A lot of things about Bill Schlegel are difficult to comprehend. The 44-year-old, who lives in a trailer home with his mother on Cleveland's south side, tells a fantastic life story. He claims, among other things, that he met the Beatles in Germany in 1965. That Led Zeppelin sent him demos he would critique. That he designed the light show for a Journey tour. And most spectacular of all, that he was adopted by Jimi Hendrix.

Today, Schlegel waters the hanging plants outside the trailer as his mother recuperates from a heart attack. Without a steady job, the former Air Force staff sergeant subsists on a disability pension. He says he is in the care of a VA doctor. Perhaps because of the medication he takes — Schlegel says he's been prescribed tranquilizers and diet pills — his hand shakes uncontrollably.

If Schlegel seems an unlikely candidate to have a songwriting contract, consider the record label. By all appearances, HillTop is a shady enterprise that preys upon the dreams of would-be songsmiths.

HillTop didn't pay Schlegel for his song, titled "On My Mind"; rather, he is paying them. According to his contract, Schlegel owes HillTop $389 (payable with $45 down and monthly installments of $43) for the "screening session to help determine whether this composition will be included in a cassette album entitled AMERICA." The contract promises Schlegel a royalty on every cassette sold, but given HillTop's wanting promotion and distribution efforts, he is unlikely to recover his screening fee.

Scott Honea of Corsicana, Texas, had a tune appear on HillTop's Christmas Is for Singing cassette. His royalty check totaled $13. "Only about 100 were even sold," Honea wrote on his web page, which warns others of HillTop's practices. "More than likely they were sold to the songwriters who got a chance to buy them at a "great rate.'"

Honea wasn't interested in buying extra copies of Christmas. He thinks HillTop covers its costs on the screening fees alone. "Judging by the quality of the album," he wrote, "it shouldn't have cost more than $2,000 to make . . . And the songs are very poorly produced, with singers constantly singing off-key, the use of drum machines, etc. . . . They do not care about your song . . . They don't want to help you make it in the music business, they want your money."

Honea isn't the only songwriter to be let down by HillTop. The Better Business Bureau in Colton, California, keeps a file on HillTop stating, "The company has a pattern of complaints alleging misrepresentation in connection with their selling practices and failure to fulfill contracts. Complainants allege that they paid the company believing their songs would be recorded, produced, and distributed. Instead, they received nothing for their money." The BBB rates HillTop's business performance record as "unsatisfactory."

HillTop is dreadful not for what it is — essentially, a vanity press for songwriters — but how it suggests, in carefully worded contracts and correspondence, that stardom and riches await its lyricists. Tom Hartman, who calls himself HillTop's "executive producer," told Schlegel in a letter that being chosen to appear on America "could be a tremendous break through for you." His song, the letter continues, would be recorded by musicians who have backed Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton. A music video is being negotiated. The contract promises an advance royalty of $3,000 if the composition is placed in a commercial, television show, or motion picture. If 10,000 cassettes are sold, the writer's screening fee will be refunded and he will be paid a bonus of $2,500. Of course, the contract doesn't say if HillTop has any connections with legitimate television or movie studios, or that 10,000 cassettes will even be manufactured, let alone sold.

HillTop also leads its songwriters to believe they were selected because of their exceptional talent. "In our search for the best new Christmas songs, lyrics, and poems, your name was given to me by our staff," Hartman wrote Honea in 1997. "They believe your track record indicates that you could write a truly wonderful new Christmas song. All songs for this project are being accepted for review by invitation only. No unsolicited material will be accepted" [emphasis HillTop's]. Where does HillTop "search" for new songwriting talent? The Library of Congress. The label generates its mailing list from copyright applications.

Perhaps worst of all, HillTop fashions itself a patriotic, spiritual record label. In addition to releasing Christmas-themed cassettes and titling other compilations Cowboys and America (Schlegel's is not the first), HillTop solicited songs for Together We Stand, intended as a tribute to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Scene was not able to speak with anyone at HillTop. Phone calls to the label are answered by a recording that does not accept messages. "For your benefit as well as ours," the cheerful female voice says, "we ask that you put all correspondence in writing." Scene did write to Hartman, asking for basic information about Schlegel and the label. Though we included the paper's phone number, Hartman responded with a letter praising Schlegel and explaining the HillTop way. "HillTop Records," he wrote, "is a young company dedicated to discovering the undiscovered songwriters who write real-people poetry — songwriters who give voice to the human experience, loves and losses, and those great American values, many of which seem to be slipping away from us."

Slipping indeed.

Hartman also wrote that America had been shipped to "targeted independent record stores and radio stations in states all across the country." Hartman added that he sent Goose Acres Folk Music Center and Coconuts Music & Movies a complimentary cassette with stocking information, "but have as yet received no reply." What a surprise. If Hartman were at all serious about distributing the cassettes through retailers, HillTop titles would bear UPC codes, which they do not.

Not only has HillTop duped songwriters, they've suckered journalists. HillTop mails a press release to the media in the hometowns of the songwriters who appear on its compilations. The press releases have been regurgitated in newspapers across the country, including The Plain Dealer. The reliably gullible Jane Scott interviewed Willford Whalley in 1994 when his "America Is Still Beautiful" was featured on a HillTop release titled, naturally, America.

Bill Schlegel refuses to believe HillTop is anything less than it says it is. Hollywood, after all, is "where people live in million-dollar mansions." He narrows his eyes when it is suggested that HillTop may have taken advantage of him. He's seen the contracts the Mandrell Sisters signed, he says, and they looked like this one. "Even the word "freedom' costs a lot of money," he says.

This reporter opened the envelope. The photograph on the cover of the America cassette is a pretty landscape: flowers, pine trees, mountains, fluffy clouds. The sparse liner notes look as though they could have been printed from any word processor. Under each song title are two names: the singer of the song, either the porno-film sounding "Cody Lyons" or "Rusty Stratton," and the songwriter. Schlegel's "On My Mind" is track 5, side B. As Honea suggested there would be, tucked inside was an order form for the songwriters to buy multiple copies. The best value is 100 for $475.

A nice touch, HillTop also included a pencil. The words HILLTOP RECORDS SONGWRITER are engraved in gold letters at the eraser end.

You need something with which to write the next hit.

And fill out the order form.

A Prayer to the Radio Gods

Like most residents, Barbara Norris is disappointed with the sorry state of commercial radio in Cleveland. Norris sent us a letter last week, bemoaning the frequency of Eddie Money spins. She says she enjoys WBWC-FM/88.3, the college station at Baldwin-Wallace, but it keeps banker's hours and the signal doesn't stretch far beyond Berea's borders. Norris closed her letter with this prayer, which we hope will be answered:

Our father, who art in radio
Arbitron be thy name.
Thy play list come
Thy listeners will be done
On AM as it is in FM
Give us this day our new music
And forgive us not our easy listening
As we forgive those who play Pink Floyd
Lead us not into commercials
And deliver us from classic rock.
Amen.

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