The Dealer Wins

Five signs that a musician is getting stepped on

I joined the Grave Dancers Union I had to file -- Soul Asylum (on their debut album for Columbiaafter leaving A&M and Twin/Tone)

The first, and perhaps only, lesson for struggling musicians is that there is no success other than the success that comes with a contract. The major label deal is the end-all, but other signings are important, too: management, production, publishing, booking, public relations, marketing. Once the covenant is inked, the band's validity is proven, and there's no looking back.

Here are some prominent examples of why every band should devote all its energy to landing that big deal:

Bruce Springsteen
In "Held Up without a Gun," a B-side from 1980, Bruce Springsteen came as close as he ever did or will to punk. The tune is 75 seconds of raging guitar fury against lung-sapping vocals with this telling lyric: "Some damn fool with a guitar walks in off the street/Ain't got nowhere to go, ain't got nothing to eat/Man with a cigar says, `Sign here son'/(Watch out) held up without a gun."

That almost-throwaway song carries the weight -- and wait -- of many years. In the late Sixties Springsteen had played in bands in New Jersey before traveling to California with Steel Mill, which was noticed by famed promoter Bill Graham, who auditioned the group and offered to cut a three-song demo. The band felt the $1000 advance was too small, according to Dave Marsh's bio Born to Run, and headed back home, where they soon broke up.

Springsteen put together more bands, each of which foundered and failed, before he had the chance to audition for Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos, a pair of songwriting producer types. They loved him, but after taking another trip west and returning, Springsteen, his name and audition already forgotten, practically had to force his way in to see them. The duo asked Bruce to write some songs, which he did forthwith and posthaste, and a few days later they signed him to a long-term management contract -- on the hood of a car in the parking lot of a bar.

Next Appel and Cretecos tried to land an audition with mogul and then-president of Columbia Records Clive Davis. He wasn't available, but someone else at the giant label, John Hammond, was. Years before, Hammond had discovered a guy named Bob Dylan. According to Marsh's book, Appel was brusque, if not rude, to Hammond, a wealthy gentleman with impeccable credentials who didn't need some manager getting in his face.

Finally Hammond shut Appel up by turning to Springsteen and asking him to play a song (some say it was "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," others claim it was "Growin' Up"). Hammond arranged a club audition for his label colleagues that night and set up demo-recording sessions a few days later. On June 9, 1972, CBS/Columbia agreed to sign Bruce Springsteen.

And everyone lived happily ever after.
Except that a month before the deal, Bruce had signed another contract with Laurel Canyon, a company run by Appel and Cretecos. Here's Dave Marsh's breakdown of the important stuff: "The agreement [between Springsteen and Laurel Canyon] provided for a royalty of three percent of the retail selling price [on five future albums]. ...The Laurel Canyon/CBS agreement, however, provided that Bruce would make a total of ten albums, and that Laurel Canyon would receive a royalty of eighteen percent of the wholesale price -- about nine percent of the retail price, or approximately three times what Bruce would receive." Confused? Springsteen was. And he didn't hire a lawyer.

After Greetings from Asbury Park came out, there was promotional commotion at CBS -- Bruce was at once the next Dylan, the company's best hope for a new star, and a bit of a pariah thanks to Appel's aggressive, if not offensive, tendencies. Springsteen later denounced to some extent that first album, saying he came off like a folksinger thanks to his label's misdirection. As a critic, Springsteen's a great musician. But that's another story. Remember, music has little to do with the subject at hand.

Bruce's second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, received minimal help from the promotion department, and it failed to sell (that it's a masterpiece was irrelevant). And by the time his third album, Born to Run, sold its first 900,000 copies, the secret was out and hypesters could no longer shape the public's opinion of Broooce. He had overcome the masters of deception, risen above the trials and tribulations of the business, freed himself from the ties that blind.

Yeah, right.
Mike Appel asked CBS for a half-million-dollar advance, happily granted thanks to the success of Born to Run. This complicated matters, and by the spring of 1976 Springsteen had finally hired that lawyer. It should be noted that Appel helped Springsteen's career immeasurably and that Bruce remained fiercely loyal to a man he considered a friend. Until he sued him.

In May of 1976 Appel had sent Springsteen a check for a little more than $67,000. During their four-year relationship, Appel's company had made somewhere between one and two million dollars, according to Marsh's book. Of that, Bruce got about $100,000. He didn't think that quite fair. An auditor was more blunt, calling the deal "a classic case of the unconscionable exploitation of an unsophisticated and unrepresented performer by his manager for the manager's primary economic benefit." On July 27 Springsteen filed a federal lawsuit accusing Appel of fraud, undue influence, and breach of trust. Soon after, Appel was granted an injunction to prevent Springsteen from recording with Jon Landau as his co-producer. (Appel had helped produce the first two albums and the title track of the third.) There stood a good chance that Darkness on the Edge of Town, arguably the greatest rock album of all time, wouldn't happen.

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