The Dealer Wins

Five signs that a musician is getting stepped on

Appel felt he had exclusive rights to Springsteen. And Springsteen desperately wanted to record his next album, with Landau. A settlement was reached in May of 1977. Both sides claimed they got what they wanted. It wasn't until the following year that the public, the people who provided all this money everyone was fighting over, got Darkness on the Edge of Town. "The characters are not kids," Springsteen told New Musical Express at the time of the record's release. "They're older -- you been beat, you been hurt. But there's still hope, there's always hope. They throw dirt on you all your life, and some people get buried so deep in the dirt that they'll never get out. The album's about people who will never admit that they're buried that deep."

Maybe that helps explain Springsteen's phenomenal impact on human lives through his music. Maybe it hints at what essence it is that makes him the definitive rock star. And maybe it sheds a little light on why Springsteen once referred to himself, perhaps in a frustrated moment when the dirt piled too high, as "a capital generator."

Joe Ely
As influential as he is enjoyable, Ely's entire career has been saddled with a not unusual burden. Rock radio won't play his music because of its deep Texas country aspects, country radio stations generally find it too rockin' for their playlists. A bigger problem for the veteran singer-songwriter developed in 1986 after management changes at his label, MCA, where he'd released six albums. He spent nine months writing and recording his next LP (featuring guests Linda Ronstadt and David Hidalgo). MCA declined to press the results. They wanted him to record something mainstream, something radio would play, especially cover versions from the country-music catalogue, which, Ely noted, had already been picked through by most of his peers. He passed, leaving MCA to cut new material for the much smaller Hightone label. The unreleased album remained in the custody of MCA, which legally owned it.

During that time his management company was having its own problems, and MCA was using its rock-oriented L.A. division -- not the Nashville office -- to promote Ely's material. Eventually, in 1990, MCA underwent another staff revision, and Ely returned to release Live at Liberty Lunch and his new slab, Love and Danger. The label is expected to release his 1986 album next year.

Tom Petty
Several years ago ASCAP, the publishing-rights organization, conducted a convention in Miami attended by celebrities, songwriters, even a U.S. congressman. Speeches flowed like the free booze, each one addressing how artists need protection. Tom Petty, the high-school dropout from North Florida, delivered the most penetrating and emotional of all the oratories, an articulate and moving demand that the musician, the person responsible for the actual music, should come first.

He knew whereof he spoke. In 1976 he and his band, the Heartbreakers, signed to Shelter Records and released their debut album, which was roundly ignored until some touring and the re-release of a single, "Breakdown," by the ABC label, which distributed Shelter. The song was a hit, entering the Top 40, and a second album, You're Gonna Get It!, came out in 1978. The door to success was wide open. ABC was sold to MCA, Petty tried to renegotiate his contract, and soon he found himself free fallin'. Because ABC had distributed Shelter, MCA, as purchaser, considered Petty its property. Petty claimed he wasn't a "piece of meat," and that a clause in his contract made it illegal for ABC to sell him without his permission. As the legal brawl played out, the Heartbreakers took off on their "lawsuit tour" and began recording their next album, Damn the Torpedoes -- paying for it with their own money. By the middle of 1979 Petty had declared bankruptcy.

MCA and Petty settled. Part of the agreement had Petty recording for an MCA subsidiary called Backstreet Records. Damn the Torpedoes eventually went triple-platinum. He had survived the label problems. In fact, he had soared above them.

In 1981, Petty was again drawn into battle with his label. Hard Promises was to be among the first albums with the new list price of $9.98. Petty threatened to withhold the work, or to title it Eight Ninety Eight, which would serve as an affront to his label, a general consumer alert, and an apology to his fans, whom he had already exhorted to write protest letters. Petty won; the album was released at $8.98. It was a huge smash, and MCA even financed several videos to boost its sales further. Even the losers get lucky sometimes.

Clint Black
For much of the 1980s Clint Black played the honky-tonk circuit, mostly in his native Houston. According to Billboard he once turned down $250 for the rights to one of his songs. He needed the money, but not that badly. Black told his sad story to record promoter Sammy Alfano, who introduced him to manager Bill Ham, who represented ZZ Top, among others. Six months later Black was signed to a multi-album deal by RCA. His first two albums, Killin' Time and Put Yourself in My Shoes, sold some five million copies between them.

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