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.

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.

In 1991 Black married actress Lisa Hartman and soon brought in her mother, Jonni, as a "personal assistant." Not long after that, Black hired Don Engel, an L.A. attorney who's won lawsuits against record companies plenty of times. Black is claiming that Ham was taking too high a fee and that he was receiving an unfair amount of the royalties from the first two of the eight albums Black had contracted to record under Ham's control. (Meanwhile, Black also became embroiled in contract renegotiations with his label, RCA.)

If Ham wins the litigation, he will receive a share of profits from Black's new album, The Hard Way, and Black will probably try to buy his way out of the rest of the contract. If Black wins, he's no longer obligated to Ham. Engel told Request magazine that Ham may have taken 30 to 40 percent of the capital generated by Black's music. Ham's attorney says it's more like twenty percent, and it's well worth it considering Ham's status in the biz and his promise to help Black make millions and millions of dollars. The lawyer puts it this way: "Bill Ham was already one of the top managers in the industry.... Clint Black was just a guy with a guitar."

And so many others
You don't have to leave Miami to find plenty of examples of the inevitable clash between art and commerce. The 2 Live Crew climaxed when As Nasty as They Wanna Be became the first album ever declared obscene by a U.S. judge (since overruled on appeal). The record became a huge hit, and the Crew began cleaning up. By January of this year, members David Hobbs and Mark Ross had filed two lawsuits against Luther Campbell, Luke Records, et al. for accounting, breach of contract, conversion, statutory conversion, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation...you get the idea.

Expose's new album just came out on Arista, featuring a new member, the aptly monikered Kelly Moneymaker. A personnel change in a trio of singers should come as no surprise. In 1988 Miami mega-producer Lewis Martinee, discussing two lawsuits involving wrangling between the members of the group, Martinee's Pantera Productions, and Arista, said that if he had to, he'd just find three new girls and continue making Expose records. One of the group's complaints was the ol' "questionable business practices," but there were many aspects to the conflict. One suggestion was that Arista wanted to acquire Expose -- the name itself -- from Martinee and keep the singers in L.A. The new album was recorded in L.A. and New York. Five tracks were produced by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero. Four were produced by Lewis Martinee for Pantera.

And then there was the battle between rap duo Young & Restless and their label, Pandisc, which at one point actually led to gunplay. And it just goes on and on and on and on.

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