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Record-Label Hell 

Hawthorne Heights joins a long line of outraged artists.

Now that it's suing its label, Hawthorne Heights better get used to waiting.
  • Now that it's suing its label, Hawthorne Heights better get used to waiting.

Picture yourself in an ugly divorce, a 12-round brawl during which you're not allowed to date anyone else and periodically forced to renew your conjugal duties with someone whose company you cannot stand.

Welcome to the music industry and record-label purgatory, where the company vaults house potentially brilliant recordings few will ever hear, and cutout bins overflow with contractual-obligation albums that no one wants to hear. This is where art and commerce notoriously collide, and infamous label owners like Savoy's Herman Lubinsky and Family Productions' Artie Ripp brazenly fucked their artists out of royalties. It's where attorneys and accountants hold sway over lyrics and melodies, and where the careers of too many musicians go to die.

Take the fresh dust-up between Hawthorne Heights and Victory Records. The Dayton band, which signed with the popular indie label in 2003, announced two weeks ago that it's suing to get out of its contract and secure unpaid royalties. Hawthorne Heights says it hasn't received a penny from Victory, despite nearly 1.5 million sales of its first two records, which netted the label $10 million. Victory founder Tony Brummel countered in Billboard that Hawthorne Heights has yet to recover its advertising and promotional budgets (known in the business as "recoupables") and consequently still owes Victory $1 million, as well as two more records.

Relations bottomed out in early March. The band says that Brummel made public a letter he wrote -- but attributed to Hawthorne Heights -- declaring war on hip-hop and urging fans to help the group's new disc earn the No. 1 spot on the charts by moving competing hip-hop artist Ne-Yo's new disc around stores the day both artists' CDs were released.

"We felt betrayed that he'd put this letter out there that made us look awful and definitely didn't reflect any of our personal beliefs," drummer Eron Bucciarelli says. "We didn't want to be on a label run by someone with what we consider to be very questionable ethics."

The bandmates now inhabit a legal no-man's-land, stuck in creative limbo while they wait for the suits and courts to determine their fate. It's a place that Hank Williams III is very familiar with. His mismatch with Nashville's Curb Records, run by Republican fund-raiser and born-again Christian Mike Curb, has made more headlines over the years than Hank III's music.

"He wants me to put on the suit and clean-cut my hair and just be the good, righteous kind of Hank Williams," Hank III said two years ago, equally frustrated and amused by Curb's revisionist thinking.

Unfortunately for Hank III, his contract calls for 10 records. When Curb refused to release Hank III's third and fourth records, and prevented him from releasing them himself, they took it to court. In 2005, a judge ruled for Hank III -- providing that he drop his "Fuck Curb" T-shirt campaign and refrain from any more public declarations about his boss. The records were released, and Hank III was at least that much closer to freedom.

The battle between the Clash's Joe Strummer and CBS/Epic/Sony Records lasted for nearly 10 years and was made all the more tragic by his death in 2003 at age 50. In 1977, the band signed a 10-record deal with CBS and released 18 sides of vinyl in eight years (the equivalent of 9 CDs), only to find out that the double and triple LPs counted only as single albums.

After the Clash split, Strummer released one solo record in 1989 and then largely disappeared from the music scene. After watching fellow musician George Michael lose his case against CBS (Michael sought to void his contract on the grounds of nonsupport), Strummer realized that he could never afford such legal fees. As he told The Big Takeover's Jack Rabid, Strummer instead hoped "to bore [CBS] out" of his contract through inactivity -- though he wasn't released from the devil's pact until a series of Clash reissues freed him in 1998.

"I was going to go stand in the lobby of Sony [ which had purchased CBS] with a big placard," Strummer told Rabid. "'Do not go in there, do not sign with the company, or you'll end up like me -- screwed and out on the street.'"

Unlike Strummer's strategy of disengagement, John Fogerty charged forward -- for an epic 35-year battle with Fantasy Records and owner Saul Zaentz. After Creedence Clearwater Revival landed nine Top 10 singles between 1968 and 1971, Fogerty decided that a contract renegotiation was in order, since he'd signed the first one as a naive 18-year-old. Zaentz wasn't having any of it, and one of the nastiest disputes in rock history not only killed CCR, but drove a lifelong wedge between Fogerty and his brother Tom, who sided with Fantasy until his death in 1990.

"Sometimes I wonder if perhaps that isn't my greatest claim to fame -- that I survived it," Fogerty told Harp recently.

Fogerty isn't alone. The legacy of Manchester's the Stone Roses is as much about unfulfilled promise as it is about their stellar self-titled 1989 debut, which was a big hit in England and made a splash on American college radio. Sadly, years of court battles followed, and the creative inertia critically weakened The Second Coming; it took five years to complete, only to meet with mediocre reviews and commercial indifference. By then, fellow Brit band Oasis had co-opted the Roses' blueprint.

When the Roses finally fizzled out, singer Ian Brown released a curt press release: "Having spent 10 years in the filthiest business in the universe, it is a pleasure to announce the end of the Stone Roses."

Of course, if an artist makes enough money for a label, the threat of work stoppage can be an effective bargaining chip. After signing a $100 million contract extension with Warner Bros. Records in 1992, Prince soon accused label execs of "enslaving" his music and waged an agitprop guerrilla war. In 1994, he scrawled the word "slave" on his face, changed his name to a symbol no one could pronounce, spent millions on videos and countless versions of his song, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," and then refused to deliver his new record. Fed up, Warner Bros. negotiated a compromise for two more records, and after delivering them, Prince was once again free.

Those two records -- Come and Chaos and Disorder -- are among Prince's weakest. That's pretty standard for the dreaded contractual-obligation record, a category overpopulated by redundant greatest-hits packages, cover/demo/B-side compilations, and the quick-fix live album. Notorious examples of audio fuck-yous include Lou Reed's unlistenable Metal Machine Music, Neil Young's mid-'80s stretch of who-gives-a-shit-I-hate-Geffen records (Trans/Everybody's Rockin'/ Landing on Water), and Van Morrison's infamous (and unreleased) '67 Bang Sessions, 31 songs improvised on the spot about ringworm, royalty checks, and danishes.

Childish? Perhaps. But for the artists who've found their careers sabotaged by their would-be benefactors, it's pretty personal. It's why so many these days release their own music, secure in the knowledge that no one will care for it the way they will. If it means fewer sales, so be it -- at least they won't get screwed by a guy behind a desk.

More by John Schacht

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