Read The Fine Print!
By Delara Alviri
Disputes between artists and their labels are nothing new. Conflict may ensue whether you are at the peak of your career or just starting out. Some stories have been known only to those involved while others have become famous music history. One can only hope to never get into this kind of argument, but it is a reality that an artist may face whether she likes it or not. Even with good intentions on both sides, contract disputes are sometimes both inevitable and unforeseen.
One famous story is between band 30 Seconds to Mars and Virgin Records. Virgin and 30 Seconds to Mars were tied for a five-album deal, but Virgin sued Jared Leto, vocalist for the band, for thirty million dollars for breach of contract when the band refused to deliver a third album to the label in 2008. The band members claimed they had not seen a cent from the label for more than two million records sold, so they demanded their right under California Labor Code Sec. 2855(a) which governs the ability of entertainers to terminate their contracts after seven years. The dispute got ugly, and Leto was adamant about his lawful rights. Eventually, the suit was settled in 2009, and incredibly, 30 Seconds to Mars signed a new contract with Virgin Records!
Probably an even more famous cautionary tale is between Slash and Duff McKagan versus Axl Rose. Axl claims that his feud is based on Slash being a “cancer…better removed, avoided, and the less anyone heard of him or his supporters, the better,” and that Slash and Duff did “damage to my ability as a writer.” While on tour at the height of the band’s drug and alcohol addictions, Axl reportedly had his lawyers hold up his band-mates backstage and told them Axl wouldn’t join them onstage unless they signed all rights and control of the name Guns N’ Roses over to him. They agreed, and it was the beginning of the end. Skip a few decades, in 2005, Slash and Duff sued Axl for lucrative deals putting Guns songs in movies and other media despite no controlling interest in the music. In 2006, they sued again for signing a publishing deal that omitted any royalty checks to the rest of the band. There’s no end in sight for this classic group and dispute.
Another notorious dispute that went all the way to Capitol Hill was between Pearl Jam and Ticketmaster. Even Bill Clinton had something to say about this. The band, specifically singer Eddie Vedder, discovered fans were paying outrageous service-charge fees to Ticketmaster when buying tickets for their upcoming U.S. tour, which resulted in Pearl Jam scrapping their 1994 summer tour. The band was so serious about this issue that they attempted to stage its own tour of non-Ticketmaster venues. These were mostly non-traditional venues where the band would have to build shows from the ground up at every location. Economically and politically there was no upside for Pearl Jam to fight this battle, but it was a historic moment in time. It was a challenge to the existing business model, and the band risked jeopardizing their superstar status. Ultimately, Pearl Jam lost in court, but it brought the company a public relations nightmare by bringing some of the industry’s back-room dealings into the light.
There is no formula to the creation or breakdown of a dispute, but it happens all the time. Bands are sometimes compensated or forced to change; big companies may be forced to pay up. These disputes will continue to follow every artist. You’ve been warned!