The music industry has seen conflicts between artists and promoters ever since Franz Schubert’s sheet music distributor kept sending his drafts back with the note “more cowbell.” The spontaneity, free-spirited nature, and massive drug use that characterize some of the most commercially and artistically successful musicians are often in direct conflict with the practicality, business acumen, and horrible soulless greed of the biggest and best record labels, and as the music industry evolves and artists have more and more access to their own methods of distribution, the actions taken by artists have similarly changed from “decades-long court battle” to “steal their own album and draw dicks all over it.” Here are ten of the most notable fights between musicians and labels.
JOHN FOGERTY RUNS THROUGH THE JUNGLE TO THE OLD MAN DOWN THE ROAD
In 1972, after the release of the lackluster Creedence Clearwater Revival album Mardi Gras and the subsequent disintegration of the group, frontman John Fogerty decided to strike out on his own, in part because he had always considered himself the most important part of CCR and wanted a chance to have even more control over the creative process than usual.
After thirteen years of poor album sales, bitter fights with CCR’s label Fantasy Records (who ended up retaining all the rights to the Creedence catalog), and one album that Fogerty considered so below his standards he asked his label to destroy all the master tapes, he finally struck gold again with 1985’s Centerfield, featuring the baseball-anthem title track that became an immediate smash hit, even though every time I try and remember it I keep mixing it up with the chorus from “Glory Days.” (Am I the only one with this problem?)
Unfortunately for Fogerty, his problems with Fantasy Records and former manager Saul Zaentz weren’t over. Perhaps stung by a couple of the more personal songs off Centerfield (“Mr. Greed” and “Zanz Kant Danz”), Zaentz drummed up a lawsuit based on the similarity between the chorus of “The Old Man Down The Road” and Creedence classic “Run Through The Jungle” and claiming that Fogerty had actually plagiarized himself.
It was a long shot, but it ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was finally decided in favor of Fogerty, presumably after the United States’ most respected legal minds spent hours singing “you got to hii-dee-hi” and “you got to run through the jungle” back to front. Today, Fogerty is back with Fantasy with no hard feelings after Zaentz left the music industry for film production.
THE RECORD LABEL FORMERLY KNOWN AS A BUNCH OF JERKS
Prince, funk megastar and the weirdest human being ever to be born in Minnesota, spent much of 1993 entangled in a massive legal battle with Warner Brothers over Prince’s musical output, largely because Prince refused to release albums in accordance with the label’s promotion cycle. While his legal team battled for control of Prince’s master tapes and image, Prince did things his own way, first by deciding to only appear in public with the word SLAVE written on his face, then by famously changing his name to “the symbol of Love” or possibly “the symbol of Venusian Seahorse Trumpet” (supposedly this was to prevent Warner from cashing in on the Prince name and image) and finally by swearing to fill out the rest of his contract with a series of “best of” albums full of back-catalog songs.
While the stunts did draw attention to his legal dispute and started a conversation about the rights of the artist, more than anything else they served to remind everyone who might have forgotten that Prince (sorry, Venusian Seahorse Trumpet) was kind of an odd guy.
The dispute with Warner Brothers was settled in ’94, and The Artist Etc. Etc. reclaimed the name Prince after a divorce and the release of his album Emancipation. As for being the weirdest Minnesotan alive, Prince has lately encountered stiff competition from Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-Lizard People) even though she was born in Iowa and can’t play the bass.
DEF LEPPARD’S DIJITAL ONKORE
Digital downloads from online and mobile stores like iTunes are a major source of revenue for today’s performers, since the expense of physically pressing and printing CDs and album art doesn’t factor into the overall profit. Most modern contracts specifically deal with download rights from the get-go, as many artists get their start online at sites like bandcamp.
But what about older contracts and royalty agreements from the dark and dinosaur-infested days before the internet where the concept of buying an album with (and having it magically sent to) your phone was an idea as outlandish and laughable as suggesting that one day Axl Rose would be a huge fat dork? Would ownership rights back in the days of vinyl auto-magically translate into similar ownership in the digital age?
British heavy metal pioneers Def Leppard encountered this problem while butting heads with former label Universal Music Group over ownership of their back catalog. While the band retained the right to deny UMG the use of any of their tracks, that was pretty much the furthest extent of their control over their work, and if they allowed UMG to publish “best of” or similar albums from the back catalog, Def Leppard would receive only a tiny fraction of the revenue generated.
The group came up with a unique solution to the problem: re-record each and every one of their earlier songs as “forgeries,” using instruments and production as similar to the original as possible. The project has hit a few technical snags (“Where am I gonna find a 22-year-old voice?” frontman Joe Elliott asked Rolling Stone Magazine) but so far the remakes of “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Rock of Rages” have turned out surprisingly accurate.
TRENT REZNOR, FRIEND TO AUSTRALIANS EVERYWHERE
It’s been a long time since the height of Trent Reznor’s fame (e.g. back when “Head Like A Hole” came on the radio something like once an hour, maybe once every two hours on NPR) but the dark post-industrial musician maintains a devoted core of fans, in part due to his outspoken defense of music consumers against the pricing schemes and manipulations of the music industry.
Record labels were inclined to tolerate his public condemnations because Reznor was and still is guaranteed to draw a good number of customers both at the music store and at concert performances, so Reznor and his label Universal Records maintained a sort of uneasy peace until the Australian release of Reznor’s 2007 album Year Zero. This album—priced some ten or fifteen dollars more than other CDs of comparable length and production expense—turned out to be gilded satanic straw that broke the industrial gothic camel’s back.
Demanding to know why his album was priced so high, Reznor was told that his fanbase was considered so loyal (“true fans” in the words of the UMG rep who answered his questions) that it was assumed they would pay a premium for his content—in other words, the more loyal a fan you were, the more the label was going to screw you.
Livid, Reznor released Year Zero to Pirate Bay and other torrent sites, voiding his contract with Universal. Unfazed, Reznor began his own label and released his next four albums on a model where customers could download the tracks for free or pay for them in stores. His grateful “true fans” responded by making Reznor’s Null Corporation a cool $1.6 mil in the space of a week.
DEATH GRIPS KEEPS DICKIN’ AROUND
Heard of Death Grips, the experimental/industrial/hip-hop/techno/unclassifiable band that shares most of its sonic qualities with large-scale artillery barrages? You’d know if you had because right now you’d either find yourself humming the bassline from “System Blower” or curled up in the corner of the room in a fetal position.
Composed of Hella drummer Zach Hill, keyboard and sampler artist Andy “Flatlander” Morin, and rapper/uncontrollable avatar of fury Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett, Death Grips was signed to Epic Records after their frenetic live performances and their 2011 mixtape Exmilitary wowed critics everywhere. This may not have been the best idea.
Working with remarkable speed, Death Grips released their debut album The Money Store in April of 2012, simultaneously announcing a followup NO LOVE DEEP WEB to be released in October the same year. A mere six months between releases was way too hasty for Epic, who wanted more time for the Money Store’s notoriety to spread by word of mouth as soon as the people who listened to it got out of the hospital.
Epic’s official statement was that the album would be pushed back to 2013, but the band itself stuck to the original release date. The standoff lasted until the first of October, when Death Grips announced by Facebook/Twitter/Soundcloud that not only was the album complete, you could download it for free, and it came with a free piece of album art featuring the words NO LOVE DEEP WEB written on somebody’s (well, probably not MC Ride’s) boner.
Epic promptly dropped the band, and the album (somewhat lighter and softer than Money Store, if only because it’d be hard to be heavier and harder than Money Store) quickly became the most popular legal download on BitTorrent. Interested parties can also download the album and read lyrics on the official Death Grips site (http://thirdworlds.net) if they’re mentally prepared to stare at a few dongs.
BLACK FLAG IS GOING TO SELL THIS DAMN ALBUM NO MATTER WHAT
Black Flag’s debut album Damaged is generally regarded to be one of the best hardcore punk albums of all time, coming to define their sound and launching the career of singer, spoken word performer, and playable character in “Def Jam: Fight For NY” Henry Rollins. The third and finally successful attempt by Black Flag to record a full-length album after shuffling through a number of different vocalists and guitarists, Damaged reached the penultimate state of distribution—25,000 copies pressed, labels printed, the whole shebang warehoused and ready to ship out when MCA Records president Al Bergamo made the foolish mistake of listening to the record. Declaring that “as a parent… I found it an anti-parent record,” Bergamo refused to distribute the album to stores.
Rightfully incensed, Black Flag drove out to the warehouse where they either sweet-talked, threatened, or kicked the doors down to where they could grab their own already-packaged albums and distribute them personally. To do so, the band formed the now-legendary punk label SST and simply slapped an SST sticker (accompanied by Bergamo’s infamous quote) down over the MCA copyright.
Of course, MCA and Unicorn (the imprint MCA was ostensibly going to release the album under) had a little bit to say about that. Black Flag found itself legally prohibited from releasing any music under that name for the next two years of legal hell, occasionally resulting in jail terms for contempt of court, until finally Unicorn folded.
In later years, Black Flag members and SST employees have come to question the “anti-parent” story after doing a bit of research into the Unicorn’s finances; they discovered that Unicorn’s books were in such a shambles that MCA stood to lose money on the release of Damaged no matter how well it sold. As it turned out, an album that everybody thought was screwed over because of priggish censorship issues was in fact screwed over by corrupt businessmen and bloodless accountants, making Damaged even more punk rock than it was previously (if such a thing is possible).
THE ROLLING STONES GIVE DECCA RECORDS A VERY SPECIFIC KIND OF BLUES
Were it not for the signing of rock’n’roll immortals (also perhaps the regular “impossible to kill” kind of immortals) the Rolling Stones, Decca Records would forever be known as the label that turned down the Beatles with the snide note “Guitar groups are on their way out.” As it happened, Decca Records instead ended up as the label that pissed off the Rolling Stones so much they called everyone in the entire company a cocksucker.
After nearly a decade of evolving from “white guys who cover old black guys” to “white guys who write original songs on enormous amounts of drugs” the Stones had chafed under Decca’s management, at one point splitting with their producer and mastering their own album. The members felt more than ready to strike out on their own, but Decca’s contract demanded the release of one more single.
To meet the demand, Mick Jagger penned the profoundly filthy “Schoolboy Blues,” the lyrics of which (in many cases direct references to Decca managers and employees) led to the song being popularly known as “Cocksucker Blues.” Decca naturally refused to publish the unplayable song, but retained the rights to it before eventually unloading it in a weird West German-only box album entitled The Rest of the Best, and the song made an appearance during live shows and ended up on a self-titled bootleg live album.
VAN MORRISON WANTS A DANISH
Irish singer-songwriter George Ivan Morrison was part of a number of bands and a number of labels (including Decca Records) for quite a while one of his producers convinced him to work solo under Bang Records. During his initial recording sessions, Van believed that he was going to have his eight songs released as four singles, and was surprised and annoyed to find that what he had written and performed as stand-alone pieces (including his first big American hit “Brown Eyed Girl”) were now squished together on one album with legendarily horrible psychedelic cover art and the doofy name Blowin’ Your Mind!
This was just the beginning of a business relationship between Morrison and Bang Records (and the Berns family that ran it) that could be charitably described as “problematic.” Complications of the deal largely prevented Van Morrison from doing live performances during his stay in America, a situation that was both artistically frustrating and financially painful for the young singer.
Morrison eventually started recording with Warner Brothers, who liked him enough to buy him out of his Bang contract and sever his ties with the obnoxious Berns forever… except he was still required to cut them one more album. Enormously pissed off, Morrison traveled to an NYC studio to cut a half-hour-long, 31-track album of completely improvised nonsense songs, including such surefire hits as “The Big Royalty Check,” “Here Comes Dumb George,” “Freaky If You Got This Far,” and the classic “Want A Danish.” Bang sat on the recordings until a mid-nineties compilation of early NYC-based Van Morrison demos and curiosities, when it released the entire collection (popularly known as “The Contractual Obligation Album” or simply “Revenge”) as a CD.
A KICK IN THE TUBULAR BALLS
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield may not be a household name, but it’s almost certain you’ve heard music from one of his most famous albums—1973’s Tubular Bells, a classic ambient album that formed much of the soundtrack for “The Exorcist.” Oldfield’s debut was also the key to the success of struggling record label Virgin founder Richard Branson’s feckless dreams of space tourism and amphibious sports cars.
Surprised and pleased with the album’s success, Oldfield settled down for the next fifteen years to fiddle around with various instruments and electronic effects to produce albums that weren’t really leaping off the shelf as well as his first.
Toward the very end of Oldfield’s contract, Virgin executives grew annoyed with his inability to provide them with another megahit arrangement of soft tinkly noises. Even though the company was valued at over a billion dollars at this point, Oldfield’s handlers relentlessly pestered him to create a spiritual sequel to Tubular Bells so that the company could rake in another billion to finance Richard Branson’s submersible robotic dog or whatever.
As a response, Oldfield delivered Amarok, an unbroken hour-long piece of music performed on a plethora of weird instruments and household appliances, specifically designed to be completely impossible to slice into radio edits or soundtrack albums. While many Mike Oldfield fans consider Amarok one of his best and most distinctive works, the album had almost no mass-market appeal except for one unique feature: a listener contest sponsored by Oldfield that promised a thousand pounds to the first to discover the album’s “secret message,” which turned out to be a series of beeps and boops at around the 48-minute mark that when converted to Morse code read “FUCK OFF RB.”
After Oldfield found his new home at Warner Brothers, his first album was titled Tubular Bells II, the most annoying thing to ever happen to Richard Branson since he was marooned at the bottom of the English Channel in a malfunctioning robotic dog.
Next: Most Shocking Music Scandals Ever
METAL MACHINE MUSIC: THE MELLOW SIDE OF LOU REED
In 1975, Lou Reed was rich but pissed off. After leaving the Velvet Underground and briefly working as a typist at his father’s accountancy firm (likely the least cool period of Reed’s life until he recorded Lulu with Metallica), Reed signed on with RCA Records to begin a solo career that included several commercial hits and several artistic triumphs, but usually only one or the other (“Take A Walk on the Wild Side” being the biggest exception to this rule).
It seemed like the best-selling stuff was all reworked and reproduced Velvet Underground material, usually with top-quality professionals like Rick Wakeman and David Bowie handling production, which resulted in cleaner, smoother songs about junkie prostitutes, something that many (including, most likely, Lou himself) considered a betrayal of the original songs’ aesthetic.
In any case, RCA was pushing for more albums, and soon after his commercially successful Lou Reed (again featuring several Velvet Underground reworks), the renowned guitarist/vocalist/typist set out to alienate as many fans, critics, and producers as he could with Metal Machine Music—a virtually unendurable hour-long double album comprised strictly of squealing feedback loops. Reviews called it “ear-wrecking electronic sludge” or “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator,” but RCA was contractually obligated to release the album that legendary rock critic Lester Bangs described as “a giant FUCK YOU” to the recording giant.
Or was it? Bangs’ review also compared the music to the works of avant-garde composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis, and others claimed to identify subtle references to classical music and other hints that the album was more than just an hour of shrieking chaos.
While Reed’s initial comment on the album was “Anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am,” he later came to claim the work was a deliberate exploration of new sounds (which may even be true—Reed’s VU partner John Cale was part of a musical troupe that spent a lot of time researching long, atonal musical performances) and Metal Machine Music is considered a foundational album among the noise and sound art genres.
If Lou had been hoping to embarrass RCA commercially, he failed in that as well, as the notoriety of what many reviewers considered the worst album ever released ended up boosting MMM sales to over a hundred thousand copies. Whatever Reed had intended, he ended up finishing out his six-album RCA deal and jumping ship to Arista the following year.