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Before You Sign The Dotted Line...

Years ago in Metal Maniacs magazine, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi said, “You’ve got to be really careful of the business side of [music], not to sign anything until you’ve had it read.” Then he joked, “First thing to do, before you learn to play, is get a lawyer.”

Iommi knew from where he spoke. Black Sabbath certainly had their day in court over signing a bad deal, as have many other musicians throughout music history. Anyone who’s been around the business long enough is sure enough to hear plenty of horror stories about the treachery of the music business. Musicians back in the day weren’t especially business savvy as they have to be today, and a lot of scumbags sucked them dry.

I was especially surprised to hear about somebody going around to music business conventions several years ago, telling young artists he wants 50% of their publishing if he’s going to work with you, as if people today would fall for that. Yet as we’ve seen throughout the rock and roll annals, a lot of musicians signed whatever was first available out of desperation, and really paid the price later.

Writing about the world of metal in my book Bang Your Head, I learned of many financial horror stories from bands that got ripped off. One of the most notorious was Quiet Riot, who got screwed out of their publishing and sued to try and get it back. They lost.

Kevin DuBrow, the late singer of Quiet Riot, told me the band knew they were signing a bad deal, but they thought their third album - when the deal ended - would be their biggest. They didn’t think their first album would be their biggest, but it was, selling 4.5 million copies. Skid Row also signed a deal wherein Jon Bon Jovi had their publishing in exchange for helping them get their big break, and this deal also ended with the band’s third album, which former Skids drummer Rob Affuso jokes “sold about ten copies.”

Way back in 1986, James Hetfield from Metallica advised readers in Guitar For the Practicing Musician, “Don’t jump into something just because it sounds good; you may be falling into a trap. I think a lot of bands are falling into that nowadays, signing a six album deal, and they don’t even know if they’re going to be hanging out for that long...”

Even after Winger sold a ton of albums in their prime, guitarist Reb Beach told Guitar World that he was “...certainly not set financially. I didn’t sign the best contract. Back then, it was, ‘Sign this or we’ll get another guitar player.’” This is how I learned a lot of guitar players were entrapped by some of the biggest bands in the genre, and because they were desperate for a big break, they signed. I also learned a lot of musicians in these bands that asked too many questions about the money and where it was going were usually first thrown under the bus by the band’s management.

One of the best examples I can offer to any musician against selling their publishing comes from Keith Richards’s autobiography, Life. If you look on the copyright page, the publishing for "Satisfaction" is owned by ABKCO Music, which was set up by the notorious Allen Klein, who managed the Stones for a time. Klein’s family still owns the publishing for "Satisfaction" to this day (as evidenced in Richards’s book, even after The Stones sued him seven times).

The Goo Goo Dolls managed to get out of a bad deal, but it came at a pretty steep price. They had to sue to get away from Metal Blade Records, and according to reports in Billboard, the band had an 8% royalty rate, which by standards then or now is criminal. The Goo Goo Dolls filed suit against their label, claiming that even though they sold two million copies of their Boy Named Goo album, they “never received one penny in royalties.” According to the website, the band had to tour for four months playing fairs to pay their legal bills, and Goo Goo Dolls mainman Johnny Rzeznik then suffered a crippling case of writers block.

But then try to imagine getting a Cadillac instead of royalties. That’s how black artists were often paid off according to the music biz tell all, Hit Men. Author Fredric Dannen even reported a story where George McCrae, who sang the #1 disco hit “Rock Your Baby,” took a Cadillac and a few thousand dollars from the owner of his label, Henry Stone, instead of about $110,000 in royalties he was owed on the song. (Stone even said after McCrae left his office that the Cadillac was rented.)

As EJ Curse, bassist for the hair band Silent Rage told Metal Sludge, Gene Simmons tried a variation of this. The band was signed to Gene’s label, Simmons Records, and Gene offered the band his Rolls Royce in exchange for half their publishing.

With so many artists running their own labels and careers these days, it would be nice to think these kinds of horror stories that happened throughout the history of the music biz won’t happen anymore, but I’m sure it still goes on. Of course Tony Iommi was being facetious when he said before you learn how to play get a lawyer first, but considering what kind of deep shit you can easily step in, it’s actually not a bad idea.


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