Ruffled Feathers

The Dixie Chicks and other musicians are fighting for their rights -- and a bigger check

When the Dixie Chicks take the Astrodome stage at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on February 12, it will be only their second full concert since 2000. While part of that hiatus can be explained by marriages and childbirths, the main reason is far more complex and much nastier.

The Chicks and their label Sony are litigating. Big time.

The opening salvo, at least in public, was fired by Dixie Chick Emily Robison. In a July profile on 60 Minutes II, Dan Rather estimated that the group must have grossed over $200 million, based on the 17 million copies sold of the group's two Sony releases, Wide Open Spaces and Fly. "You're depressing me, because we see so little of that," Robison said with a laugh. "Even before we got our deal, everyone said, 'Don't ever expect to make money with records. Records are a promotional tool that you use to be able to do live shows and make money elsewhere.' "

Then vocalist Natalie Maines Pasdar chimed in with an unfortunately phrased lament: "I don't even have a million dollars in the bank," she whined. "Tell me where this money goes. I have no idea." While many ex-Enron employees would like to have the answer to Pasdar's querulous query, and it's hard to feel sorry for someone who is likely almost a millionaire, the sassy singer still has a good point. If she truly has banked only less than one-half of 1 percent of the group's earnings, where did the rest of that money go? Robison put forth a theory: "I'll just say that Sony Nashville has remodeled their new building," she said. "They remodeled on that."

Less than a week after the 60 Minutes II interview, Sony Records sued the Chicks for breach of contract, alleging the trio was trying to leave the label. The suit claims that the Chicks owe Sony five more albums, from which Sony says they could reasonably expect to earn $100 million.

Music Row was atwitter. Nobody could recall a major label suing its biggest star. But the plot was soon to thicken immensely. In late August, the Chicks countersued for $4 million they said Sony owed them. While that itself was not so surprising, the language in the suit was unprecedented in Nashville. Sony stands accused of "systematic thievery," "fraudulent accounting gimmicks" and racketeering. In a statement, the Chicks declare that "We refuse to sit back and silently endorse this behavior simply because this is a 'standard' practice at Sony. This is about people keeping their word." (If it's about words kept, the Chicks are in trouble. After all, they did sign the contract, and it did have a clause that said they could not get out of it even if Sony's books are proven to have been cooked.)

One "standard practice" clause the Chicks and other bands are battling to remove is the musicians' exemption from a California labor code that caps entertainment contracts at seven years. The labor code law was written when a suit filed by Olivia de Havilland about 50 years ago ended the Hollywood studio system. In 1987, recording industry lobbyists won the right to have, again, as "standard practice," artists deliver seven albums to their label, no matter how long it takes. Since labels generally allow at most only one album every two years from any given artist, such contracts generally take well over a decade to fulfill.

With this suit, the Chicks have joined the growing ranks of artists challenging the very foundations of the way the music business is run. The Chicks attended but did not testify at hearings in the California Senate last September wherein Courtney Love, LeAnn Rimes and Don Henley testified against the majors.

The California senators heard some startling revelations. Rimes testified about her contract with Nashville's Curb Records, which she signed at her parents' instigation when she was all of 12 years old. Rimes, now 19, told the Senate she is bound to deliver Curb an album every other year until she is 36. She also revealed that her deal bars her from living in any state save Texas or Tennessee.

While residencies in said (not-so-incidentally right-to-work) states may be good for nurturing a country singer's soul, this is not Stalin's Soviet Union and Curb Records is not the Central Committee for Music Planning and the Exhortation of the Proletariat.

To fund their drive against the major labels, the Chicks will join a Live Aid-sized roster of artists (No Doubt, the Offspring, Weezer, Trisha Yearwood, Beck, Eddie Vedder, Mike Ness, Billy Joel, Stevie Nicks, the Eagles, John Fogerty, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam, among others) for the Concert for Artists' Rights in four Los Angeles venues on February 26.

There is a delicious irony or two involved with the Concert for Artists' Rights. First, there is the whole concept of you and me paying damn good money to a bunch of people richer and better-looking than us to fund their legal drive against the even bigger fish at their labels. This isn't a benefit for starving Ethiopian kids or cash-strapped family farmers. But then some of the people in the lineup have brought us all a lot more joy than a chartered 747 full of major-label bean counters ever could, so pick your poison.

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