Top Six Artist Vs. Record Label Feuds
Pink Floyd has finally settled its lengthy dispute with their longtime record label EMI. The band, which signed to the label over 40 years ago, first took EMI to court last spring in an effort to clarify their existing contract. Floyd sought to prevent EMI from "unbundling" their albums by selling individual tracks online.
The battle endured through 2010 before reaching a settlement earlier this week. The compromise, which included the ordering of the label to pay the band's legal costs, must have been to Pink Floyd's liking, because the band also renewed its five-year deal with the label. The caveat? Pink Floyd's back catalogue is still available as single-track downloads.
Unfortunately, artist/label spats are dreadfully common, and it's no wonder EMI was willing to negotiate with Pink Floyd. Since the label was acquired by private equity firm Terra Firma in 2007, EMI has lost its high-profile acts including The Rolling Stones, Radiohead and Paul McCartney.
An artist signing with a major label is the quintessential catch-22. While major labels knowingly have the deepest pockets, they often obstruct an artist's true artistic vision, locking them into years-long contracts with dwindling freedom of choice. Many modern artists choose to forgo, or abandon, major labels and instead release their music with independent labels, which are usually more prone to working with an artist for the purpose of making music, not money.
Pink Floyd's recent squabble got Rocks Off thinking about some of the more cunningly colorful artist/label quarrels of the past. The gloves are off!
6. Tom Petty vs. MCA
When Tom Petty presented the recordings of his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, to MCA executives, he was "stunned" at their reaction. Get ready to crack the all-too-obvious but ever-so-apt "Into the Great Wide Open" joke--they "didn't hear a single," explains Petty in Paul Zollo's Conversations With Tom Petty.
This record ultimately produced a handful of hit singles, including "I Won't Back Down," "Runnin' Down a Dream," and what would become Petty's highest-charting Billboard song, "Free Fallin'."
Rather than dwelling on the rejection - which Petty admitted had "never happened" to him - he instead focused his efforts on the newly formed Traveling Wilburys, releasing the band's debut LP Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 in 1988.
After the Wilburys release, Petty returned to MCA, which had since undergone a regime shift of sorts. Full Moon Fever was finally accepted and released in 1989. The album marked Petty's commercial peak as an artist, produced five singles - two of which hit the Billboard Top 20 - and has now sold more than five million copies.
So much for not hearing a single.
5. Wilco vs. Reprise/AOL Time Warner
Shortly after Wilco completed its Yankee Hotel Foxtrot LP in 2001, AOL merged with Time Warner and the company's new executives terminated 600 jobs - one of which belonged to Howie Klein, President of Wilco's longtime label Reprise and loyal supporter of the band.
Wilco was then passed onto A&R reps David Kahne and Mio Vukovic, who deemed Yankee single-less and unsuitable for commercial release, suggesting the band rework the album. Wilco repeatedly declined, Yankee was officially rejected by the label and the band left Reprise.
Wilco negotiated buyout terms with the label, successfully securing rights to Yankee - for free, it's rumored, an effort on Reprise's part to curb their now marred public relations image - and streamed the album on its Web site. They also shopped it around to other labels, ultimately signing with Nonesuch Records. In an ironically laughable twist of fate, also happens be an AOL Time Warner subsidiary.
Officially released in 2002, Yankee was eventually certified Gold and has sold nearly 600,000 units, and wound up on myriad "best albums of the '00s" lists.
Johnny Cash was at the peak of his musical career, riding the wave of success he'd achieved from his hit 1963 single "Ring of Fire" and the commercially lucrative 1964 album I Walk the Line.
Columbia Records, not to mention the majority of the music industry, was expecting to hear something similar on the folk singer's follow-up, released in October 1964; but Bitter Tears couldn't have been more dissimilar from its predecessors. It was a Native American-themed concept album, filled with personal and uncommercial songs of social and political protest.
Bitter's first single, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," portrayed the Native American U.S. Marine who, though immortalized as one of the six men raising the flag at Iwo Jima in WWII, died a destitute alcoholic. But Columbia refused to promote the song; one label exec explained they wanted Cash to "entertain, not educate." In addition to its lack of label support, most radio stations also declined to play the song.
Cash, a songwriter who carved his craft penning songs of protest, did just that: In August 1964, he placed a full-page ad in Billboard. In a letter addressed to "the entire record industry." "Where are your guts?" Cash posed,demanding an explanation from the label's resistance to "Ira Hayes."
Unsurprisingly, especially in the mid-1960s, the label didn't budge. But Cash personally and aggressively promoted "Ira Hayes" to disc jockeys he personally knew, and the song ultimately reached No. 3 on the Billboard Country Singles charts, Bitter Tears eventually peaking at No. 2 on the Album chart. Cash remained on Columbia records until the 1980s.
Though the album is often overlooked, many Cash fans consider Bitter Tears his most personally poignant work to this day.
3. Amanda Palmer vs. Warner Music/Roadrunner Records
The Dresden Dolls front woman began butting heads with Warner Music subsidiary Roadrunner Records in 2008, when they requested shots of Palmers' "bare belly" be deleted from her completed "Leeds United" video, a track from her debut solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer.
"They thought I looked fat," Palmer wrote on her blog, addressing the matter. "I thought they were on crack." Palmer ultimately stood her ground and the video was released sans edits.
But the drama didn't end there. In a May 2010 Pitchfork interview, Palmer expressed an "extraordinary amount of sympathy for anybody working at a major label right now because their lives are over." She recently penned an aptly titled song, "Please Drop Me," begging the label to release her from her contractual obligations, singing "I'm tired of sucking corporate dick."
Roadrunner evidently received the message, and released Palmer from her contract in April 2010.
Radiohead is a band loved by many thanks in part to their unorthodox approach to music making and music "selling." The band's 2007 release In Rainbows is a textbook example of their style, initially released as a digital download under a "pay what you want" agreement with consumers.
The band fulfilled their obligations to EMI subsidiary Parlophone with 2003's Hail to the Thief and subsequently left it to sign with independent label XL Recordings, on which they released In Rainbows. In a curiously revengeful move, EMI announced they'd be re-releasing the band's entire back catalogue, which would go one sale the exact same week as In Rainbows, which was eventually released in several physical formats as well, was slated to ship.
Radiohead, a band widely known for being particular about the means by which their music reaches their fans, was not involved with the label's decision. Luckily, the band has since found a more suitable home in XL.
1. Fiona Apple vs. Epic
Though Fiona Apple's third LP, Extraordinary Machine, was ready for release in 2003, it wasn't officially dropped by Epic until Fall 2005. Apple tapped into the creatively warped music mind of producer Jon Brion for the album's first recording.
Apple and Brion submitted it to Epic, only to receive a thumbs-down, the label citing its lack of commercial appeal. But Apple was given the chance to re-craft Machine, which she did by employing Dr. Dre collaborator Mike Elizondo.
Machine was virtually shelved for all of 2004. It's rumored that Epic only gave Apple enough money to re-record one track at a time, and the doe-eyed singer's loyal fans were stirring an already bubbling pot. One such fan, Dave Muscato, launched the site FreeFiona.com, a campaign to petition Epic and owner Sony Music Entertainment for the long-awaited release of Machine.
Fans sent boxes of foam apples to express their impatient displeasure in the label's withholding the album. Eventually, Machine was given the green light and released in October 2005. Many argue it's her strongest record to date, but in true Fiona Apple fashion, we have yet to hear a follow-up.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.