In a widely circulated essay titled "The Problem With Music," producer Steve Albini, best known for recording Nirvana's In Utero, describes the mental image he conjures when he thinks of a band about to sign a record deal. It's a trench 4 feet wide, 5 feet deep—and it's filled with shit. An industry shill stands at the end waving a fountain pen and a contract. Nobody can read the contract, but that doesn't stop anyone from clamoring for it:
The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there's only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the lackey says, "Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim again, please. Backstroke." And he does, of course.
Some 20 years later, young rock bands are still swimming that trench. The old industry model of excess may have changed, but it's still a story of big promises, sold-out shows, famous meet-and-greets, six-figure advances. And then, inevitably, it is the story of silence. Phone calls not returned, a revolving door of executives, labels merged, records shelved, bands dropped—or sometimes, deals negotiated for months that fall apart before the band has even signed.
In Nashville, it seems, every band is always talking to a big shot. Word gets around fast that this band is showcasing for Warner Bros., while that band just sent their demos to Interscope. The cheap-seats perception is that if you can just get that deal, you can distribute your record, tour, win hearts and minds, etc. Ostensibly, the only problem is getting your music in the right guy's hands.
But if the Nashville curse used to be that no local rock band could snag a record deal, then perhaps now the curse is that they can. Because for each of the bands included here, the deals came easily—arguably too easily. In each case, it was staying afloat afterward that proved most elusive. Here are four cautionary tales of bands that for whatever reason, to paraphrase the old song, seemed to get everything they wanted—but lost everything they had.
Take De Novo Dahl, whose manic kitchen-sink pop inspired a write-up on the indie blog You Ain't No Picasso for their song "Shout." That in turn put them on the radar of David Basin, an A&R dude for Roadrunner Records. Though the label was better known for an argh-metal roster that included bands like Nickelback and Slipknot, Basin was spearheading a new direction. He'd recently signed seminal garage band New York Dolls and the campy cabaret pop act Dresden Dolls. He wanted De Novo Dahl to round out their modern rock dollhouse.
The band and manager Aaron Hartley were initially skeptical, but they liked that Roadrunner had an indie mentality with a major's money. And it didn't hurt that Basin played bass in a punk band. He flew to Nashville and wooed the band at Rumba, where, over drinks and plantains, he told the band "Shout" was a surefire hit. Then he dangled an irresistible carrot, asking them to name the dream guy they'd want mixing their record. Their choice: Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann. Basin said no problem. Then he maximized his cool cred by going with the band to Springwater to catch a local rock show.
Soon after, DND had an offer for a six-record deal, with an advance around a hundred grand. "We hoped it would give us the resources to do what we were already doing, just on a grander scale," says bassist Keith Lowen. "The reality was they were excited, and then they weren't."
Lowen had already watched a major-label deal flop—in 1998, on Sire with the Nashville pop trio Lifeboy when he was 18. Literally signed in high school during study hall, the teenage band had to sue the label to get their record back, spending five years in limbo. Lowen had also just read Albini's treatise on shitty record deals, so it wasn't like he didn't know the industry he was flirting with.
"I thought, with us, it's going to be different," Lowen says.
It wasn't. They got an inkling of that when they played for the label for the first time at the 2007 CMJ festival. It was on Halloween at noon, and not only had the band just woken up, but they chose an odd costume selection: they dressed in Christmas finery. Christmas for Halloween—get it? The label didn't. They also didn't get the raw indie-rock band in front of them—they'd expected a glossy pop outfit from the single.
Roadrunner hedged, quickly amending their initial offer by saying they'd also need 25 percent of the band's publishing. The band agreed, though in retrospect Lowen says it wasn't exactly a sign of good faith. At the time, they chose to see it as a minor hiccup.
But the next hiccup would ultimately undo them. In December 2006, Warner Music Group bought out Roadrunner. The band was assured nothing would change for them, and for the next year, that seemed to be the case.
Their first tour, with Hot Hot Heat in 2007, was everything the band had hoped for: playing thousand-capacity clubs, seeing the country, getting the occasional veggie plate and a bottle of Jack backstage. The label bought them Nudie suits and the music press glowed in the sparkle. A tour later that year saw them on the road with The Bravery, and as they prepared for the release of their Roadrunner debut, the Fridmann-mixed Move Every Muscle, Make Every Sound, things looked hopeful.
Then the holidays came, and everything changed. Merger-related personnel changes finally took effect. Roadrunner's radio guy, one of the band's most enthusiastic supporters, was shuffled to the video department. The band released their record in March and hustled at SXSW that year. A month later, A&R executive Basin was fired. By year's end, De Novo Dahl was dropped with no explanation. One of the last bits of feedback the label gave the band was they'd all started to get fat.
"We already knew we were screwed, but we couldn't go anywhere," Lowen recalls. "We just wanted the freedom to start over and do something else. They didn't give us a reason for dropping us. We can assume it was that our record wasn't selling. It sold maybe a couple of thousand. All they told us was they were not going to exercise their option for the next record and wished us the best in our future endeavors."
In a final blow, the label kept the masters. What the band took away, mostly, are mixed emotions.
"We were hanging out with Hot Hot Heat and The Bravery and getting to see the country and do really neat things and do stupid things," Lowen says. "We got to play at Red Rocks. There were definitely nights we felt like rock stars. Getting to hang out backstage at Bonnaroo and chat with M.I.A. and Jenny Lewis. Serai got onstage and danced with Snoop Dogg. We played in every state and saw all the sights and had experiences most people don't get to have."
Still, he says the experience was ultimately a disappointment. "It's like having a winning lotto ticket, only to find out your number isn't even in the system anymore," he says. "And they won't give you a new one."
At least AutoVaughn got to keep their masters—if little else. Like De Novo Dahl, the band had an established fanbase, an Internet presence, catchy songs and a willingness to play ball. But for them, label interest came too close on the cusp of a shifting industry that didn't know how to navigate new territory.
They certainly made all the right moves. Frustrated by booking solo shows that didn't draw more than 40 people, they joined forces with commercially minded bands around town to form the music collective Movement Nashville. The collective's first show was an '80s-themed night at 12th & Porter featuring the band and fellow MN members Bang Bang Bang, Jeremy Lister and Kyle Andrews. Three hundred people showed up. The band was shocked.
"We were just happy to have a fanbase in Nashville," says Darren Edwards, the group's lead singer and guitarist.
Soon, a manager materialized through a friend of the band. Bob Doyle, best known for repping Garth Brooks and running his own publishing company Major Bob Music, saw potential for the group to expand their fanbase, and for him to move into rock music.
Doyle offered them a hybrid deal that was part managerial, part publishing and part production. Doyle would put up money to record a few songs to shop to labels, and fund the band's touring and expenses to get in front of his label contacts. He also pressed the band toward licensing deals, helping them secure TV placements.
A few months later, using a set of demos they'd recorded and packaged as the 10-song EP Space, they booked a CD release show at Mercy Lounge. They dressed up as astronauts and again recruited Jeremy Lister and Bang Bang Bang to open. The show sold out, drawing some 600 people into the upstairs club.
"At this point, there's still that sense of dangling the candy in front of the little kid for us," says Edwards. "We had started seeing some success with the shows here selling out. There was an excitement."
The momentum was building, and their career suddenly seemed the stuff of movies. A guy hears your demos, thinks he can help you become successful. The fans materialize right on schedule, and now it's time to take the music to the suits—the gatekeepers who, with the wave of a hand, can set your career into motion.
They flew to New York and Los Angeles to showcase for the heavy hitters: Atlantic, Universal, Virgin, EMI. One night, Jason Flom was in the crowd—Jason Flom!—an A&R heavyweight who finessed the careers of everyone from Twisted Sister to Tori Amos.
That's when the schmoozing started. "Most of these guys are really cool," says Edwards. "And by cool, I mean you look at them and they carry themselves like they know they're the shit. As a band trying to make it and get to the point where we can pay our bills, you're like, OK, shit, there's Jason Flom. By then, we had been schooled a little to know who these people were. It was fun and a little nerve-racking."
Some labels whispered the music industry's typical pickup line: Let's make a record. "Then they never called you again," Edwards laughs. "That happened at least two or three times." Others gave critical feedback: "Most of the response we got was, 'You guys are great, it's really dance-rock. It's just a little too late.' "
By too late, they meant the band sounded just a bit too much like the new wave of '80s-style dance rock—e.g., The Killers—that was already on its way out. No problem. The band was hungry to move forward, and willing to make their songs less predictable.
But before any labels could come forward with official offers, AutoVaughn's deal with manager Bob Doyle began to fizzle. Several different folks whispered conflicting ideas in the bandmates' ears about exactly what route they should take.
"Some people would say, these guys are in country, and we needed someone in rock 'n' roll," Edwards remembers. "Some people said they were applying a country model—they wanted us to do songwriting and co-writing and get into that world."
"They wanted us to get fitted for Manuel suits," says lead guitarist Stephen Wilson.
The management deal ended, but the band was still paying back the money Doyle had invested in the group. (Calls to Doyle were not returned by press time.) But another manager smelled success, and approached the band about capitalizing on the momentum Doyle had helped build. It was Jason Brown, who'd managed G. Love.
"He was like, 'I love your band, let me work with you,' " Wilson remembers. They didn't even have to sign a contract. Brown picked up where Doyle had left off, and soon the band members were back in talks with labels. This time it was Epic Records, with Andy Gershon—who'd signed the White Stripes when he was at V2 and had once managed Smashing Pumpkins.
On a Tuesday night in Kansas City, Gershon flew out to see the band play a show midtour. He sat in the back and waited until the band finished playing. He introduced himself, and they spent the next hour-and-a-half talking about the music industry, the death of the CD, and the rise of the MP3.
"It was the classic meet-and-greet," Edwards says. "He bought us beers—imports—he said he loved the music and wanted to hear more songs. He seemed really down to earth."
Three weeks later, an offer came in. It was a 360 deal—a new practice where labels, in an effort to slap a tourniquet on hemorrhaging revenues, are now taking a cut of merchandising and touring to recoup their investment. Initially seen as a last-ditch effort by labels to take even more of the artist's pie, it's now considered a standard deal—a one-stop shop for the artist, and a reason to keep the label invested in all aspects of a band's career. But in 2007, it was just gaining traction.
AutoVaughn's offer was for five records with a few perks: $60,000 up front, $175,000 for a touring budget, and another $100,000 to make a record.
The band was thrilled. Their manager wasn't. "He thought we needed a million-dollar deal," says Wilson. "He had done major-label deals with G. Love and thought that's what we needed. We didn't necessarily think that."
But torn between friends and contacts who understood the new system, and a manager who firmly adhered to the old system, they didn't know what to do. Their manager finally convinced them to turn down the deal, which didn't please the label. Add to that Epic's internal strife over the group—Gershon wanted the band to be more indie, while label head Charlie Walk wanted them to write a "cutthroat pop song"—and it looked like they'd blown their big chance.
Just as fortune had shone upon them before, however, a savior stepped in to pick up the pieces. That was Nashville entertainment lawyer Kent Marcus, who previously worked for the high-powered firm of Zumwalt, Almon & Hayes. Now in his own practice, Marcus managed to finesse a deal with Epic—an old-school development deal.
Often called a demo deal, it's a small risk for both the label and the artist. Think of it as a kind of expensive first date. The label funds a few demos, with the option to pick the band up if they like what they hear. If they don't, the band walks and keeps the rights to the masters.
AutoVaughn signed in early 2008. Four months later, they had a six-song EP recorded in Nashville with Audioslave producer Brian Virtue at the helm. The label paid a paltry sum in comparison to the early deal—only $5,000 for five songs. Virtue threw in an extra song as a favor.
The record was called The Cycles, and with it the band seemed ready to lick the world. A senior VP at Amazon.com caught the band at SXSW, and he was impressed enough to put them on the website's main page, offering a one-song preview for free download. They finished out '08 as one of Rolling Stone's top five bands to watch that year, and a UK tour had them playing in front of 500-something kids screaming their names, singing along to all their lyrics. All that remained was to drop the hammer and put out the CD everyone was waiting for.
But just when the band thought they had dodged their last bullet, there was one more round in the chamber. Gershon was fired, a casualty of the usual corporate "disagreements." With the band's biggest supporter gone, Epic exercised its option. The label opted not to release the record.
Today, with a new manager, the band members find themselves not far from where they began. Most are still working restaurant jobs, though Wilson has taken up part-time work as a scientist. The band has their masters in hand, though they still owe some $15,000 to ex-manager Bob Doyle. On the upside, Doyle is still working the record for placements. And spots he secured them on shows like One Tree Hill and Greek are paying off that debt—though the band has yet to see a penny of it.
For every act that dreams of signing to a major label, another wants just the opposite: to get dropped by one. AutoVaughn emerged from their deal relatively unscathed—at least compared to Butterfly Boucher, whose career to date is a case study in the suck zone of corporate music-making. At 29, the pop songstress just finally managed to extract herself from her third major-label deal, and she's still wondering where all the money went.
Her first deal came at 15, when she got her start playing bass for her sister's band, The Mercy Bell, a kind of Australian version of The Cranberries. Polydor heard the album and offered them a deal: $25,000 in Aussie dollars and a few grand for the record they'd been touring on. It was enough to buy a van, some equipment, gas for the tour, and maybe the rent. They lived off corn and onion soup.
"We were so naive," Boucher says. "That was the first time we had an A&R guy interested and we thought it was all going to change when we got a deal. I don't think they did any promotion for that first record. There weren't even posters. It was like suddenly we were signed, but it didn't change anything."
But Polydor didn't like the record The Mercy Bell submitted, refusing to release it unless the band wrote more songs. So when the band was invited to meet with publishers in America through a friend in Nashville with contacts, they jumped.
For the next several months, they were in limbo, until a contact in Franklin with an imprint through mega-major Interscope secured the band a development deal. They would record eight songs, and Interscope would have the option of picking the band up.
"We were happy to have anything," she says. "We'd moved out of Australia. We were in America again. We weren't completely naive, but you just get excited. It's America. You can hit it big here. So we were just happy to be on a major label in America."
With the label's clout came a $60,000 advance. Each member of the trio bought themselves a used car, and they lived the next two years off the windfall. But the imprint—headed by producer and pop hit-maker Keith Thomas—was stalling. Thomas was going through some personal issues, according to Boucher, and what should have been a quick six-month turnaround on the demos lasted two years.
The band found that Thomas and others had different ideas about which songs should be used, and how they should be produced. Eventually, Tom Whalley at Interscope came calling for the demos. "We'd handed them over 8 months before," Boucher says, "but our managers had never bothered to call and tell them."
Meanwhile, the imprint came up with the idea that the band might consider recording a song for a Kevin Costner baseball movie, For Love of the Game. Thomas had written the music, they would provide the lyrics, and the song would be the band's first single. It was a move better suited to a corn-fed American pop thrush, not a ragtag group of Aussies.
"We play baseball [in Australia], but it's not a part of our lives, and Kevin Costner is the cheesiest American actor," Boucher says, exasperated. "But we came over anyway and listened to the song, and it's just not really us at all. It was super-produced and we politely said we didn't feel comfortable with this being their idea of it being the first single of an indie band."
The band passed. Interscope, in turn, passed on The Mercy Bell's demos. A year or so later, the song the group rejected became Mandy Moore's first chart-topper, "I Wanna Be With You."
Back to selling CDs at gigs took a toll on the band. They took a break that became permanent. Boucher decided it was time to go solo. With the remaining money from the advance, she bought a laptop and holed up in North London, ready to strike out on her own. The 10 songs came easily. She sent them to Mike Dixon, a manager she'd met in Nashville before leaving town. She was ready to try again, and at 21, even with two failed deals under her belt, she was still ready to play the major-label game.
"You always think it's different this time," she says. "I'm solo this time. I can make the decisions. I just thought it would be different."
It was different—sort of. Dixon put Boucher in touch with producers Brad Jones and Robin Eaton, who'd just started a studio and production company at Alex the Great in Berry Hill. They wanted to record her and sign a production deal with her. She moved back to Nashville again and hit the studio, a period she describes as immensely collaborative and a "musical high." Ten months later, she had a record called Flutterby.
Dixon pushed the album to labels, and Interscope and Maverick—a new label just started up by Madonna and Guy Oseary—were interested. Maverick's A&R rep Michael Goldberg flew Boucher to L.A., put her up in fancy hotels, took her to fancy dinners. Eventually she met with Oseary, who confirmed nearly every stereotype about the suits there is. Boucher was told to come to the meeting ready to sing on the spot. She brought an acoustic.
"Guy kept saying, so you're kind of like an acoustic Ani DiFranco?" Boucher recalls. "And I'm like, no, have you heard the demos? And he was like, 'No I haven't even listened to them.' The A&R guy was even like, no, she's not like just a folk chick. Guy sat there just trying to figure me out."
Oddly, it never occurred to anyone to play the demos right there at the meeting. "So I played him my most folkie song, and he loved it. A couple of days later I was told that Guy wanted to meet with me again. Again I said he should listen to the demos. So the day before that meeting a friend of the A&R guy took me out to lunch and said, 'Listen, if I were you I would want to know this, but it's highly possible Madonna will be at this meeting, and she's in town.' "
Boucher met Madonna—briefly—but that didn't solve the problem: Oseary and Maverick clearly saw either the next Ani DiFranco or the next Alanis Morrisette, but they didn't see her. No matter: Dixon used the Maverick leverage to bring other labels to the table—Dreamworks, A&M, Interscope, Sony. Maverick gave her a 24-hour ultimatum. Boucher blew it off.
In the end, she went with A&M on the condition that the Interscope A&R man who'd first liked her music—Tony Ferguson—could work with her at A&M. The advance was a whopper: $700,000 up front for a five-record deal. It was quite a shock, she said. But the money went fast.
"Forty percent of that went to Alex the Great," she says. "Out of that, I also paid them for being producers, and they got points off the album. And I had lawyer fees." She got an accountant. She paid taxes for the first time, and said it was more money than her parents had ever made in taxes alone.
But as quickly as the deal was done, the label begin showing classic signs of botched efforts and diminishing interest. A newly signed artist was chosen over Boucher to get the label's full push for a solo female artist—one Ashlee Simpson. Flutterby was released in 2003, but the label wasn't sure how to promote it aside from a few TV placements such as the show Charmed.
In a key move, her manager passed along the CD to a fellow client, Sarah McLachlan, and with it came an opening slot on the singer's upcoming tour. A&M provided a backing band and tour support, and she found herself in that maybe-you've-made-it moment: playing to 15,000 McLachlan fans each night across America.
"It was great," she says of the shows, which startled her to find fans waiting in long lines to buy her CD rather than catch the opening songs of McLachlan's act. "But in the back of my mind I was thinking, how long is this going to last?"
The label didn't provide CDs for her to sell at those shows. Boucher decided to buy her own records off the label so she could sell them. She paid $6 a piece and resold them for $25—the same going rate for a Sarah McLachlan CD. She sold 20,000 copies on the tour, sometimes as many as 700 a night. True to inept major-label form, there were still no posters for the show.
A European jaunt with McLachlan did well, and the U.K. affiliate tried to capitalize on that success by setting Boucher up with a tour opening for Rufus Wainwright. But A&M called her back into the studio immediately, saying she had to cancel. By the time they decided on a producer and he cleared his schedule, a year had passed. She would have had plenty of time to do the tour.
Her second album, Scary Fragile, was delivered to the label in January 2006.
"Then the label just went quiet," she says. "They said go back in and write some more songs. I'm like, yeah, I've been here, I know what this is."
She wrote more songs. But without direction, she was frustrated. It was difficult to know what to change to get the album released. "You're like, I wanna make you happy. You put this money behind it. I like a good challenge. But they won't tell you what they want.
"This is what they always say: You're just a little bit too indie for the pop scene and you're too pop for the indie scene. Well, I'll just start up my own scene."
The U.K. label said they'd like to release the record, but once they heard it they thought it sounded too American. They asked her to record the record again, this time bringing in a Swedish producer who might get some of that quirkier element back in. But the American label played tug of war again, saying the only way they'd allow the British affiliate to release it is if they bought Boucher out of her debt to A&M—for a million plus.
"I'd like to see their figures for that amount," she says. "So the U.K. label was like, no, we don't want her that much. I mean we like her, but not for that kind of money."
Two versions of the album were dead in the water. And Boucher found herself exactly where'd she'd been twice before: wishing she could get out of her deal.
They made her an offer: the money or the two albums. She took the albums. She got dropped from the deal, and also got out of Alex the Great by paying them off. This week, she's self-releasing Scary Fragile—a title that aptly describes her condition after endless rounds of major label roulette.
"I haven't done anything for four years," she says. "It's going to be interesting to see who's remembering that I'm still alive and who is going to buy it."
And still for other acts, the back and forth, negotiations and promises never amount to anything. Jaunty pop act Eureka Gold spent the better part of a year navigating the wild west of label negotiations, only to have the rug pulled out at the very last minute.
They had their first phone call in August 2006, their first meeting with the label head in September, their first deal memo outlining the terms in October and a full, negotiated, 90-page contract in January 2007. And by the end of that May, the deal was dead.
It all began when drummer Adam Gold (a current Scene employee) and singer/guitarist Buddy Hughen managed to get a demo to Hughen's family friend Benmont Tench, keyboardist for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. All they wanted was his professional opinion. To their surprise, Gold recalls, he offered to pass the demo along to some friends in the industry.
One of those people was producer and A&R guy Tony Berg, who'd produced Squeeze and Aimee Mann and signed Beck to Geffen in the '90s. In a roundelay of music-industry inbreeding, Berg had started an imprint called Three Entertainment with Michael Rosenblatt...the guy who brought Boucher's almost-boss Madonna to Sire...where he worked under Seymour Stein...who once signed a teenage Nashville band called Lifeboy during their study hall at USN.
Berg described himself as a zealot for the band. At the time, Eureka Gold had played maybe 20 or 25 shows total. They were more than excited to hear the news.
"It was super exciting," Gold remembers. "But part of you, at least part of me, was always wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. You always feel like it can't be that easy." As it turns out, it wasn't—but it would take some time before the band's suspicions proved true.
Berg's phone call came a week before the band left Boston to relocate to Nashville officially. He gave the band a week-and-a-half to settle in, then flew to Nashville to meet the band and watch them practice.
In person, the 50-something Berg eased the band's doubts and charmed them immensely. He took the band out for steak dinners at J. Alexander's. He regaled them with anecdotes about Bob Dylan and other titans. He seemed to have a savant-like knowledge of music, and his connections and clout were impressive.
"Then he said, 'Let's talk about this record—it's great," remembers Gold. "Thanks, we said. 'No no,' he said. 'It's fucking great.' Then he really started coming on strong."
Berg proceeded to pick out nuanced details about the recording that only someone who'd listened carefully could do. "You go to the seventh chord right there,' he'd say. 'Or this part where you're doing a flam in the groove that you're playing.' There's an intro to a song where Buddy played drums in the intro, and he said to me, 'I can tell that's not you playing drums right there.' It was clear he'd really listened to it a lot and had internalized it to some degree."
They hadn't wanted the guy to see dollar signs—they wanted him to get them musically, and it was obvious he did. After discussing a few details of the deal—the advance would be $40,000, and they wanted to release the record the band had already recorded—he watched the band practice at their crash pad in Bellevue. He said he was even more impressed than when he'd arrived, and that he'd be in touch.
"We left that meeting excited," Gold recalled. "This guy who had a name for himself flew all the way out here to see our band practice and meet with us, and he was super excited about it. And I think got it in the way we wanted people to get it."
Veteran entertainment attorney Eric Greenspan, a friend of Gold's father, took on some due diligence work, snagging a copy of a low-ball six-record deal the imprint had offered another band. He let Sony/BMG know the band would not be happy if the deal they received was the same.
"Eric said to us, if you want to work with these guys, I'll get you the best possible deal their label can give you," Gold says. "And he did. He got us everything we asked for. Jordan [Lehning] was involved with the Non-Commissioned Officers and we got them to allow him to still do that."
The band was happy to hear someone wanted to bankroll their band—the offer also included tour support, a van and equipment. The advance was the least of the appeal in some ways, as it was really just going to be pocket money.
They spent a few weeks going back and forth on every point, and negotiations went on for six months. It was all going smoothly for industry standards. That in itself should have set off alarm bells.
In mid-March, they got a call from Greenspan. Sony had decided to offer producer and American Recordings honcho Rick Rubin a position as creative czar. His new position would give him veto power over all the Sony acts on the roster. All deals were halted as Rubin wrangled with his overlords at Warner Bros.
That was troubling, but not necessarily a dealbreaker. Greenspan represented the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose records had made producer Rubin a lot of money, and Rubin would take his calls. He agreed to listen to the band's record.
"We're like, shit, Rick Rubin is listening to this record we made in a week after we'd played only four shows," Gold says.
Tony Berg took it personally to the producer's house and listened to it with him. Rubin agreed to greenlight it in May. "I don't know if he was like blown away or anything, but he totally said OK," Gold says.
The deal may have been back on the table, but it had stalled the band creatively. They continued waiting tables and playing local shows, and received solid local press on their debut effort. By and large, they kept their news on the down-low, and chose not to leverage Sony's interest with other labels as a sign of good faith.
"I didn't want to talk it up and have people saying, they're this new band in town, and oh, they've got a deal," Gold says. "And then it falls apart, and you're the guys with your tails between your legs."
Finally, after months of haggling over minute details, the band received what it thought was the 90-page final contract via email. The bass player took it to Kinko's to print out multiple copies so they could sign it, FedEx it back, and rejoice in having hit the big time at last. The band sat down to read it over. That's when they noticed every page bore the same word in the top right-hand corner: "DRAFT."
Gold called his lawyer. Greenspan assured him it was a mistake. He emailed Sony's lawyer, who contacted Gold to get his address so he could fix the clerical error and overnight a new copy to the band. Only the next day, the new copy didn't arrive. Six days later, it still hadn't come.
Gold decided to contact the Sony lawyer directly. An awkward conversation ensued. "He told me it wasn't coming, and that I would have to talk to my lawyer about it." Neither Greenspan nor Tony Berg had any idea what the holdup was.
A few days later, the band received the news. On one of those days the label was supposedly "overnighting" Eureka Gold's contract, Sony sealed the deal with Rubin. The first thing Rubin did when he took over? Here's a hint: it wasn't greenlighting Eureka Gold's record.
"Wheat before the sickle—Rubin cut almost every imprint label," Gold says. "Fucking fire sale. They killed the deal with the imprint, and that made our deal null and void."
In some ways, Sony may have done them a favor. Acts who had actually signed were still in turnaround hell a year later. "Had we signed, and had they given us the money, the label would still technically own those masters," Gold says. As a final irony, the bloom was off the rose between Rubin and Sony by 2008.
Greenspan managed to talk the label into paying the band $15,000 as a consolation for the headache, so the band ended up walking away with a few grand for their trouble. It went quickly to each band member to pay down individual debts.
The band members spread the word to each other at their respective jobs. They didn't even have a chance to commiserate before their gig that night at The Basement. They arrived minutes before setup, and nobody spoke. They just tuned up, plugged in and played one of the best shows they'd ever had.
The following summer of 2007 was tenuous. In the end, Eureka Gold almost broke up under the pressure. They could have gone to look for another deal, but were advised that labels weren't giving out those kinds of deals anymore. The model was dying. But eventually, they started working on songs again. They've been in talks with labels in the ensuing two years, but they're waiting until they finish their second record.
These stories may be a dime a dozen, but it doesn't seem to stop young bands from stepping up to bat to try their luck. Entertainment lawyer Kent Marcus says it's all the nature of the beast that is the music business.
"If you wanna get in the game you have to take that risk," says Marcus. "Most young bands will not have that much leverage going into their deal. But if you want the deal or want the dream, you gotta swallow it—knowing it could turn into a ugly situation.
"Most young artists are blind to that. To them, it's just the romance of getting the deal. Even though I will always explain the upside and the downside, I can see a lot of these artists aren't really digesting it. They just want the deal. They get chewed up in the machine and it's not their fault."
Or as Adam Gold's lawyer told him once his deal was done, there was very little they could have done about the shifting behemoth that is today's music industry.
" 'Look, this has nothing to do with your band,' " Gold remembers his lawyer telling him after the deal was dead. " 'These are just oceans moving in a huge multinational corporation. You are just a pimple on the back of an elephant.' "
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