How artists get out of recording contracts

Stuart Grant

Rock and roll history is strewn with examples of artists whose careers were put in limbo by trying to get out of recording contracts. Sometimes these circumstances have little or nothing to do with the record company in question. Band member relations can disintegrate personally and artistically.

Having read biographies or watched documentaries about most of my favorite artists, it always amazes me how nearly every great artists ends up getting ripped off for some if not all of their career. A few hundred bucks here and there spent on legal advice could have forestalled decades of rancor and strife. 

Competing bands can poach the dissenting, deserting member and form a new group. The poaching band will likely have its own record contract. The deserting member will likely have their rights owned by the company with whom their previous band was under contract. When band break ups happen, the existing recording contract is still in force as it pertains to the departing band member.

Some artists end their relationships with labels in controversy and acrimony. This accomplished by releasing experimental, deliberately unpublishable and commercially unviable material with a wink. Others use their unsalvageable relationship with their label as an opportunity to rebrand and reinvent themselves. 

Prince used the last days of his contract with Warner Brothers to change his name to a fused symbol of the masculine and feminine. The Rolling Stones had one single to deliver to Decca before creating Rolling Stones records. They did so by releasing School Boy Blues (1970) — a song with lyrics so profane that it was commercially unviable.

Van Morrison

Van Morrison once enjoyed a convivial relationship with his first label, NYC based Bang Records. That relationship did not extend to the owner’s widow after the owner's passing. She reminded Morrison that her publishing company was owed thirty six songs. Morrison recorded these in a single session. 

With titles like “Ring Worm”, “Blow Your Nose” and “Big Royalty Check” he made his lack of enthusiasm known. The material was never released. He must have been holding his good stuff back because he first album for Warner Brothers was the classic Astral Weeks (1968).

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Sixties supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash were formed of component members of Buffalo Springfield (Stills), The Byrds (Crosby) and The Hollies (Nash). All but Crosby were under contract with their former groups’ label. Stills was under contract to Atlantic and Nash was with EMI in the UK and Epic in the US. 

The break up of Buffalo Springfield would have history making implications for rock and roll. Atlantic executive Ahmet Ertegun engineered the equivalent of a sports trade with EMI and Epic. Graham Nash was effectively traded to Atlantic for Buffalo Springfield alumnus Richie Furay and his band Poco. Poco would have a huge hit with Crazy Love in 1978.

Neil Young would form an on and off collaboration with Crosby, Stills and Nash that would re-emerge over the years as conditions favored. As a solo artist, Young left for Geffen Records upon the termination of his Reprise contract. His first two records for Geffen were atypical. Trans (1982) was an entirely electronic album and a definite departure for Young. Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983) was a throwback composed of mostly Rockabilly cover tunes. 

David Geffen sued Young for producing uncommercial and unrepresentative material. Young countersued and they eventually reached an agreement. Young’s last studio album on Geffen was Landing on Water (1986) which was met with unenthusiastic reviews and sales. He completed his Geffen contract with the live concert album Life (1987) with his band Crazy Horse.

Jimi Hendrix — Band of Gypsys

One sure fire method of satisfying a record contract is to release a live album. This effectively frees disconsolate band members from having to write and record together while satisfying the terms of the contract. Such a scenario played out with the break up of Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypsys. Luckily for music fans, their only LP release was live and entirely consisting of previously unreleased material. 

The album captures their two night stand over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (1970) at the Fillmore East in New York. Band of Gypsies album was met with critical acclaim and went top ten in both the US and UK. The song “Machine Gun” is considered one of Hendrix’ greatest. Six months later he would be dead.

 Lou Reed and David Bowie

Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975) was a double album composed of feedback and guitar effects played back at various speeds. It had no discernable song structure and was heavily panned by critics. His label RCA pulled it from distribution only three weeks after its release. It was considered by many as an attempt to get released by RCA. Reed did not perform material from the album until 2002. 

His next and last album for RCA was the romantic and sentimental Coney Island Baby (1976). It consisted of eight slow or mid tempo songs dedicated to his muse and lover Rachel Humphreys. It was moderately commercially successful charting at 42 in the US. Reed would record for Arista from 1976 to 1980.

As his recording contract with RCA neared its end, David Bowie had a misunderstanding about his obligations for its successful completion. Having released the double live album Stage (1978), he was of the belief that this counted as two records in his agreement with RCA. Thinking he would be freed of his contract with them upon the release of Lodger (1979), RCA politely reminded him that his math was off. 

Bowie made good on his last RCA album with Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980). Guest contributions included guitar by Robert Fripp and Pete Townshend. The album closed out his contract with a brilliant flourish and was smashing commercial and critical success, reaching number one in the UK charts and number twelve in the US. 

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