I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THAT THE DIXIE CHICKS and their record label, Sony Music, would end up in court. One night about a year and a half ago, I was interviewing Charlie Robison in the Olmos Park cottage he shares with his wife, Emily, the banjo player for the Dixie Chicks, for an article about Charlie and his singer-songwriter brother, Bruce. Charlie and I had been running buddies back when we were both dirt-poor broke and sleeping till noon in Austin's mid-nineties slacker heyday, and that night we decided to celebrate the distance we'd put between our current and former selves with a bottle of wine. We chose a stately merlot-cab blend, one sufficiently bold that it would not be overwhelmed by the Cornnuts I'd picked up on the ride into San Antonio—and, unfortunately, sufficiently red to ruin one of Emily's new overstuffed, white easy chairs when I dumped a full glass of wine in my lap.
Now, there's a wonderfully honest look of distinct displeasure that even the best hostess cannot hide when an old friend of her new husband's does something stupid in their first home. Make no mistake; it's a look I know but not one I expected to see from Mrs. Robison. Her band's two major-label albums have sold more than 20 million copies in the U.S. alone. At an average list price of $14 apiece, that might as well be all the money in the world. I fully expected thick-necked manservants to hustle in with a replacement chair, while the one I'd soiled was carted off to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But judging from the clenched look on Emily's face when she found the mess the next morning, the Dixie Chicks—Emily; her sister, fiddle player Martie Seidel Maguire; and vocalist Natalie Maines—are not as rich as you might expect, and certainly not as rich as they think they ought to be. To rectify this, the Chicks filed a $4.1 million claim against Sony in August to recover unpaid royalties and to free them from their recording contract with the record label. If they are successful, the case could change the way all recording contracts are written, finally making such deals as friendly to the artists as they are to the label.
None of the parties to the lawsuit—not the Chicks, not Sony, not even their lawyers—would comment about the litigation, but there has been no shortage of public grumblings. The Chicks fired first, even before filing suit, with comments to Dan Rather in a 60 Minutes II segment in July. "I don't even have a million dollars in the bank," complained Maines. When Rather noted that they had moved $250 million in records, Robison said, "You're depressing me because we see so little of that. I haven't done that math because even before we got our deal, everyone always said, 'Don't ever expect to make money with records.'"
Two days after the segment ran, an attorney for the Chicks sent Sony a letter informing the label that the girls considered their record contract terminated. Bean counters hired by the band had conducted partial audits of the royalty accounts and determined that Sony had underpaid them; consequently, the Chicks argued, they were free to rip up the agreement. Sony denied that the errors canceled the contract; such mistakes almost always occur when an act sells that many records, and Sony had paid some of the disputed money to the Chicks. The label filed suit, asking a New York court to declare the contract that tied it to the number one act in country music valid and binding. The Chicks counterclaimed that Sony had defrauded them by underreporting and wrongfully withholding royalties and asserted further that many of the terms of their contract—the same industry-standard clauses that prompted music biz insiders to tell Robison never to expect to make any money—were unconscionable and unenforceable.
Problems between recording artists and recording labels are nothing new; they may be as old as Dick Clark. When the disputes have concerned creative differences, they have become rock and roll legend, as in the early seventies, when Lou Reed's label pushed him for a new record before he felt adequately inspired. He delivered Metal Machine Music , four sides of nothing but grinding feedback and white noise. Prince had the opposite problem in the early nineties, when Warner Bros. asked him to release fewer albums to avoid spreading his sales too thin. He fixed the problem in 1993 by declaring there would be no more Prince albums at all: He changed his name to the now-familiar, unpronounceable symbol and started performing with "slave" written across his face.
When the artist attempts to end the relationship altogether, however, the conflict becomes the stuff of litigation. Witness the recent rampage of Courtney Love. Unhappy that a big label swallowed the independent she had originally signed with, she posted on the Internet "An open letter to Recording Artists"decrying the unfairness of the standard record contract. Love has taken her fight to the California courts and to state lawmakers, and when she testified before legislators in September, the Chicks lent their support by sitting behind her in the hearing room.
The chicks (note the lowercase c to indicate the inclusion of Love) have a point. A boilerplate new-artist recording contract is generally regarded as the most one-sided standard agreement in any industry. The simplest description of the contract and the relationship that breeds it appears in Moses Avalon's Confessions of a Record Producer, published in 1998. "Avalon" is the nom de plume of a multiplatinum record producer whose guilty conscience inspired him to write his tell-all tome and start a consulting business instructing young artists in the pitfalls of initial deals. According to Avalon, and as borne out by the Chicks' original deal, a new artist will typically receive a 13 percent royalty of records sold—but that doesn't equate to the expected $1.82 per record. First the label gets to subtract 15 percent of