HOLLYWOOD — After Olivia de Havilland made 26 films for Warner Bros., she decided enough was enough. Courtney Love made two albums for Geffen Records before she decided to walk away.
Last week, the Los Angeles Superior Court gave Love the right to file a countersuit against Universal, which had sued her and her band Hole in January 2000 seeking damages for five undelivered albums after she said she would no longer record for the company.
Love’s suit, should it see its way to a judgment in her favor, threatens to revolutionize music industry contracts, allowing stars to move from label to label — much in the way that de Havilland’s 1944 legal battle rocked the studio system and helped create the current situation where, for better or worse, actors are free agents.
Though Love’s suit is a long shot, it could become a shot heard around the world.
Most music contracts are written for artists to deliver five to nine albums, depending upon options that the record company picks up.
“The recording industry continues to intimidate artists who try to terminate a contract with a recording company after seven years by suing them for future damages in the form of lost profits,” says A. Barry Cappello, who represents Love. “We’re out to prove that this is patently inconsistent with the provisions allowed by state law.”
Love’s countersuit rebuts allegations in a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed last year by Geffen and UMG against Love and Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson.
And it attempts to overthrow a 1987 amendment to the California Labor Code that limits personal-services contracts to seven years — a law that gives performers the right to walk away from a company once their contracts run out.
But because it could establish a precedent that the record industry would never want, one music industry lawyer says it will “never go to a jury and never go to a judge.”
The most likely scenario: a confidential settlement in which Universal lets Love out of her contract provided she supplies a handful of tracks for a greatest hits album. Master tapes could also change hands and royalty rates could also be altered.
Universal says Love and her band Hole have another five albums to deliver under the current contract. Love also contends U has withheld payments to the band, having paid the band about $2 million in royalties on $40 million worth of album sales.
Geffen Records, with which Hole signed in 1992 as Doll Head Inc., a legal partnership between Love and guitarist Erlandson, was merged with Interscope and A&M when Universal purchased Polygram. Love contends Geffen Records provided unique services to artists and the shuttering of Geffen rendered her contract void.
Love has never referred to a “key man” clause, and no one close to the case has suggested one was in her contract. Were that present, naming the individuals who were at Geffen when she signed, Love would have a considerably stronger legal leg to stand on.
In court documents filed by Vivendi Universal, which owns Universal Music, Love’s lawsuit is called a “meritless, inflammatory diatribe.” The music distrib has no other comment.
“She already has won,” the artist Prince told Variety in an online discussion. “All she had to do was be brave enough to speak out against the obvious. Now we’re all talking about it, just like people did when I wrote ‘slave’ on my face.”
That’s a reference to his appearance at a music awards show in the midst of a similar legal battle in the mid-1990s.
Prince fought with Warner Bros. when he honored his contractual requirements by creating a certain number of albums, but the diskery refused to release his albums so close together.
He has since released independently the multidisc sets “Emancipation” and “Crystal Ball” as well as the recent “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.”
The big difference is that Prince was a superstar whose every disc went multiplatinum. Love is more of a celebrity — and, not incidentally, one who makes her private issues public at almost every turn. Her albums have been expensive affairs, from marketing costs to elaborate video shoots to her own movie-star lifestyle.
Hole, which has never had a hit single, has released two albums, 1994’s “Live Through This” and 1998’s “Celebrity Skin,” both of which shipped 1 million copies. Their most famous tour was an ill-conceived outing with Marilyn Manson that was cut short after less than 10 of 37 planned dates.
Much of Love’s case rests in the courts rejecting the seven-year statute, which only exists in California where it has long been the standard for movies and music. (TV series stars are locked in for five years in their initial pacts, but some studios are pushing for seven as well.)
De Havilland filed her suit against WB after the studio added six months on the backend of her seven years, saying the time had accumulated while she was suspended. She contested the right of the studio to do that, going through three courts over the course of two years, during which time she didn’t work in film.
Her freelance career started in 1945 with Par’s “The Well Groomed Bride,” and she learned how to chose quality roles and how to draw healthy paychecks from her employers.
In 1964, for example, Daily Variety reported de Havilland nabbed an extra $150,000 for “Lady in the Cage” once the film opened as she had a clause calling for 10% of the producer’s gross deal in addition to the $25,000 she was paid to do the role.
In music, Prince is the most prominent artist to move his entire operation inhouse after getting established by a major label. On Feb. 14, he launched the online NPG Music Club that entitles users to downloads of new Prince songs each month. A VIP level includes offers of premium seating at concerts and party passes.
“The club is our system,” said Prince. “Hopefully, as the recording industry continues its pimpage, artists will seek a better revenue flow in their own systems, localized just like Web sites. If I want the new Usher CD, I will go to his store to get it.”
Love, on the other hand, is not expected to go the Internet route. She has been working on her writing privately, but has not been in the studio for some time.
Epitaph, a Los Angeles-based punk rock label that had considerable success with Tom Waits’ return to recording in 1999, is booking studio time for Love. Brett Gurewitz, Epitaph’s president and a longtime friend of Love, expects to receive demo tapes from her by the end of the month.
The project is most likely Love fronting an all-female superstar group, members of which have not been disclosed.
An Epitaph spokesman said it has to fit two criteria for the punk label to release it: Love has to be out of her Universal contract and “it has to be a good record.”
Love, the widow of Nirvana guitarist-singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain, says there are also unreleased Nirvana songs that she hopes Epitaph will release. Love controls much of the Nirvana catalog along with Cobain’s mother and sister. Nirvana also was a Geffen act.
Hole is the second group that has filed suit to leave the Universal fold since the Polygram merger and ensuing Vivendi purchase.
Garbage filed suit in late January to be released from its Almo Sounds contract, invoking a key man clause because label head Jerry Moss no longer was with the company.