Record Companies That Royally Screwed Their Artists

The music industry is a cruel, cruel place. It makes friends become foes and fathers become money-hungry managers looking for their own best interest. The people who were supposed to protect the artists end up shaking them for all they’re worth. This is why you always, always need a good lawyer. Unfortunately, some of the world’s most iconic artists didn’t get the memo.

No one is immune to getting screwed-over

Artists on this list include iconic bands like the Rolling Stones and the Jackson 5, as well as modern country stars like Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw. Justice may never be served for them, and some artists, like TLC, admit defeat. Others, like Nine Inch Nails and The Clash, decide to stick it to the man.

Click through to see which artists got screwed over by their record labels and how some managed to get even.

Brad Paisley Sued Sony Records, Went Rogue

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images
Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

In April of 2014, Brad Paisley sued his record label Sony Nashville for the second time. Paisley believed that Sony was “trying to rob [him] blind” and owed him $10 million. According to the suit, Paisley alleged that Sony was drastically underpaying him for his work and hiding it by refusing to show him proper documentation of rates, royalties, prices, reductions, and sales. Paisley grew increasingly impatient with his lawsuit, and rather than wait months – or even years – for a resolution, the country star decided to take matters into his own hands.

Paisley Leaked His Own Song as Payback

In July of 2014, Paisley decided to post a song titled “Moonshine in the Trunk” from his own unreleased record. While it’s hard to say the specifics of Paisley’s record contract, it’s highly unlikely that he had the authority to post songs without permission. Sony most likely owned the master copy despite the fact that Paisley wrote and recorded the track. Obviously, Paisley didn’t care one bit.

In a statement, he told fans “I’m going rogue,” and urged them “don’t tell” before posting the track online. Needless to say, Sony was livid and got payback in the most inconvenient way possible.

Sony’s Revenge

Sony was so angry with Paisley that they decided not to take the high road. Instead, CEO Gary Overton posted Paisley’s personal email address for all of his fans to see. Paisley, of course, wasn’t thrilled after being bombarded with messages from his die-hard fan base. In an effort to smooth things over, he promised Sony Nashville that he wouldn’t leak anymore tracks from his new record himself – with an emphasis on the word himself.

Paisley stayed true to his word, but only because he found a massive loophole. The country star ended up convincing rapper Ludacris to post his entire album before the release, causing Sony to potentially lose out on thousands of dollars.

Tim McGraw Jumped into a Massive Legal Battle

Brad Paisley isn’t alone in feeling like his label was out to get him. Fellow country star Tim McGraw was deeply unhappy with his contract with Curb Records. He likened his contract to “indentured servitude” and, like Paisley decided to take matters into his own hands.

To get out of his contract, McGraw quickly recorded an album called Emotional Traffic. This was the last release required to fulfill his contract with Curb, and McGraw hoped to move to Big Machine Records. Unfortunately, McGraw recorded it much too quickly for Curb, who wanted to hold onto him and keep reaping the benefits. McGraw wasn’t just going to sit there and let his career be stagnant.

McGraw Countersued Curb and Won

It had been nearly three years since Southern Voice, his last album with Curb, was released. Since Curb was taking so long, and he had technically fulfilled his contract, McGraw jumped into the studio and recorded Two Lanes of Freedom for Big Machine. Emotional Traffic came out on Curb in January of 2012 and McGraw dropped Two Lanes of Freedom a year later.

Curb sued McGraw stating that he recorded Two Lanes of Freedom while under contract with their label, since it had only been a year. His contract stated he had to wait 18 months before delivering a new album. McGraw countersued them saying the label released his greatest hits album to make him wait an additional 18 months and prevent him from moving on. McGraw won the suit.

TLC’s Bad Record Deal Lead Them to Bankruptcy

TLC gave hope to a generation of young, black women who wanted meaningful, powerful representation in the mainstream. It could be argued that without TLC, we would have no Destiny’s Child and therefore no Queen Beyoncé. Unfortunately, despite all their talents, TLC still got screwed, but they were smart enough to take action.

By the time TLC released their sophomore album Crazy Sexy Cool, the group was the biggest-selling girl group of all time. Despite the millions the band brought in, they had to file for bankruptcy because of their insanely bad deal with LaFace Records. The band was entitled to just seven percent of the revenue from their album sales – and you’ll never guess how little that sum actually was.

TLC Made Just $35,000 Each

TLC may have been the biggest selling girl group of all time in 1994, but their paychecks were pitiful. The girls raked in a mere $35,000 each after Crazy Sexy Cool went gold, but had debts that amassed $3.5 million. The group was forced to go into bankruptcy and renegotiate their contract. It took the girls a whopping four years to renegotiate their deal with LaFace.

TLC’s bankruptcy set off major alarms in the music industry. Some major lawyers believed that this presented a brand new option for artists who signed a bad contract and wanted out once they hit it big – but not everyone agreed.

TLC’s Bankruptcy Set Off Alarms in the Industry

According to TLC’s lawyers, the group filed for bankruptcy simply because they couldn’t pay their bills – not to get out of their contract. This still set off major alarms. Bill Stephney, chairman of StepSun Music Entertainment, told The New York Times that because of the potential to file bankruptcy, record contracts basically “have the weight of a roll of paper towels.”

Michael Lehman, an entertainment lawyer, wasn’t as convinced. He told The New York Times that if labels were worried about their artists filing for bankruptcy in order to escape low-paying contracts, they should “offer the artists fairer contracts.”

Trent Reznor’s Label Jacked Up Album Prices

In 2007, Trent Reznor discovered that his band’s label had unfairly jacked up the price of his band’s newest release. Universal Records was selling Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero for $35 in Australia. For comparison, at the time Avril Lavigne was selling her record for just $21.99.

Reznor tried to reason with Universal, but they admitted that they had inflated the price because they could. A rep from the label admitted, “It’s because we know you have a real core audience that will pay whatever it costs when you put something out — you know, true fans. It’s the pop stuff we have to discount to get people to buy.”

This enraged Reznor as much as you could probably think, so he took matters into his own hands.

Nine Inch Nails Encouraged Their Fans to Steal

Trent Reznor was so angry that his fans were being duped (and that the label basically admitted it) that he went on the record to encourage everyone to steal the album. Reznor told his fans to use file-sharing sites, and just in case they had trouble finding the album because of Bearshare, Limewire and Napster crackdowns, Reznor uploaded it himself.

Reznor ended up parting ways with Universal and releasing his next album Ghosts I-IV on his own label as pay-what-you-want. Despite fans having the option of getting it for free, he raked in $1.6 million from the record’s sales.

John Fogerty Was Sued for Plagiarizing Himself

John Fogerty, the lead singer of the classic rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival, wanted to pursue a solo career in the early ’80s. Unfortunately, he was under contract and could not release solo music unless he signed away the rights to his bands’ extensive, hit-packed catalog. Fogerty ended up handing Fantasy Records the rights to Creedence Clearwater’s music, assuming it was the end of dealing with the label. This was, apparently, not the case.

As soon as Fogerty released a solo album, he was sued by Saul Zaentz, the head honcho at Fantasy Records. According to the suit, a song from the album sounded too much like a previous Creedence Clearwater single. Basically, Fogerty plagiarized himself, but since he no longer owned his music, so there was nothing he could do.

CBS Shelves The Clash’s Album

If you’re known for anarchy and constantly questioning authority, a label should know a bit better than to mess with you. This was the case for The Clash, who were fed up with their label CBS and decided to strike back.

The English punk band butted heads with their label since they signed the deal. CBS had refused to release their album in the U.S., released singles the band didn’t want to release and asked them to clean up their edgy, noisy sound. This didn’t fly with The Clash, who go nowhere in their negotiations.

The Clash Recorded Two Albums on CBS’ Dime

The Clash got nowhere arguing with their label. The final straw was when the band wanted to make a double album and was flat out denied. The label execs pushed them into the studio to record a free single. The band pretended to agree.

When the band emerged from the studio, they had more than just a single, free track. They recorded two albums worth of b-sides at the record label’s expense. When London Calling came out, it was sold for the price of a regular album even though it was a double because of the deal the band struck for the free single.

The Stones Got Tricked by Their Manager

The Rolling Stones are one of the most iconic rock bands of all time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not susceptible to some major label drama. The band ended up losing the rights to basically their entire catalog to their manager Allen Klein. The band didn’t know it at the time, but Klein was quite the con artist.

The band had a publishing company called Nanker Phelge. Klein started a company called Nanker Phelge USA and made the band believe it was, in fact, the company they had started. In reality, Klein was the sole owner of Nanker Phelge USA. They unknowingly signed their catalog away to everything released before 1971.

Allen Klein Is A Con Artist

Allen Klein didn’t just limit his shady business practices to The Rolling Stones. His questionable morals spilled over into every artist he touched. In the early ’60s, Klein helped his client Sam Cooke sign what seemed like a great deal with RCA Records. This deal let him form his own label and publishing company. Somehow Klein managed to worm his way into a stake of the ownership, and after Cooke died, he took control over Cooke’s entire catalog without leaving anything to his estate. In the music industry, you don’t just get screwed while you’re alive. You get screwed when you’re dead, too.

New Edition Got Royally Screwed By Two Separate Labels

R&B group New Edition royally screwed themselves in the early 1980s by signing a really bad, totally sketchy contract with not one – but two labels. The group essentially won a record contract after winning a local Hollywood Talent Night in 1982. They recorded their debut album for Streetwise Records and a whopping four of their singles hit number one in the American and UK R&B singles charts.

After returning home from their first major tour, New Edition was elated to get their first paycheck from the label, which turned out to be just $1.87 each. They promptly sued Streetwise to release them from their contract and won. Unfortunately, they would be just as unlucky with label number two.

New Edition Ended Up Being Indebted To MCA For 17 Years

After parting ways with Streetwise and winning the suit, New Edition signed with the major label MCA records – or so they thought. During their second album cycle, the group realized they weren’t actually signed to MCA Records. Instead, they were signed to a small production company called Jump and Shoot which had a deal with MCA. Each member borrowed $100,000 from MCA to buy themselves out of Jump and Shoot’s contract. As a result, the band was in major debt and ended up being tied to MCA for 17 years.

The Beach Boys Were Undersold By Millions

The Beach Boys learned the hard way that you should always hire an actual manager instead of your mom or dad. The Beach Boys are one of the defining acts of an entire generation – and their dad-ager Murry Wilson greatly undersold their catalog behind their back after a dispute.

The Beach Boys were looking to replace Murry Wilson, who was the father to members Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson. Murry had always been emotionally and physically abusive to his boys, so by the late ’60s, they wanted out. This created even more bad blood with their dad, who ended up selling the band’s catalog behind their back for a mere $750,000 – which he thought was a great price. The catalog is estimated to be worth about $40 million.

The Jackson 5 Lost Rights to Their Own Name

The Jackson 5 is one of the most iconic Motown groups in existence, but even the five, wholesome-looking brothers were targets for record label greed. In 1973, the Jackson 5 was shrinking in popularity. Part of this was because their label wouldn’t let them change their image or give them creative control. The band didn’t even have a stake in their own publishing rights and were getting a pitiful 2.8 percent royalty from Motown records. This is when Joseph Jackson, the band’s father and manager, decided to move the group to CBS for a better deal. Motown records ended up suing the Jackson 5 for breach of contract, but let them go simply because they thought they were no longer valuable. Because of this lawsuit, the Jackson 5 lost all rights to the name “Jackson 5” and their “J5” trademark.