Robbie Williams, Oasis and Spandau Ballet are the latest pop stars to become embroiled in legal battles over money. The only real winners are the lawyers
Once it was a formula for success in the music business: creative talent; young, ambitious people seeking to make it big; a pushy manager, and a record company wanting to sign up the band. Now it's a recipe for an appearance in the High Court.

In the last few weeks, the list of pop stars seeking redress in the courts has been glitzier than the running order for the Brit awards. Lawyers for Robbie Williams have been appealing against a judgment ordering him to pay royalties to former Take That manager Nigel Martin-Smith. Tony McCarroll, a drummer with Oasis who was sacked after the second album, was claiming a share in the band's earnings. And three former members of Spandau Ballet, Tony Hadley, Steve Norman and John Keeble, have been embroiled in court 59 in a fight over royalties with Gary Kemp, who wrote the band's songs.

There are themes running through pop's legal wrangles. There are fights between stars and their managers; between band members and fellow players; between record companies and artists; between the owners of embarrassing old recordings and the performers who have since become famous. Then there are disputes over royalties, copyright and bootlegs. As David Walker, the manager of those hardy rockers Status Quo, puts it: "Where there's a hit, there's a writ."

Andrew Sharland, a leading music business lawyer involved in the Robbie Williams case, says: "The interaction between creative people, entrepreneurial people, large sums of money and detailed contracts creates an area where there are bound to be disputes."

Most bands are formed by friends who meet in the pub - at school in the cases of Spandau Ballet and Wham! - and decide to form a group. They get on well and rarely think of their future relationships.

Solicitor Brian Howard says record companies these days require bands to take legal advice before signing a contract. "With a recording or publishing agreement, they are always in writing and negotiated. Some are fair. Some aren't. But the relationships between individual members are something which people ignore." Until a dispute occurs, as when Noel Gallagher decided Tony McCarroll's drumming was not good enough. Then stars end up in court because, Mr Howard says: "They are the few people who can afford it."

David Walker believes the problem is compounded because managers can be as inexperienced as the novice bands. "Often the manager is the guy who bought them the first sound system or the friend who had the van which took them from gig to gig. Naturally, because they have no experience of our industry, they don't know the pitfalls. I'm not putting them down, because I think every band has to have a champion. But they have no training for success. There's no school for managers." Maybe, he speculates, there ought to be. "Perhaps the British Phonographic Industry (the UK music industry body) should set up something where bands and managers go to someone who gives them an education in the pitfalls."

In the case of Spandau Ballet there is no dispute that Gary Kemp wrote the songs. What the other band members claim is that it was agreed they should share the royalties because of their contribution - notably the distinctive New Romantic style - to the band. They have received nothing since 1988. But if the absence of a clear agreement may cause a problem, the fine print of a contract can be just as contentious in other cases.

Compared with the Sixties and Seventies, when the record industry had a deserved reputation for exploitation, the business today has cleaned up its act and the stars have benefited. "I act for both record companies and recording artists and, generally speaking, it's fairly even these days," Brian Howard says.

"The only trouble is that the record industry insists on having long- term contracts. In Hollywood, a star will sign for one movie and then go to another studio for the next. In the record industry, a five-album deal is standard." Even at an album a year - which few bands achieve - that can trap musicians for a considerable part of their performing careers.

Such a deal was what led George Michael to court, where he argued that his contract with Sony Music reduced him to a "pop slave". He was prevented from recording any fresh material after refusing to collaborate with the company. The row was only settled after two other companies, Virgin and Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks, paid Sony to release him.

Other disputes focus on royalty collection and plagiarism. U2 won a reported pounds 400,000 in a long-running fight against the Performing Right Society over the way the organisation collects royalties on live performances. Bruce Springsteen is claiming pounds 2m damages after winning a High Court battle against two British companies that breached his copyright.

"Sampling," where part of an earlier work is used in a new work, like the use of a Rolling Stones track in the violin backing of Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony", is another issue currently causing headaches. "There's a culture of fear in the industry about sampling," Andrew Sharland says.

It is an infringement of copyright to use a "substantial" part of a work without permission. But in pop music, unlike publishing, there has never been a test case as to what "substantial" means. Mr Sharland believes thousands of pounds are being paid in unnecessary copyright fees at present. Dangling a piece of showbiz gossip tantalisingly near, he thinks there could be a test case to challenge this soon.

Naomi Moskovic, legal expert for the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters (a union of three previous bodies which is formally launched this week), says the real battleground for the future will be the electronic media. "The control and regulation of the electronic media is really something we're looking at very seriously," she says. "Copyright is very hard to enforce in such a fluid environment."

All of which will create more work for the lawyers. The highly specialised world of entertainment law in Britain is centred on four or five firms in London with David Davis of Clintons and Brian Howard of Russells the arguable leaders of the pack. The work is lucrative, although not on the same scale as the fees enjoyed by corporate lawyers. Other lawyers cite a major drawback: pop musicians are regarded as bad payers.

"The reality is it takes a long time to learn the various areas of law that the pop world is involved in - defamation, copyright, contract, partnerships," Mr Howard says.

But it is also more fun than trusts or shipping law. Andrew Sharland admits he is a frustrated would-be pop star. "God blessed me with lots of enthusiasm but little musical talent. This is the `proper job' I was encouraged to take. But if you're interested in pop, it's a great job."

ROCK AROUND THE DOCK

Robbie Williams (right) loses fight in November 1997 over paying his one-time manager, Nigel Martin-Smith, thousands of pounds of commission from when he left Take That. Currently at appeal.

The Spice Girls' "U Can't Dance" was deemed reminiscent of a1970s record, "It's Just Begun", by the Jimmy Castor Bunch. They now pay 16 per cent of the royalties to Minder Music, which part-owned the original tune.

The Smiths' drummer Mike Joyce sued band members Morrissey and Johnny Marr in 1996 after they withdrew royalties. Morrissey later lost an appeal against having to hand over pounds 1m.

Former Oasis drummer Tony McCarroll (right) last week won pounds 550,000 for being ousted after two albums. Noel Gallagher thought his drumming was not up to it.

Bruce Springsteen won a ruling in December 1998 that he owned the rights to 19 songs written 26 years ago. He was awarded pounds 500,000 costs from one company and is seeking pounds 2m from another.

Lol Tolhurst, the drummer and co-founder of The Cure, lost his 1994 High Court action for a larger share of the group's recording profits because, the judge decided, his drink problem severely limited his ability to perform.

The former members of the Beatles last year stopped sales of an amateur recording of the group made in Hamburg in 1962, even though some of the songs were put out on a live album nearly 20 years ago.

Comments