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By Chris Cooke | Posted on Tuesday, October 18, 2022
A stack of artists have sued Trax Records, the Chicago-based label that played an important role in the development of house music in the 1980s. The plaintiffs claim the label failed to pay them royalties owed to them and – in some cases – released their music without ever paying them anything.
The new litigation follows the previous lawsuit brought against Trax by Larry Heard and Robert Owens – prominent players in the 1980s Chicago house scene and two-thirds of Fingers Inc. With the backing of their current music publisher TaP Music, they sued Trax in June 2020 for non-payment of royalties and other contractual disputes, their lawsuit stating that “this case involves an all-too-familiar history of the early days of the music industry”.
“Talented but unrepresented musicians eager for their first break,” he added, “have been lulled into a business relationship with an unscrupulous record company that made promises it never had. intended to hold and posed as paternalistic benefactors for these artists – like a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
The label’s founder, Larry Sherman, had died shortly before this lawsuit was filed in April 2020. When reporting on his death, the Chicago Sun-Times noted that while Sherman and his label “contributed to the development of house music”, he also “left a complex legacy within the Chicago house music community”. Over the years, several artists signed to the label have complained about their treatment and unpaid royalties.
Rachael Cain — who, after signing to the label as an artist, was involved in various business ventures with Sherman, later becoming president of Trax — acknowledged some of those controversies at the time of her death, telling The Sun- Times “it’s a controversial figure”. But she insisted that in recent years Sherman had tried to settle past royalty payments, in part through litigation with a former distribution partner.
Nevertheless, Trax initially attempted to have much of the lawsuit filed by Heard and Owens dismissed. But eventually a settlement was reached, which was confirmed by TaP Music in August. Among other things, the settlement agreement confirmed that the duo owned all rights to the music they released with the label.
TaP Music said, “This is a huge win not just for Heard and Owens but, symbolically, for the arts community. At a time when the “whitening” of dance music and its culture is in the spotlight, this return of founding creations to the black creators who rightfully own them is a reminder of the historical injustices at the heart of this culture, but also a shining example of how at least some of these wrongs can be righted”.
According to Rolling Stone, among the artists involved in the new lawsuit are Marshall Jefferson, Adonis, Maurice Joshua or even the co-founder of the label Vince Lawrence. The litigation targets Trax itself, as well as Sherman’s estate and the label’s current owners, including Cain.
A legal representative for the plaintiffs, Sean Mulroney, said Trax’s early years were a time of “false signatures, bad checks and sketchy (or non-existent) bookkeeping.”
He tells Rolling Stone: “Larry Sherman said he was going to pay [the artists] and never did. Are you going to spend $50, $60,000 chasing him, knowing there’s no breakthrough? What are they worth? You have to say to yourself, ‘Is it worth it? I’m just going to keep writing’. And for some of those guys it was, ‘I’m never gonna write another song again.
Although much of Trax’s criticism is actually criticism of the late Sherman, there are also criticisms of Cain regarding his conduct in recent years.
Several Trax critics told Rolling Stone that they had been threatened with libel suits by Cain if they discussed their grievances with the label in public. And Mulroney himself says he received a cease and desist request earlier this month.
When approached by Rolling Stone, Cain said she was working hard to bring the Trax catalog back to life following these past issues with the former distribution partner, with the aim of ensuring that “artists pay the royalties due to them”.
As for the retrial, she added: ‘I haven’t even seen it so I can’t respond in defense yet, but I will on the legal file.’