Behind all the music we know and love lies a beast that’s been there from the very beginning. While it's true that within every great artist there’s an inspiration that brings out the creativity, in reality, it’s the business that’s truly kept the music world alive for so many decades. Now, we’re in a vastly more modern age than, say, the ’50s or ’60s; times certainly are still a-changing.
This change is hitting the music industry particularly hard, considering it once thrived on being able to sell everything and anything to us to make a quick buck. Not only that, but the artists lucky enough to be signed to a label more often than not find, themselves with the short end of the stick: losing out on money and being forgotten once the interest is lost.
This is where Avenged Sevenfold come in. Back in 2016, they were sued by their then-label Warner Bros. after requesting the contract they’d signed in 2004 be cancelled under the famous California “Seven-Year Rule,” which, in its bare essence, means any contract that involves personal services (i.e., musicians) can only last up to seven years. You might notice Avenged Sevenfold waited longer than seven years to request the cancellation of the contract; that’s because in the 1980s, the music industry successfully lobbied for an amendment to the legislation.
This amendment basically meant that instead of being stuck to the basic, solid seven years, the industry would instead look to “deliverables” — releases, essentially. This was to safeguard the music industry against severe losses from acts who labels might inject massive cash sums to support, only to find they leave after a few years, thus rendering the label at a loss. According to president of Artery Recordings, Shan Dan Horan, this is one of the most common arguments he finds against labels, saying, “Most debates I see stem from what is called ‘recoup,’ which basically means what is spent on an artist should be made back through album sales (basically a loan).
“If your album grossed $500K dollars and you spent $500K on recordings to music videos, you effectively broke even,” Horan continues. “On one hand, is it the musician’s fault for wasting money on the most expensive producers/engineers or the label’s for not paying him, even though it would be a loss to them?”
So now we reach the lawsuit that Warner Bros. presented to Avenged. In their contract, Avenged were obliged to release five albums — though at the time of the contract cancellation, they were at four (Hail To The King in 2013 being the last released on Warner). Their reason for wanting to leave was that the label had gone through such a heavy evolution from when they first signed, that it was a completely different company where they no longer felt comfortable. They wanted to start fresh at a new label and find a new family — something they were entitled to do under the “Seven-Year Rule.”
What makes this lawsuit of particular historical note is that all previous claims of the “Seven-Year Rule” have been settled out of court. This is the first time a case like this has gone to trial. There are obviously only two outcomes of this: Avenged win, and they essentially cause some pretty severe shockwaves throughout the “old industry”; or they lose, wherein they have to pay out a purported $5-10M dollars, and things go back to the way they are now.
Horan, who has been involved in the industry for many years and worked with many of the labels that have, in fact, been the topic of lawsuits, has had first-hand experience of the intricacies of trying to find the balance, contractually. “I normally sign bands on one-off deals to see if they like the label. If they don't, they are free to go somewhere else; it's pretty fair. On the other hand, a band that asks for an excessive amount of money I would sign for multiple albums, so I have a better chance to at least break even on the release.” Horan has also been involved in his own disputes: “In regards to a contract dispute, I once had a band blast me in the press: ‘Fuck your label,’ they said as they berated me and the label. A year later, they decided to re-sign for two additional albums.”
A lot of questions are certainly raised when topics such as this make it into the media, most of all: What actual use are record labels? A fairly recent example that both answers this question and opposes it comes in the form of While She Sleeps. The U.K.-based metalcore band independently released their third album, You Are We, and it made it onto the Top 10 album chart. Over in the U.S., however, it was released via SharpTone records and hit the Top 200. Pretty different numbers.
This could be due to the band being a U.K.-based; it’s far easier for them to reach their following in a country that’s three times smaller than the state of Texas — which is where labels are preferable. Would You Are We have pulled a bigger crowd in the U.S. with label influence? Potentially, but that’s not to take away from the achievement While She Sleeps pulled off. They’re at the forefront of change now, an example of what can actually happen when you go it alone.
There’s no denying labels are the experts. That’s pretty evident, especially in one such as Warner Bros., which has been around for over half a century. Horan believes this is an integral part to the label's dominance. “Bands look at labels and wonder ‘What are they even doing behind those closed doors? Probably nothing.” The truth is, labels really tap into a million outlets and opportunities that bands have never really completely understood or known of. It comes from decades of experience and creating a loyal microeconomy. However, if a band maintains being DIY, I often see them pay label reps as freelancers to end up making moves for them anyway. So in some regard, labels or label insiders will always be involved in some capacity.”
The connections and influence labels have are unparalleled, especially when you consider a new band trying to break through of their own volition. The dream of independently releasing an album and making a long-lasting career out of it is still hard to achieve. Countless names come and go because they try to stay true to being a fully independent band, and that’s all down to the complexities of the industry. A win for Avenged Sevenfold would certainly highlight the ever-increasing power of the artist over the label, pushing the new world forward slightly; but still, there’s a nagging feeling that until something major changes — something completely revolutionary like the birth of a new industry — not a lot else will.
The tools are out there for any band, of any size, to go it alone. There are crowdfunding websites and easy access to streaming services, rendering the need for entire departments of distribution and PR almost unnecessary. But the two different scenarios, bands who are either established or unestablished, rely upon one thing: fans.
In all of the lawsuits, in all of the talk of an evolving industry, the one constant that’s ruled both the business and creativity is the fans. No one knows why a band will catch on while another won’t — something that is certainly not going unnoticed, as Horan explains: “Nowadays we live in an era without an attention span. I grew up in an era where I was excited to get to Blockbuster Video to get the last copy of a new movie. If I was lucky enough to get it, I would watch it three times. Now as I sit on my couch and have unlimited streaming movies, I can't seem to pick one as I scroll forever. So realistically, with endless music at people's fingertips, will the new generation really follow a band over seven years? I doubt it.”
There’s no real formula that can be followed; and as the world changes, bands are learning this. That’s why they’re more confident in being able to stand up to a label that they feel may not suit them. Ultimately, if the band are happy and creating worthwhile material, then that’ll bring in the fans and the real end goal of the business: money.
The outcome of this trial could potentially set Avenged back a fair bit of cash — changing their timeline completely — or it could be another step away from an age that’s simply on its way out. Remember, as a fan of music, you’re the one who’s really in control. Support the artists you love. Buy records and buy merch because you’re the oil in the cogs of the industry either way.