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More artists sue Trax Records over allegedly unpaid royalties

By | Published on Tuesday 18 October 2022

Trax Records

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 that the label hasn’t paid them the royalties they are due and – in some cases – released their music without ever paying them anything at all.

The new litigation follows the previous lawsuit pursed against Trax by Larry Heard and Robert Owens – prominent players from the 1980s Chicago house scene and two thirds of Fingers Inc. With support from their current music publisher TaP Music, they sued Trax in June 2020 over unpaid royalties and other contractual disputes, with their lawsuit declaring that “this case involves an all-too familiar story of the early days of the music industry”.

“Talented, but unrepresented, musicians hungry for their first break”, it added, “were lulled into a business relationship with an unscrupulous record company that made promises it never intended to keep and masqueraded as paternalistic benefactors for those artists – like a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.

The label’s founder, Larry Sherman, had died shortly before that lawsuit was filed in April 2020. When reporting on his death, the Chicago Sun-Times noted that while Sherman and his label were “instrumental in developing house music”, he also “left a complex legacy within Chicago’s house music community”. Over the years multiple artists signed to the label had 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 his death, telling the Sun-Times “he’s a controversial figure”. But she insisted that in more recent years Sherman had been trying to sort out the payment of past royalties, partly via litigation with a former distribution partner.

Nevertheless, Trax initially tried to get much of the lawsuit filed by Heard and Owens dismissed. But ultimately a settlement was reached, which was confirmed by TaP Music back in August. Among other things, the settlement deal confirmed that the duo own all the rights in the music they released with the label.

TaP Music said: “This is a huge victory not only for Heard and Owens but, symbolically, for the artistic community. At a time when the ‘whitewashing’ of dance music and its culture is under the spotlight, this return of foundational creative works to the black creators who rightly own them is a reminder of historical injustices at the heart of this culture, but also a shining example of how some at least of those wrongs can be righted”.

According to Rolling Stone, among the artists involved in the new lawsuit are Marshall Jefferson, Adonis, Maurice Joshua and even the label’s co-founder Vince Lawrence. The litigation targets Trax itself, as well as Sherman’s estate and the current owners of the label, which includes Cain.

A legal rep for the plaintiffs, Sean Mulroney, says that the early years of Trax was a period of “forged signatures, bounced cheques and sketchy (or nonexistent) accounting”.

He tells Rolling Stone: “Larry Sherman said he was going to pay [the artists] and never did. Are you going to spend 50, 60 grand to chase it down, knowing there’s no moving forward? What are they worth? You have to go, ‘Is it worth it? I’ll just keep writing’. And for some of these guys, it was, ‘I’ll never write another song again'”.

Although a lot of the criticism of Trax is really criticism of the late Sherman, there is criticism of Cain too regarding her conduct in more recent years.

Several critics of Trax told Rolling Stone that they have been threatened with defamation lawsuits by Cain if they discuss their grievances with the label in public. And Mulroney himself says he received a cease and desist demand earlier this month.

When approached by Rolling Stone, Cain said that she has been working hard to breathe life back into the Trax catalogue following those past issues with the former distribution partner, with the aim of getting “artists paid the royalties they are due”.

As for the new lawsuit, she added: “I have not even seen it so I cannot respond in defence yet, but I will on the legal record”.