Everybody Wants a Piece of Crease

How did a local rock band go from being a hot property to getting into legal hot water? Clue: Money was involved.

It's a classic tale in rock 'n' roll: dreams of a record deal -- and the ensuing sex and drugs and MTV appearances -- nearly crushed by lawyers, managers, dueling labels, and other music industry vultures.

For the suburban metal-punk band Crease, the insanity began last September when the group, after four years of playing in tiny clubs to crowds of ten or twenty, finally broke through. The band's first real hit, "Frustration," had caught the ear of the program director at Zeta (WZTA-FM 94.9), and he decided to throw the song into heavy rotation in the station's mainstream mix. Almost overnight the increased radio play transformed the group from just another struggling Broward quartet into the hottest musical property in South Florida.

Sixpack Shy of Pretty, Crease's self-released, six-song CD, began flying off record store shelves. The group landed a New York manager and a high-powered entertainment lawyer, and the major-label scouts began beating a path to the band's door. Rock stardom seemed within grasp.

"It was insane," recalls bassist and lead songwriter Greg Gershengorn, who before the breakthrough had been thinking of getting out of music altogether. "Within a month we went from playing for ten people to playing for six hundred on a Thursday at two in the morning."

And then, last February, the party came to a sudden, screeching halt. The band's attorney received an urgent fax from Mark Watson, president of DM Records, a small independent label in Pompano Beach that specializes in bass, a music genre combining elements of rap and hip-hop with a heavy bass line.

"I am in possession of a recording by your client, Crease," read the fax. "Such recording has been made without permission and is accordingly unauthorized. Please be advised that DM Records, Inc. entered into an exclusive recording agreement with Crease on April 29, 1995."

DM Records was trying to jam a great big iron pipe into the music machine. "I was right there when I got the [fax] page," recalls Gershengorn, pointing toward a booth inside Landlubbers, a Plantation sports bar that is the band's hockey-watching, beer-drinking hangout. "My stomach turned. After three and a half years, these scumbags had crawled out of nowhere."

It was true that Gershengorn and his bandmates had signed a contract with the tiny local label and that the company had released Interference, their first, entirely obscure, album. To their way of thinking, though, that contract had expired long ago.

"We sold more albums on our own in a month than they sold for us in a year," says Gershengorn, whose band has sold more than 4000 copies of the new album since last September. "Now they smell money, so here they come. We're not even signed yet and we could already have our own VH1 special with all of the bullshit that's happened."

The legal shooting war that ensued threatened the band's rock-star momentum and most of its future proceeds. "The label was asking for the sky, the moon, the heaven, and the earth," says Richard Wolfe, a bulldog of an entertainment litigator from Miami who was called in to represent the band in its struggles with DM. In other words, DM Records wanted 75 percent of Crease's publishing deal, 75 percent of its merchandising deal, and 6 percent of the take on the next album. The band told Wolfe to let DM know where it could stick that offer.

Music is a cutthroat and treacherous business, and most of the bands currently clogging the airwaves have confronted similar legal and financial hurdles on the way to the top. "It's just a part of the business," says Wolfe, who has represented numerous musical acts in their battles with tiny labels trying to get a piece of the pie. Recently Wolfe won a case for a South Florida R&B act whose old label was trying to sabotage a lucrative new deal by claiming that it still owned not only the performer, Black Haze, but his name as well.

In Crease's case the dispute initially centered on a contract clause releasing the band from DM's hold if, after a year, no third-party (preferably major-label) deal had been inked. As far as Crease was concerned, such major deal never transpired and band and label had parted ways on April 29, 1996. DM, on the other hand, which had long been out of touch with the band, claimed it still owned Crease because it had in fact secured a third-party deal -- the local distributor used to disperse the band's first album to local record stores. Wolfe countered that the distributor was not a label and thus did not qualify as a third party. Neither side wanted to budge. A long and costly legal battle seemed inevitable, which meant that by the time the band extricated itself from the legal mess, the music industry buzz would probably have quieted and the musicians would be left with little more than a heap of legal bills.

"Lawsuits can drag on a long time," says Crease's New York manager, Jamie Schoenfeld, who stopped actively pitching the band to major labels once DM entered the picture. "No one wants to buy a lawsuit whether the claim is legitimate or not."

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