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Everybody Wants a Piece of Crease

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."

Then on March 11 at the Hard Rock Cafe in Miami, Gershengorn learned something that would tip the legal scale in his band's favor. Crease was opening up for Virgo's Merlot, a new national band, and Mark Watson's brother (and partner in DM) David was in the audience with his wife, Shirley. "I saw Dave's wife walking away with someone that I knew," recalls Gershengorn. "Don't you know who that is?" he later asked this friend, who quickly informed him that he didn't know anything about DM but that Shirley Watson was a South Florida representative for the same major label that had, a few weeks earlier, expressed interest in launching negotiations with Crease on a record deal.

"Suddenly everything fell into place," says Gershengorn, explaining that a few days before the Hard Rock show, the scout from the label in question (a big national label Gershengorn asked not be named) had rescinded his offer. "He said, 'Tell me about this local record company,'" recalls Gershengorn. "I totally freaked. It's kind of funny that the only label that ever said anything to us about DM is the label where Dave's wife works. Now, if we could prove that she was involved, that would be tortious interference, and we would be able to sue for millions."

Armed with this new information, the band's lawyer returned to the negotiating table, and both sides quickly settled on a deal. On April 19 of this year, exactly four years after Crease first signed with DM, the two parties reached a compromise: DM Records was promised $25,000 and 2 percent of the band's next album, and Crease was unshackled once again. "It was settled for nuisance value," says Wolfe. "We needed the band to be free and clear so they could strike while the iron was hot. It would have taken us a year to win in court, and by that time the band would be old news."

DM president Mark Watson would not comment on the lawsuit, although he did say he was somewhat disappointed with the payoff, especially considering his legal bills. The company, which still owns the rights to Crease's first album, is promoting the album on its rather flashy Website, although Watson says DM has no copy of the CD for sale. "It's on the Website to fill up space," says Watson, whose rock catalog is limited to only one other album from another artist. "We're not manufacturing the Crease album right now."

Since that first CD sold barely 500 copies, most of them bought by friends of the band members, one might wonder what happened to the leftovers. "They sold them off as a novelty item," says Gershengorn. "My mom picked up a copy of our CD at a flea market. Someone had glued the case shut and splashed a fake scoop of ice cream on top."

Despite the embarrassment of seeing its first musical effort used as a novelty canvas, the band and its management believe that in the end the group will still have the last laugh. Around the same time the lawsuit was settled, Zeta started spinning "Jenny," a second track from the recent Crease album. The song has made the band more popular than ever. "A record deal will be in place before the summer's out," says manager Schoenfeld, noting that Crease's songs will soon be played on more than half a dozen Florida radio stations and are already being played on a mainstream station in Montreal. "I've always wanted to be able to say we're big in Canada," jokes Gershengorn. "We're international now."

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address:
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Jay Cheshes