It started out like any other spec deal in 1997. Genard Parker, an emerging producer, completed demos for an unknown 16-year-old artist, Ashanti Douglas, through his small Atlanta-based production company. He paid for them as a favor to her mother, Tina, whom he was dating. Men may do all kinds of things to impress women, but they also know that business is business. He had Ashanti sign a contract with Mom as guardian. Ten years later, Parker was suing the multi-platinum “hip-hop princess” for $2.6 million. I was his key expert witness.
While most of us are not working with stars of this level every day, this situation created case law that will impact producers and artists at all levels in odd, annoying ways. This is especially true when one considers that sloppily drafted spec deals get signed everyday of the week.
A few months after Parker completed his demos, a Sony label, Noontime, wanted to sign Ashanti. Tina asked Parker to release her daughter from their deal so she could trade up to Noontime, which had name-brand producers and a hit-making track record. She offered Parker a “go-away” package that included royalties on Ashanti’s future “Noontime recordings.” Parker agreed and Ashanti took a six-figure advance from Noontime. But shortly thereafter, she bailed on them too. This time her trade-up would make history.
Irv Gotti of Murder Inc. (who was not yet the star producer he was to become) got her a deal on Universal Music where she went on to sell six-plus million units and win a Grammy. She was all of 19. Yet, despite the millions paid to her, Parker never got a dime.
He eventually filed a lawsuit claiming $600,000 in back royalties. To pay his lawyers’ retainer, Parker sold his Ashanti demos to a foreign label for a few grand; the ones featuring her performance without the benefit of, well . . . more experience in the studio, we’ll say. Ashanti filed a countersuit for releasing the old demos. It was war.
Now, it’s probable that Ashanti and Tina believed that they didn’t owe Parker. After all, how many times have rising artists left former producers in the dust? Plenty of times. Plus, in this case, the contract specified renumeration only from “Noontime recordings.” None were released. This seemed like a non-starter. No matter, Parker’s lawyers had a brilliant, and never-before tried legal theory: If Noontime dropped Ashanti — so be it. No money for Parker. But, if she “quit” before they had a chance to make her a star, then quitting should not mitigate her obligations to Parker. Otherwise, every artist could weasel out of paying their original producer — who contributes the most risk capital — simply by quitting their next deal.
Many artists leapfrog producers as they climb the ladder, often leaving a wake of fledglings with little more than “I knew her when” bragging rights. Did Ashanti owe Parker even though his recordings were only demos that never saw the inside of a record store and were never heard by the executives who signed her?
To everyone’s surprise, the jury said “yes,” and based on Ashanti’s royalty statements awarded Parker $630,000. Champagne time, right? No. Parker would end up seeing only a fraction of the award because another sloppy but common practice in the music business reared its ugly head.
The judge reduced the award to $50,000 — Parker’s out of pocket expenses. He said Parker failed to show that the theoretical Noontime/Sony album would have achieved the same results as the albums actually released through Murder Inc./Universal. To get the other $600,000, Parker would have to prove that had Ashanti stayed with Noontime/Sony she would have sold at least the same number of albums.
Here’s where I came in. I looked at sales reports from several of the top female R&B singers on both Sony and Universal. What I discovered surprised everyone. Artists of like type on Sony sold an astounding 270% more albums during those years. Parker therefore could be entitled to over $1.7 million in damages by this logic. That would be my testimony. Sadly, the jury would never learn any of this.
Minutes before I was to take the stand, Ashanti’s lawyers dropped a bombshell: It turned out Parker, like many other small to mid-sized producers, had never properly incorporated. Parker’s entire award could be tossed on this technicality.
For many home-grown production “companies,” the expenses are so steep that most don’t file for a business license but rather opt for just a DBA for about $100, which provides no real layer of corporate protection. Aside from not getting the $600,000, without the proper license Parker would be personally liable if he lost Ashanti’s countersuit. In light of this, Parker settled for a number far south of what a verdict could have brought him.
Seriously, as producers and artists, can’t we all just get a song?