Artist Vs. Label: From Petty to Nelly, Ten Infamous Music Industry Spats

When rapper Nelly took to Twitter on Monday to vent about lackluster sales of his latest album, '5.0,' he blamed his label, thereby joining a long, distinguished line of embittered artists who’ve taken their record companies to task publicly.


1. Sex Pistols vs. EMI (1977)

With their label unwilling to back the band during a period of considerable public outrage over lyrics to their song "God Save the Queen" and use of profanity during a television interview, the quintessential punk band -- and scourge of British culture in 1977 -- Sex Pistols found themselves dumped from their recording contract. Finally arriving at Virgin Records, the Pistols fired back with a seething blast of aural retribution, recording the track EMI. With its sneered chorus of the three-letter name and a withering takedown of the label's lack of backbone, frontman Johnny Rotten declares, "I tell you it was all a frame / They only did it cause of fame." Revenge never sounded so sweet.

Winner: Sex Pistols

2. Tom Petty vs. MCA (1981)

Tom Petty took a hard and vocal stand in 1981 against his label's plans to raise the price of the band's highly anticipated fourth album Hard Promises to a premium of $9.98. Holding back the release of the album and threatening to name the record Eight Ninety Eight, MCA relented, but by then, Petty had already long won the respect of the people while also proving himself a master in the game of chicken. In 2002, Petty would up the ante releasing The Last DJ, an apocalyptic rebuke of the entire music industry.

Winner: Tom Petty

3. Nine Inch Nails vs. TVT (1992), Interscope (1995), Universal (2007)

No stranger to public entanglements, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor launched the 90s with a much publicized bang, jumping ship from TVT Records to Interscope, which would house his own Nothing Records imprint, and giving up a portion of his publishing in the process. But a few years later, relations weren’t so rosy at the house that Jimmy Iovine built as Reznor started talking smack in the press. “Interscope used to be a label that believed in artists, now it’s all about profit, period,” he was quoted as saying in 1995. “I can either sit back and bitch about it and let the record drop off the charts, or I can promote it myself.”

Twelve years later, he was still feuding with the label, taking to the official NIN blog to complain about pricing of their 2007 album, Year Zero. “The climate grows more and more desperate for record labels,” he wrote. “Their answer to their mostly self-inflicted wounds seems to be to screw the consumer over even more." Taking it one step further, the outspoken frontman encouraged an Australian audience to, “Steal and steal and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealin'."

Winner: Draw

4. Michael Jackson vs. Sony (2002)

In one of the oddest displays of public protest, Michael Jackson along with 350 fans and the Reverend Al Sharpton commandeered a double-decker bus usually used for New York City sightseeing and parked it outside the Sony building at 550 Madison. With megaphone in hand, Jackson spoke of an “incredible injustice” taking place inside, singling out then Sony chairman Tommy Mottola as “a racist… and very, very, very devilish.” Jackson’s main gripe: that the label conspires against black artists. "The recording companies… steal, they cheat, they do everything they can, especially [against] the black artists,” Jackson said. “People from James Brown to Sammy Davis Jr., some of the real pioneers that inspired me to be an entertainer, these artists are always on tour, because if they stop touring, they would go hungry.”

The subtext to this spat involved the enormous sums Sony had spent to record and market Jackson’s 2001 comeback album Invincible -- to the tune of some $50 million, by the company’s estimates. The album sold two million copies in the U.S., hardly enough to recoup the cost, and Jackson’s fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants publicity stunt ultimately did little to soften the blow.  Sony came out on top when a slew of stars jumped to Mottola's defense and the company issued a carefully worded statement claiming that the King of Pop “committed a serious abuse of the power that comes with celebrity. The bizarre, false statements Mr. Jackson made on Saturday make it clear that his difficulties lie elsewhere than with the marketing and promotion of Invincible.”

Winner: Sony

5. Kelly Clarkson vs. Clive Davis (2007)

American Idol Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson engaged in a painfully public war of words with then SonyBMG head Clive Davis about her third album My December. A darker, more introspective effort that she likened in vibe to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Clarkson was a co-writer on every track, but Davis allegedly found the record too negative and insisted she consider recording new tracks by proven pop hit-makers – and even one holdover from a Lindsay Lohan album. The he said-she said banter in the press -- and a subsequent snub by Davis on the show -- was a low point in Idol-Sony relations as Clarkson told one publication flat out, "I am not a fan [of Davis]...I do respect him, but I don't want to barbecue with him. We don't braid each other's hair. And, despite the rumors, he is nowhere near a father figure."

Feeling pressure from the same people who would be taking her record to market, Clarkson later fired her management team and recanted. She released a statement in July 2007 which read, in part: “Much of this has been blown way out of proportion and taken out of context. Contrary to recent characterizations in the press, I'm well aware that Clive is one of the great record men of all time. He has been a key advisor and has been an important force in my success to date. He has also given me respect by releasing my new album when he was not obligated to do so. I really regret how everything has turned out.”

Winner: Clive Davis

6. OK GO vs. EMI (2010)

The band that helped coin the term viral video with a highly choreographed and hilarious treadmill dance routine found success elusive following their 2006 hit "Here It Goes Again," which logged over 50 million views on Youtube. Partly to blame, according to the OK Go's public complaints, was their label, which clearly missed the point. Capitol Records and its parent company EMI crippled video embedding of the band’s new videos, disabling access to the very mechanism that made them popular in the first place. Opting to air their frustrations publicly, the band posted a smart open letter to fans attempting to explain the catch 22 they found themselves in. Soon after, the band and EMI parted ways and OK Go formed their own label, Paracadute.

Winner: OK Go

7. Nas vs. L.A. Reid, Island Def Jam (2010)

“With all do [sic] respect to you all, Nas is NOBODY’s slave. This is not the 1800′s, respect me and I will respect you.” So begins an open memo by the rapper to Island Def Jam chairman L.A. Reid and five other executives. Subject: “PUT MY SH*T OUT!”In a 516-word rant, Nas takes his label executives to task, accusing them of feeding their egos rather than the public’s appetite for his new music. Specifically, a mix tape he’d been working on for the better part of five years and one the label allegedly didn’t want to release and count as part of his recording obligations. “The #1 problem with DEF JAM is pretty simple and obvious, the executives think they are the stars,” Nas continued. “You aren’t…. not even close. As a matter of fact, you wish you were, but it didn’t work out so you took a desk job. To the consumer, I COME FIRST.” The beef, which only went public in early October, has yet to be settled as the label has not announced any tentative release date for Lost Tapes 2. For his part, Nas summed up his own missive with these final words: “Stop being your own worst enemy. Let’s get money!

Winner: TBD

8. Shyne vs. L.A. Reid, Island Def Jam (2010)

Like Nas, rapper Shyne, who was wooed by IDJ's L.A. Reid to join the roster with a reported seven-figure deal, took issue with the label boss’s commitment to hip-hop. In interviews following his release from prison, where he was serving a 10-year sentence for assault, reckless endangerment and gun possession, Shyne vented: “[Reid] don’t get it!  It ain’t even business with him.  He don’t get the culture.  He don’t understand why we talk the way we talk, dress the way we dress… He thinks we need to put a suit on and you need to be clean and have an R&B singer on our record for us to go anywhere.” A few weeks later, Shyne apologized publicly, releasing a colorful statement that read, in part: “I was wrong about my assessment of Chairman Reid. …Along with Berry [Gordy], Quincy [Jones] and Russell [Simmons], L.A. Reid opened the door and paved the way for Africans and Latinos to become music moguls and pop culture juggernauts instead of inmates on death row. I pray one day I could discover the next Usher, Toni Braxton, TLC and OutKast; grow the careers of Bon Jovi, The Killers, Pink and legends like Mariah. L.A. Reid has accomplished what most in music never will.”

Winner: Draw

9. Avril Lavigne vs. RCA (2010)

The punk-pop princess took to her website earlier this month to announce the long-awaited arrival of her fourth album, and explain what took so long. “I have been done for a year,” Avril Lavigne wrote in a letter to her fans. “And now my record company have finally decided to release it.  OMG..How nice! Thanks guys.” For the first time, Lavigne continued, she experienced “a bunch of bureaucratic BS” at her adopted home, RCA (Lavigne was originally signed to Arista) – which was reason enough for a slow-down. “People do their best work when they are doing what they want, love and is natural for them,” she wrote. “Not when you are forcing them to be something that they are not.” The album is due out early in 2011.

Winner: TBD

10. Nelly vs. Universal Motown (2010)

The latest one-way spat started on Twitter late Monday when, five days after the Billboard chart positions for the week had been revealed, Nelly vented about selling a disappointing 63,000 copies of his fifth album 5.0 in the first week. "A record deal is a 50/50 partnership!,” the rapper began in what would become a series of ranting tweets. “As a artist its [sic] your job to provide the record company with music that they (record company) can sell, Thing about the partnership is that n the public eye the responsibility is not 50/50! The artist is always the 1 who catches 90% of the blame."

Nelly places much of the burden on Universal’s Marketing department, but the numbers tell a simpler story. “If u only ship 200 thound [thousand] of an album how many are u f#cking tryen [sic] to sell?” he wrote. Still, with a hit single, “Just a Dream,” all over radio, a burgeoning side business in fitness DVDs and the faith of fans who’ve followed his career for over 10 years and multiple formats, it’s the enterprising thinker who stands to triumph in the end.

Winner: Nelly