A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Janie’s Got a Lawsuit?

By Stephen Woods

Steven Tyler, front man for Aerosmith, the rock group he started in 1971 and has since guided to huge success, may sue his bandmates if they try to replace him. Tyler is currently in a rehab facility for a painkiller and drug addiction and may be unable to perform for almost two years because of other medical problems, including the possible need for surgery on his leg and foot.

Not surprisingly, several gossip sites have framed the story as a dramatic feud between diva rock star and heartless rock band.  In doing so, they’ve largely ignored the legal issues raised when business relationships turn sour. Lawsuits stemming from these sorts of disputes are a regular feature of the music industry. Just see here, here, and here.

Mr.Tyler’s possible hiatus leaves Aerosmith’s four other members in an awkward position. In today’s less-than-thriving music industry, even a hugely successful group can be forgotten after a short period of inactivity. To prevent this out-of-sight, out-of-mind scenario, the band’s manager, Howard Kaufman, is reported to have shopped around for a new lead singer. But Mr. Tyler’s lawyer issued a cease-and-desist letter informing Kaufman that if Tyler is replaced, he’s ready to sue. The group members met to discuss the situation on February 9, but if push comes to lawsuit, will Steven Tyler find himself Livin On the Edge of being in his own band? What are some of his legal options?

Option one:  Mr. Tyler says “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.”

If Mr. Tyler is focused on remaining the band’s front man, his suit could be based on his contracts with his record label, the band, and Kaufman, his manager. Of course, the contents of these contracts are not public information and are known only to the parties and lawyers who drafted them. But regardless of their specifics, the same basic legal principles would apply.

Mr. Tyler could sue for specific performance of the contracts, which would be akin to asking a court to force the other parties to the contracts to live up to their end of the deals. If Tyler were to prevail in such a suit, the court could force Mr. Tyler’s band, management, and record label to fulfill any outstanding obligation in the contract, which likely includes fronting money to record additional albums and for touring.

However, courts are wary of forcing specific performance of personal service contracts. Courts do not typically want to force people to work together if they don’t want to.  Instead, courts will often award one party the monetary amount he would receive if the contract were to be fully performed, which leads us to:

Option two:  The label says “Walk This Way.”

Record companies often prefer to sever ties with an artist rather than maintain a strained or tempestuous relationship.

In Mr.Tyler’s case, he could receive his base pay rate as specified in his contract, plus his share of any projected ticket sales, record royalties, and other income that could be estimated from past performances and revenue. This scenario is sometimes referred to as one party “buying out” the other, and is a relatively common occurrence in the music industry. Virgin Music famously paid Mariah Carey $28 million to sever its contract with her, and Warner Records reached a similar settlement with Madonna.

Contractual disputes often drag on for months and years. When tens of millions of dollars are at stake, neither side wants to blink first. So it seems the real loser in this situation might be Aerosmith fans. If they were looking forward to the band putting out new material anytime soon, they may have to Dream On.

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