Tim McGraw gains his musical freedom
Written by Anita Wadhwani | The Tennessean–December 1, 2011
Tim McGraw hugs his attorney, William Ramsey, after Nashville Chancery Court Judge Russell Perkins ruled that McGraw no longer has to record for Curb Records. / John Partipilo / The Tennessean
Country singer Tim McGraw became the music world’s equivalent of a free agent Wednesday after winning the first round in a legal battle with Curb Records — the label that discovered him more than 20 years ago and has had a hand in every album he’s released since then.
Nashville Chancery Court Judge Russell Perkins ruled that McGraw is free for the first time in his music career to record music and sell albums with anyone he chooses — a development that could be a bonanza for the singer if it sparks a bidding war for his talent.
After the four-hour hearing, McGraw said he was “just very happy.” The singer hugged his attorney, William Ramsey, before walking over to embrace his wife, country star Faith Hill, who had sat on a bench during the sparsely attended trial.
Curb Records attorney Jay Bowen issued a statement that read in part that the record label “intends to continue to pursue these claims, including through the appeals process as appropriate in light of the importance of the underlying principles involved.”
The ruling effectively ends one of country music’s longest-running deals, one that quickly shot McGraw into superstardom and 40 million in album sales to date, but that soured in recent years with McGraw publicly vowing to end his contract with Curb “if it kills me.”
Fight will continue
However, Wednesday’s court decision still leaves unresolved the central question in the lawsuit filed against McGraw in May, namely did McGraw breach the contract that required him to make five original albums for Curb Records?
Also unresolved is the outcome of McGraw’s countersuit against Curb Records seeking an advance for the last album he recorded for Curb (some $1.5 million), according to attorneys’ arguments on Wednesday.
Both sides also are seeking unspecified damage awards that legal experts say could cost the losing party millions of dollars.
“It may be premature to declare Tim McGraw the clear winner,” said attorney Richard Busch, an expert in entertainment law and partner with King & Ballow who is not involved in the case.
“(McGraw’s) the winner practically because he’s not under an injunctive order to prevent him from signing with someone else. On the other hand, the breach of contract claim has yet to be heard,” Busch said.
After the ruling, industry experts said McGraw is free to sign with another record label, but also could record music on his own.
McGraw is the No. 8 best-selling country artist of the past 20 years, according to Billboard SoundScan. Forbes ranked him as the fourth-highest-paid country artist last year, although the $35 million the magazine estimated he grossed in 2010 also included from his acting career, concerts and sales from his line of cologne.
“It’s difficult to put a price on it, but he’s got superstar status and he’s not dependent on a record label building him up because he’s already achieved that status,” said David Maddox, an attorney and assistant professor with the Mike Curb College of Entertainment & Music Business at Belmont University. Curb has been a big supporter of the music program at Belmont, but it operates independently.
The legal dispute originated with a lawsuit filed against McGraw by Curb Records, claiming the performer was in breach of a five-album recording contract, first signed in 1992 and then renewed and amended in 1997.
Does album count?
Curb and his attorneys claim that McGraw’s fifth original album, Emotional Traffic, was recorded too soon after the singer’s Southern Voices album (between 10 months and a year and a half too soon), raising concerns about the freshness of the material.
Because it wasn’t recorded in the correct time period, it would not qualify as McGraw’s fifth and final album under the Curb contract, Bowen argued in the court hearing.
In addition, the contract specified the music was subject to the mutual approval of Curb and McGraw, and Emotional Traffic did not get Curb approval, the attorney said.
McGraw attorneys argued that Curb Records artificially stretched the time that McGraw was obligated to remain in his contract by delaying releases of new material and releasing “Best of” compilation albums instead.
Emotional Traffic has yet to be released, although a single from the album, “Felt Good On My Lips,” released on a separate greatest hits album, became a No. 1 hit.
The fate of the album, which Curb claims ownership of, remains uncertain. The judge told attorneys he would issue a written order in about a week’s time.