Weekly Obsession: Country music’s reserve clause

Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 10:05pm

Call him country music’s Curt Flood.

Nashville Chancellor Russell Perkins released Tim McGraw from his two-decades long contract with Curb Records last week. The decision could prove lucrative for McGraw personally and shake the Row to its core.

Curb discovered McGraw 20 years ago, inking him to a long-term contract. The deal has made Stetson-loads of money for both label and troubadour — Mr. Faith Hill has sold 40 million albums — but the relationship, in the grand tradition of country music, hit the skids and soured as McGraw entered the studio for his fifth original album, Emotional Traffic.

Curb claims it was recorded too soon after the release of his previous album and, besides, it was not approved by the label. Emotional Traffic is on hold in the Curb vaults, a twangy analog to Guns N' Roses’ Chinese Democracy. The day of the ruling, though, Curb decided it was not too soon to release a single from Traffic.

McGraw countersued his label, accusing Curb of timeline-skewing shenanigans. Essentially, he said, by releasing greatest hits albums and enforcing an 18-month period between releases, Curb artificially extended his five-album contract, a state of “involuntarily servitude.”

The lawsuit is a breach of contract case — and the judge didn’t rule on whether the contract was breached or which side did the breaching. Those issues remain unresolved and likely won’t be settled
until next summer.

However, by refusing to enjoin McGraw from seeking a new record deal, Perkins created an environment for a bidding war usually seen only when professional athletes hit the open market.

It’s hard to put a price tag on McGraw’s worth as a performer. Forbes ranked him as the fourth-highest-paid country artist in 2010, but that counted income from his line of colognes — the tag line for those fragrances is not, “Hey, it worked on Faith Hill,” but it should be — and his acting career. Since hitting the charts in the early ’90s with “Indian Outlaw,” McGraw is Billboard’s third-best-selling country artist.

McGraw has always been something of a renegade. For one, he’s open about his progressive politics in an industry where liberal leanings are as well-received as rap collaborations (something he has also done). He also insisted on recording an album with his touring band rather than with session musicians. The nerve!

He is his own man, for sure, and he has enough clout to do what he damn well pleases — and now Chancellor Perkins has made that a legal fact.

3 Comments on this post:

By: frodo on 12/7/11 at 8:35

At his level of pay, Mr. McGraw certainly blurs the definition of involuntary servitude. If we all could afford his attorneys, I suspect we'd all be getting our way. Do you know that, after all these years, my mortgage company still expects me to make payments? How unfair is that!? Please have Tim's attorney call me.

By: pswindle on 12/7/11 at 4:40

Congratulations Tim! He should be in charge of his life and music. What game was Curb Records playing? It sounds to me that they wanted to stretch his albums out over many months to keep him with their company.

By: fdanshep on 12/9/11 at 7:32

Good for Tim! Just bought my tickets for the McGraw/Chesney concert at LP in June. Hopefully Faith will show up as well.