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The Allman Brothers vs. the Music Biz

Southern rock legends take on Universal Music


The Allman Brothers Band circa 1994

The Allman Brothers Band circa 1994

Photo by Kirk West, courtesy Sony Music
Updated February 25, 2013

Through the years, Southern rock legends the Allman Brothers have survived a lot of "bumps in the road" that would have derailed even the strongest-willed of bands, including the deaths of two founding members (guitarist Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley) and the departure of another (guitarist Dickey Betts). Still, they've persevered, and this past March they celebrated the band's 40th anniversary with 15 sold-out shows at New York City's Beacon Theatre where they knocked out the audience with their trademark mix of roots-rock, blues, Southern soul, R&B, and country twang.

Asking For Their Share

After beating out death, divorces, and drugs, the Allman Brothers are taking on their most dangerous obstacle yet - the music business itself! The band has filed lawsuits against both of its former record labels, Sony Music and Universal (which long ago bought up the band's original Capricorn Records albums), challenging the traditional industry split of the digital music pie as unfairly tilted in favor of the labels.

At issue is the exact status of songs and albums sold as digital downloads by online vendors like iTunes, Rhapsody, and the like. Under the standard industry contract, artists are paid a royalty of a few cents on each song downloaded, while the label takes the lion's share of the payment from Apple or whomever.

The Allman Brothers are arguing, however, that the "sale" of a song or album on iTunes, etc, isn't really a "sale" like a physical CD, but rather a licensing of their music (which is supported by the user agreements of iTunes and others). Thus, the band would be eligible for a larger 50% share of the licensing fees collected by their label. The labels, on the other hand, argue that their artists are only due the smaller percentage of royalties per sale as outlined in their contracts.

Judgment In Their Favor

On September 16, 2009 Judge P. Kevin Castel of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of the surviving original band members, denying a motion to dismiss the band's lawsuit on the part of Universal Music. The band claims that not only should they be paid the larger royalty as their share of the digital booty, but also that Universal refuses to negotiate in good faith with the band on a new contract for their back catalog of recordings.

Besides, say original band members Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe, and Dickey Betts, Universal had no hand in the original creation or marketing of their three (profitable) Capricorn Records albums - their self-titled 1969 debut, 1970's Idlewild South, and 1971's At Fillmore East - yet has racked up potentially millions of dollars in profits at the expense of the band. Other 1970s-era recordings by the band, such as 1972's Eat A Peach and 1973's Brothers & Sisters, were also released by Phil Walden's Capricorn imprint.

The Allman's Back Catalog

It's kind of hard to follow, but Polygram Records acquired the rights to Capricorn's catalog of recordings when the label went bankrupt in 1979, and somewhere down the line Universal swallowed up Polygram when it merged with the company in 1999. Universal argued that digital downloads were paid according to the band's 1985 contract at the royalty rate set for vinyl albums, and that the band's 1994 renegotiated deal removed any obligation by the label to renegotiate a new royalty rate for digital music. Judge Castel disagreed, his ruling stating that the band's 1994 contract did not preclude a renegotiation for royalties on new music formats.

The case is scheduled to be heard sometime in 2010, and it has implications far beyond the Allman Brothers Band and other rockers (Cheap Trick and Pink Floyd have filed similar lawsuits challenging digital royalties). It also affects the blues world as well. Most, if not all of the original recordings by early-era bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Brownie McGhee, Blind Willie McTell, and many others are owned by the major labels, and a clear win by the Allman Brothers would open up a potentially lucrative revenue stream for the bluesmen's estates.

Stay tuned for more information as the case unfolds.

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