With an abundance of talented, aspiring musicians in the Mobile area, the idea of signing a record deal may seem like a dream come true. But Nashville’s glitz and glamour may just be a ruse to attract young artists, according to songwriter and former music producer Alton Richardson.
In 2013, Richardson, a Saraland resident, filed a lawsuit against Warner Brothers Records and Shawna McIlwain Thompson, a Chatom, Alabama native who now stars alongside her husband in the successful country music duo Thompson Square, after Richardson claims he was denied monetary compensation for promoting Thompson’s early music career.
“I never took a dime in five years from Shawna in any way, form or fashion,” he said.
Richardson, who noted he was “wonderful friends” with the McIlwain family, drew up an “agent contract” in 1994, and because Thompson was a minor at the time, her mother Mattie McIlwain also signed the contract with Richardson in the Washington County probate judges’ office. According to the lawsuit, the contract was filed with the probate judge on June 19, 1996.
“My contract gave me permission to sit in on all negotiations on behalf of Shawna,” he said.
However, Richardson said Warner Brothers Records denied him any part of Thompson’s career once the recording industry behemoth became involved, saying Thompson “was going to be their answer to LeAnn Rimes.”
According to the lawsuit filed, the agent contract also stated Richardson would write and produce song demos of radio quality to be presented to major publishers, producers, record labels and publicists while bearing the expenses of promoting Thompson’s career. Richardson said he did not feel the need to hire an attorney at the time because he “was dealing with friends.”
Now, Richardson is asking for a total of $154,128 for his expenses and time promoting Thompson, who he said he has not spoken to in 18 years.
“They left me in the dark,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on in Nashville.”
Richardson noted he wants Warner Brothers to pay the money, not Thompson, claiming they denied her of a contract and promised albums. It wasn’t until 2010 when Thompson, through Thompson Square, signed to Nashville-based Stoney Creek Records.
“She has been done extremely dirty,” Richardson said. “And she can’t say anything. If she says anything, she’ll be out the door so quick it’s unbelievable … they used her and they used me.”
After filing the lawsuit in Sept. 2013, Richardson filed a motion to dismiss the case only a month later, stating he was promised by Warner Brothers’ attorney Howell O’Rear to receive payment for medical expenses due to his ailing health.
“Twice, he [O’Rear] promised me, if I signed a contract to release Shawna and Warner Brothers, to help me get some expenses paid,” Richardson said. “He wrote an agreement, one small page. He sent it down here with a letter to completely disregard promises and commitments, saying the situation had changed.”
Consequently, because the promises were never honored, Richardson said he had no other choice but to reopen the case last month.
“That’s the way it is in Nashville,” he said. “They control people’s lives.”
Richardson said the reason he did not file the lawsuit sooner was because he was told by Warner Brothers that Thompson would never get a contract if he did.
However, according to Nashville-based attorney Matthew Beckett, who has practiced entertainment law for seven years and has been involved in the music industry since 1989, there is a statute of limitations when it comes to cases like that of Richardson.
Fraud cases typically have a three-year statute of limitations and breach of contract lawsuits typically have about six years, depending on the state, Beckett said.
“If this has been going on 18 years, he’s probably not going to get any money back,” he said.
Beckett also noted that these types of cases are common when artists have success.
“People who invest in music business don’t realize how next to impossible it is to make their money back,” he said. “It really just doesn’t ever work out where everyone is happy.”
A good general rule of thumb for artists is if it sounds too good to be true, it is, and for investors, understand that investing in an artist is a “high risk investment,” Beckett said.
Despite the lawsuit, Richardson said he still wishes the best for Thompson and her husband Keifer Thompson, who makes up the other part of her musical duo.
For other Gulf Coast artists like Grayson Capps and his band Willie Sugarcapps, Edward David Anderson and Seth Walker, who all work with Brooklyn-based independent record label Royal Potato Family, owner and founder Kevin Calabro said they have a basic two-page agreement.
“It clearly outlines the structure of the deal,” he said. “How expenses and profits are dealt with and ultimately how the artist will get paid once the record recoups. I would advise any artist to have a basic outline of the deal. I would also advise them to go into business with people they trust. Be honest with yourself. If someone is offering you crazy money upfront or something that seems unrealistic, chances are there’s something fishy going on.”
Calabro also added that “agreements framing the deal” are always necessary but nine or 10 page contracts drafted and overseen by lawyers are not.
“The case with Thompson is a good example,” he said. “A hundred thousand dollars exchanging hands does require the need for counsel and ultimately a contract, but most independent deals are made for much smaller amounts, and going back to my original point, the budgets are just not possible to afford lawyers on independent deals.”
Calabro said there is a lot of good faith between artists and the people on the business, management and label side of the music industry, and music can be successful without ties to a major contract.
“The best music being made in the world right now is coming from independent artists with pure creative vision,” he said. “It’s not coming from corporations who are manufacturing music like McDonald’s hamburgers.”
Representatives for Shawna Thompson did not return requests for comment on this article.