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Geffen Sues Beck, Alleging Singer Breached Contract

Music: Firm says artist won't honor album deal. His attorney says he'll invoke an obscure law.

April 29, 1999|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A contract dispute between Geffen Records and Grammy winner Beck intensified this week as the company filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the singer after his threat to bolt the label.

Beck, whose "Odelay" was named the best album of 1997 by the nation's pop critics, has told Geffen he will not honor his commitment to deliver up to four more albums to the label, according to the suit filed Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Beck Hansen, who records under his first name, has sought a new deal with Geffen since last May, the suit claims. Frustrated with stalled negotiations, Beck informed the label in January that he would invoke a California law that limits the contracts of entertainers to a seven-year duration, Jill Berliner, the singer's attorney, said Wednesday.

That led to the filing of suits against Beck this week by both Geffen and Bong Load Custom Records, the production company that ushered Beck to Geffen in 1993, court records show.

A tangle of issues is involved in the dispute, which has played out against a backdrop of corporate turmoil at Seagram's Universal Music Group, Geffen's parent. The Geffen staff was sharply reduced in January and its operations were pulled under the Interscope Records banner.

Berliner said those changes complicated negotiations between her client and the label.

"This is a deal that would have been made by anybody if they had the ability to think freely, but no one can do that over there right now," Berliner said of Interscope officials. "There's too much second-guessing."

A Geffen official said Wednesday that the label would not comment on pending legal issues. Russell J. Frackman, the attorney representing Geffen in the case, also declined to comment.

According to Berliner, Beck has received "zero money" for his recent album, the critically acclaimed "Mutations," which SoundScan tallies show has sold more than 400,000 copies in the U.S.

That album was also supposed to be released by Bong Load to satisfy the singer's commitment to the independent, Berliner said, but Geffen "flipped over the album when they heard it and demanded it," further complicating talks.

In January, a frustrated Beck notified Geffen officials that he would invoke the "seven-year statute" to demand his freedom from the Geffen and Bong Load contracts, Berliner said.

The seven-year statute is a somewhat obscure California law passed five decades ago to free Hollywood actors from long-term studio deals. Under the law, an entertainer cannot be tied to any company longer than seven years.

In recent years, recording artists such as Metallica, Prince, Don Henley and Luther Vandross have threatened to use the law to get out of long-term contracts. None of the cases reached a courtroom.

Recording companies have maintained that the law would not hold up in court, but music executives have been hesitant to test that belief because a loss could transform the industry landscape. Instead of risking free agency, the companies have often rewritten the contracts of key veteran artists.

While Beck is not a commercial powerhouse like Metallica or others who have sought to use the law, he is viewed as a prestige act who helps attract other quality acts to the label.

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