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The White Stripes Take a Unique Major-Label Road

November 18, 2001|STEVE HOCHMAN

The White Stripes' Jack and Meg White still publicly claim to be brother and sister, although it's pretty well known now that they're actually a former married couple.

In any case, they've just signed a new recording contract that challenges conventions of music business relationships.

The Detroit guitar-and-drums duo built a strong following and intense buzz among critics and record company scouts with three albums of exhilarating neo-garage rock on the small Sympathy for the Record Industry label. Now they have struck a North American deal with V2 Records, the label started several years ago by Virgin founder Richard Branson that's home to Moby and the Black Crowes.

Among the key points in the deal:

* It's actually a licensing arrangement via Jack White's cottage label, Third Man Records.

* It spans just the next two White Stripes albums. Standard major-label deals tie up acts for anywhere from three to seven albums.

* The band retains ownership of its master recordings--an arrangement almost impossible with major companies, and a major bone of contention between many artists and labels with an eye on growing digital distribution opportunities.

* The royalties formulas allow for the band to start seeing profits at a lower sales figure than standard contracts do.

* The arrangement with Third Man gives Jack, in essence, an A&R and production role with V2, with opportunities for other Detroit acts he has been producing.

The signing comes on the heels of a U.K. and Europe deal with England's small XL Records and after the duo rejected overtures from several U.S. majors. It's the first major move made at V2, an independent label with BMG distribution, by its new president, Andy Gershon, who formerly managed the Smashing Pumpkins and Bryan Ferry. Gershon was also co-president of Outpost Records, whose roster included Whiskeytown, Crystal Method and Days of the New.

"Initially, Jack and Meg didn't want to do any deal," says Ian Montone, the Stripes' Los Angeles lawyer, who has also been handling their managerial duties. "But presented with this, they were interested. And they really liked Andy. He understands where the band wants to go and wants to let them develop that."

And then there's the money, which executives at several major labels report to be as high as $1.5 million--a huge amount considering the concessions given to the artists.

Neither Gershon nor Montone would discuss the financial aspects, although Montone says the band had been offered deals with more money than V2 is giving. Still, if the contract is even close to that dollar level, it's a lot for a band that is thus far essentially a cult act. But Gershon says that attraction goes beyond sales projections.

"The [commercial potential] is a complete unknown, but you don't think about that with an act like this," Gershon says. "You sign them because of their knowledge of music, the fact that the three records they've done are amazing. They're proven. You want to put yourself in a position to succeed, and that overrode the money considerations. You don't want to put a band like this in a position where it needs to sell a million copies to recoup."

The Stripes are touring in England, where they've become a press phenom, with plans to start work on a new album in the spring.

E-Z BAKE: Lisa Loeb's upcoming album has been in the oven for some time--it's been more than four years since her last release. In that time she's had a lot of other things cooking in her life, including a move from New York to Los Angeles three years ago; the purchase of a house here; a short tour as the narrator of Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale"; a growing side career doing animation and commercial voice-overs; and a relationship with Dweezil Zappa.

Now she's contemplating having a real oven onstage for shows on her 2002 tour, so she can actually bake a pie during each concert. It would be a natural play on the title of the album, "Cake and Pie," due for U.S. release on Feb. 26.

"I've been talking to a friend who's a chef in Arizona with two restaurants," she says. "And we've talked about doing a pie tour with an oven, bake a pie onstage. We could make a video featuring the pie-oven roadie, get it on the [Food Network]--my favorite TV channel. Maybe we could get it sponsored by [oven brand] Viking, get cake-mix boxes with my picture on them."

The album reunites Loeb, 33, with Ron Fair, who as an RCA executive 10 years ago was responsible for her first and biggest success when he put her song "Stay" on the soundtrack of the movie "Reality Bites." The lilting ballad and coy video made her the first artist without a record deal to have a No. 1 single in the Billboard Hot 100.

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