Jhere are the breakthroughs this summer for the visibility of house music – if not always its profitability – thanks to Beyoncé and Drake. But far from the spotlight, the aftershocks of a different breakthrough, in an Illinois court, could soon reverberate far beyond debates over superstar alliances with the genre. After a long and bitter legal battle, house music creators Larry Heard and Robert Owens won the right to claim their music as their own.
“It was beautiful and it gives me peace to know there is a clear path forward,” says Owens. “I’ve seen the destruction that often happens in this music industry, so I feel blessed and grateful for everyone who has been here in my life, helping me through this journey, who wanted to fix something. bad thing.”
For two years, Heard and Owens have been civil parties against Trax Records, the house equivalent of Stax or Motown and their former label. But the fight goes back decades.
Heard and Owens are among house’s most famous figures – as songwriters, DJs, singers and producers, and in collaboration as Fingers Inc, alongside Ron Wilson. Heard, who started out as a jazz-funk drummer, is known as the godfather of deep house, which led to him being sampled by Kanye West and working with Dua Lipa. Owens’ tracks are among the most popular in house music; they include I’ll Be Your Friend and Tears, a collaboration with Frankie Knuckles. In the 2000s, he worked with British dance duo Coldcut on Walk a Mile in My Shoes. Unfortunately, however, their careers were set back and made infamous by Trax.
The label was launched in 1984 to promote the burgeoning house sound coming out of Chicago’s black and gay nightclubs. Co-founded by Lawrence “Larry” Sherman, Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence and long-term led by Sherman (who owned the Precision Pressing vinyl factory), Trax has released early music by Heard and Owens, alongside artists such as Marshall Jefferson, Adonis, Frankie Knuckles and Phuture.
The label has a notorious notoriety. First reported by Chicago 5 Magazineand followed by international dance music pressTrax allegedly used dodgy contracts and dirty tactics to wrongfully maintain ownership of music copyright and refuse to pay royalties.
Perhaps karmically, trouble stalked Trax. Bankruptcy in the early 1990s led to investment in a joint venture in the early 2000s, and eventual takeover and sale to third parties – which complicated the prospects for artists trying to regain control of their music . When Sherman died in April 2020, ownership of everything Trax was split between Sherman’s first and second wives. The latter, producer and singer Rachael Cain, who goes by the name “Screamin'” Rachael Cain, was also a defendant in the lawsuit and regained control of the Trax catalog from Sherman in 2012.
The impact on artists who have entrusted their work to Trax has been profound. In the summer of 2020, Adonis, producer of the seminal 80s acid house track No Way Back, began raising money for his own legal fight over unpaid royalties dating back almost 40 years. “No artist has ever received royalties [from Trax]”, he wrote at the time. “If anyone can find an official income statement, I would like to see it, because I have never seen one myself.”
For Heard and Owens, there were tough times: “Lost experiences with other artists I worked with during that time…it ruined the whole time for a lot of us,” recalls Owens. “Maybe the pride got in the way too, but we lost a lot of those relationships between us as a result.”
For years, Heard’s trials with Trax took precedence over his music career. After moving from Chicago to Memphis in the late 1990s, he released dozens of solo albums, EPs and singles under various aliases, many through his own label, Alleviated Records. “I pretty much got busy evolving what I was doing following the unfortunate business transaction, with the intention of coming back to have it rectified,” Heard says. “There have been several attempts over the years by other lawyers, but it would have been a waste of time and attention to focus on this issue immediately…I continued with subsequent versions, as it there was an impatient audience waiting for more material.”
For Heard and Owens’ team, however, that hard work should have paid off far more. “Those early songs should have been their pensions,” says Ben Mawson of Tap Music Publishing, which publishes the songs of Heard, Owens and other songwriters including Dua Lipa and Dermot Kennedy, and decided to fund the claim.
Those early songs – Can You Feel It, Washing Machine, Beyond the Clouds, Bring Down the Walls, Distant Planet, Never No More Lonely and Donnie – have already been named in a lawsuit led by US Attorney Robert S Meloni. He’s been representing Heard since 2013, with much frustration and little success (“Trax completely ignored me for seven years,” he says), but the fight picked up steam when Tap came along. They joined forces for a new lawsuit filed in 2020 and Owens was added as a plaintiff later that year.
The complaint stated that while Heard and Owens were the “original authors” of these recordings and compositions, since 1986 Trax had “sold, distributed and licensed” Heard and Owens’ work worldwide, and “materially edited, remixed and amended”. without permission from Heard and Owens. Amazingly, according to the complaint, more than a dozen versions of Heard’s Can You Feel It have been released by Trax, including versions in which Rachael Cain identifies herself as a songwriter.
Basically, the lawsuit argued that despite the label generating “millions of dollars in revenue from their exploitation of the compositions and recordings”, neither Heard nor Owens had ever received a penny – so they sued. in court for copyright infringement.
“Each musical work has two copyrights,” explains Meloni. “One is the sound recording” – commonly referred to as the master recording – “and the other is the musical composition embodied on this disc”, widely recognized as the lyrics, melody and music of the recording. “Trax was never given copyrights to the sound recordings, so part of my job was to keep Trax from exploiting the sound recordings,” he says.
Additionally, even though Heard had originally assigned a 50% share of the copyright in the musical composition of four of his songs to Trax (Can You Feel It, Washing Machine, Beyond the Clouds and Bring Down the Walls), the label “never paid for it”. no royalties, ever,” Meloni claims, “so I had to force Trax to waive those copyrights to the musical composition.
After two years of litigation, Trax was unable to provide any physical evidence of copyright ownership, and “the parties have resolved their differences out of court,” says Meloni. Heard and Owens now own the musical composition and sound recording copyrights for all of their music; they can reissue it independently, if they wish. Since Trax no longer has any rights to their music, it cannot use Heard and Owens in advertising; the label can no longer profit from their music and likenesses.
But fans might be surprised to learn that, technically, the two still haven’t received a dime. “Sherman died during the trial, so I focused on Cain and Trax,” Meloni explains. “My investigation confirmed that Cain and Trax were impecunious and unable to pay damages, so even obtaining a monetary judgment – which would have extended the case for several months – would have only resulted in a victory Pyrrhic.”
The lack of payment is a window into how exploitative and exhausting the fight for musicians’ rights can be. “It was an honor to be able to support Larry and Robert in this matter,” says Anna Neville of Tap. “We would ask artists in a similar situation to contact us – our job is to help nurture, protect and develop songwriters and ensure they are paid fairly for their work.”
As for the future, Heard offers “fun edits and prototypes of select titles” and intends to dig into its archives for more; a recent series of EPs, Vault Sessions, marks the debut of this work. This spring he released a new album on Alleviated, Around the Sun Pt 1, under his Mr Fingers alias.
Owens is working on a four-part album series intended to “unite artists from around the world”, a project that has been in the making for seven years. “If a situation arises for me to revive any of the musical compositions from the past, I welcome them with open arms,” says Owens. “I would love to see how other artists can use them too.”
He says he enjoys the current house boom within pop music. “I think it’s beautiful that some of the mainstream artists are realizing the many talented artists here in house, the work that we’ve done and are still doing. I look forward to collaborating with some of them in the future.
Their lawsuit is settled, but Heard and Owens know that countless other artists in the music industry are being exploited for their work. After years of trying, failing and finally winning, what advice would they give them? “I know how overwhelming things can seem, but maybe others will take the necessary steps, even if it’s small steps,” Heard says.
“Never let anyone redirect you or take you away from your dreams or your vision, who you want to be and what you want to achieve,” Owens says passionately. “Trust and you will be guided to people who believe in you, people who love you and who will always help you. Giving back to the world, always.