When Black Thursday came to A&M Records Jan. 21, roughly 170 of the label’s 200 staffers were let go by Universal Music Group, which had recently bought out A&M’s parent company, PolyGram. In the intervening months, most of the label’s artist roster was gradually jettisoned too, with a handful of surviving rockers — including Sheryl Crow, Sting, Chris Cornell, and Jonny Lang — shifted under the aegis of other Universal labels like Interscope. Even the historic, Charlie Chaplin-built campus that had been A&M’s Hollywood home since 1966 is up for sale. End of story, right?
Not if Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss have their way. The cofounders of A&M — who sold their former indie label to PolyGram in 1989 — plan to seek permission from California’s Superior Court to file an amendment to a previously filed suit against PolyGram. They are now claiming Universal has dismantled the label in violation of a provision in the original sales contract between A&M and PolyGram. According to Alpert and Moss’ attorney, Richard Posell, that provision stated that any future buyers had to ”maintain the integrity of the label” for at least 20 years after the closing date of the sale, or until 2010. Posell says the amendment, which will seek $200 million in damages, will charge that ”in the process of the massive reorganization of PolyGram [by Universal], they’ve consolidated A&M’s holdings, degraded its integrity, and terminated key employees.”
Plenty of music-biz grunts will be rooting for Alpert and Moss. A good deal of bad blood persists over the way mass layoffs went down not just at A&M but also at Geffen and Mercury, two other labels that lost a sizable portion of their staffs and rosters after coming under the Universal umbrella. But Uni honchos have been adamant that these decimated labels do still exist, even if, as cynics allege, in name and logo only. So it may come down to the age-old question: How do you define ”integrity”?
Certainly almost any A&M employee who got fired — and even some of the few who went on to Interscope — would agree with ex-A&M chief David Anderle when he says: ”A&M’s gone. It’s not a label; I don’t know what it is.” But opinions vary on the strength and motivations of the Alpert/ Moss case. ”I think this thing is to put pressure on [Universal] to settle the other suit,” says one former A&M exec. (Alpert and Moss’ original claim — filed in June ’98 — asked for $5.6 million and dealt with rather more prosaic accounting issues.) ”I don’t understand this clause; I always thought, if you sold a label, you sold it. What are they gonna do if they win, hire us back?” But, counters another former label suit, ”they’re great people, and I don’t doubt [vindication] is their motivation.” Universal reps refuse to comment on pending litigation, as have Alpert and Moss thus far. Anyhow, the duo’s combative message to the newly fattened Universal is clear: You may have synergy, but you’ll never have synchronicity.