Trax Records Co-Founder, More Than a Dozen Artists Sue Label Over Unpaid Royalties

On Friday (October 14), more than a dozen artists sued the legendary Chicago house label Trax Records, the estate of its co-founder Larry Sherman, and its current owners Screamin’ Rachael Cain and Sandyee Barns, reports Rolling Stone. Those suing—a list that includes Trax Records co-founder Vince Lawrence, Marshall Jefferson, Adonis, and Maurice Joshua—allege the label owes them unpaid royalties and, in some cases, failed to pay certain artists anything at all. 

A copy of the lawsuit obtained by Rolling Stone describes Trax’s early years as a “shell game” that involved forged signatures, bounced checks, and shoddy accounting. According to the lawsuit, “Plaintiffs may elect to recover statutory damages and are entitled to the maximum statutory damages available for willful infringement… in the amount of $150,000 with respect to each timely registered work that was infringed.”

Sean Mulroney, the lawyer representing the artists in the lawsuit, claims Trax Records’ history shows a detailed pattern of financial malfeasance. “Larry Sherman said he was going to pay them and never did,” Mulroney told Rolling Stone. “Are you going to spend 50, 60 grand to chase it down, knowing there’s no moving forward? What are they worth? You have to go, ‘Is it worth it? I’ll just keep writing.’ And for some of these guys, it was, ‘I’ll never write another song again.’” Pitchfork has reached out to Mulroney for comment. 

Larry Sherman started Trax Records in 1984 with Vince Lawrence and Jesse Saunders. In 1997, Sherman discussed how he ran the label with the Chicago Tribune, saying, “The kids making these records didn’t know what they should get, and they often didn’t know what their material was worth. And being a good businessman, you don’t say, ‘I think you’re underestimating the worth of your material. Here’s a few thousand dollars more.’” Sherman died in 2020 at the age of 70.

One of the plaintiffs, Marshall Jefferson, claims Trax Records released his single “Move Your Body” without his consent and never paid him for his work. “We didn’t have record companies in Chicago,” Jefferson told Rolling Stone. “It was totally uncharted territory. We didn’t know how to do record deals or anything like that, so we were basically lambs to the slaughter. He wouldn’t tell us anything. We got no statements. We just wanted to get our music out.”

As part of a divorce settlement, Sherman was forced to sell Trax Records to his wife, Screamin’ Rachel Cain, in 2006. Several artists accuse her of threatening them with defamation lawsuits to prevent discussion of the label’s alleged wrongdoings, reports Rolling Stone. The lawsuit also states Cain committed fraud on the trademark office by registering the Trax Records logo and attempting to register the name Dance Mania, another Chicago label from the ’80s. “Vince Lawrence came up with the name Trax Records and created the now iconic logo,” the filing reportedly reads. “It is this creation that is one of Vince Lawrence’s proudest achievements, one that he expected to be equated with for the rest of his career. As long as Sherman was alive, Sherman never attempted to trademark Vince Lawrence’s Trax Records.”

In 2020, producers Mr. Fingers (aka Larry Heard) and Robert Owens filed a federal copyright infringement lawsuit against Trax Records over unpaid royalties, claiming Trax built its business by taking advantage of artists and “having them sign away their copyrights to their musical works for paltry amounts of money up front and promises of continued royalties throughout the life of the copyrights.” Earlier this August, Heard and Owens finally regained their song rights. The musicians were unable to claim damages as the long-embattled label could not afford to pay them, but both parties “amicably resolved their disputes” by transferring both the masters and publishing rights back to the artists.

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