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Michelle Shocked unlocks her musical cage

Michelle ShockedThe only reason Michelle Shocked's life story hasn't yet been filmed is her own resistance, for there's certainly been no lack of drama.

She has been a homeless squatter and a political activist whose Christian fundamentalist mother once had her committed to a mental institution. Her professional life has been no less rocky: Shocked was playing her guitar one night at a Texas campfire when she was taped by a man who, unbeknownst to her, was starting a small British record label. She received a phone call months later telling her that her record was being played by the BBC, and was on the charts. She didn't even know she had a record out. She had never played a live show, nor had she any intention of being a performer.

Shocked toured, sold records, gained a reputation, and was soon courted by Mercury Records. Shocked demanded ownership of her songs and their publishing. According to Shocked, the small British label, Cooking Vinyl, hoped that Mercury would distribute its catalog, and misrepresented that it had Shocked under contract. Shocked was signed to Mercury with all her demands met; she owned all her songs and publishing rights.

This soon left Mercury in a bind, however. Her records sold, but Mercury was making no money. So, according to Shocked, a Mercury executive told her that the label would not be promoting her records unless she signed back the publishing rights. She refused, and Mercury took steps to legally bar her from recording.

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Shocked sold her own independently recorded CD at her shows in defiance, and eventually took a then unprecedented step to secure her freedom. She sued Mercury, citing the 13th Amendment -- the one that bars slavery. The case was settled out of court, and Shocked had her freedom, retaining full ownership of all her work.

Today, Shocked has what she fought for: A new album, Deep Natural , the first record on her own label, Mighty Sound. Free at last, Shocked spoke to Bankrate about some of the obstacles she has faced on the road to success.

BANKRATE: Why did you agree to work with Cooking Vinyl and go on tour?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: I got a call from England saying, "Hey kid, you wanna be a star?" Then they circled the wagons around me, and made sure their lawyers were my lawyers and their agents were my agents. They became my management, my label and my booking agent. I had to figure my rights out for myself. When you consider I had only been released from a mental hospital 18 months prior and was living in an abandoned building, it kept me up nights trying to figure this stuff out.

BANKRATE: Were they giving you royalties?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: Not to my knowledge, no.

BANKRATE: When did you sign with Mercury?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: I signed with Mercury in November of 1987. In the summer of 1988 I was introduced to a lawyer.

BANKRATE: So you didn't have legal advice when you signed with Mercury. How did you know to sign a deal where you kept your rights?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: My understanding as a political activist. Just like the issues brought up in the WTO protests. If I don't get into debt to these jokers, I won't have to sell my resources. But I also got advice from Nanci Griffith. She said, "Own your work." She meant the copyright, publishing. But I didn't know the distinction between publishing and mechanical copyright, so I made it a principle to own it all.

BANKRATE: So you got everything you wanted?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: Well, there was a caveat. I didn't get an advance.

BANKRATE: So how did you pay for the record?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: From the $50,000 advance I got from the publishing.

BANKRATE: Eventually you sued Mercury, citing the 13th Amendment. Had that ever been done before?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: No, but it had been building up to that. The labor laws in California had been breached. There were artists pointing out that their contracts were almost universally negotiated on New York law, and that in California there's a southern limit on personal service contracts.

BANKRATE: So based on that tack, you won the suit?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: It was settled out of court based on that.

BANKRATE: Why didn't it go to trial?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: I wasn't willing to take it to trial. Courtney Love says, "I'm a rich broad with a lot of money, and I'm willing to go down for a principle." But my career had been shanghaied for five years by that point.

BANKRATE: In the long run, what has owning all your rights done for you financially?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: It created a retirement fund for me. The way they set up the business, you take a big hit at 22, 23, 24, when the first thing on your mind is a flashy car and drugs. When I get older, the value of my catalog will probably increase.

BANKRATE: To put a figure on it, what do you feel is the difference between what you have, and what you would have had if you signed what everyone else signs?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: Ever hear of a Bowie bond? It's like that, like betting on the stock market. How do you put a price on investing in an artist, and the resonance that work has in people's lives and in the culture? It's my job to represent that work over the course of my lifetime so it has the most value, and I think I'm up to the job.

BANKRATE: How many copies have your records sold?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: Over a million, but that takes into account Mercury saying the label was never going to properly promote my albums. So if you know that's a given, that my albums weren't promoted, and you look at what the sales have been in spite of my label working against me, imagine what's going to be accomplished now that I'm in control of the promotion.

BANKRATE: Right now, are you in good financial shape because of the deals you made?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: I have a fairly middle-class lifestyle. We have mortgages on two homes. When you consider the level of working class I was raised in, God is good.

BANKRATE: Considering both your upbringing and your attitude toward corporations and the establishment, I'm curious to know if you're the investing type.

MICHELLE SHOCKED: No. That's a very clear-cut example of my political background. I think the stock market is the biggest fraud since Las Vegas was built. I'm not a capitalist. I don't think it's ethical to have your money work for you.

BANKRATE: So what do you do with your money?

MICHELLE SHOCKED: It could be argued that when there's people living in the streets and I have two homes, I've invested in my home. I have an IRA. I'm going to start a SEP.

-- Posted: May 9, 2002

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