Michelle Shocked unlocks
her musical cage
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.
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
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
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
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
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,