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Chicago’s Trax Records sued by over a dozen artists over unpaid royalties

Trax Records, the Chicago record label that played a key role in the development of house music, is being sued by over a dozen artists over unpaid royalties according to a report by Rolling Stone.

Published on 14th October, the report states that Manchester-based Chicago house pioneer Marshall Jefferson, acid house figurehead Michael A. Smith aka Adonis, and the Grammy Award-winning DJ and producer Maurice Joshua are among the artists suing the label, as well the estate of its co-founder Larry Sherman, and current owners Screamin’ Rachael Cain (Sherman’s ex-wife) and Sandyee Barns. Trax co-founder Vince Lawrence is also said to be among the claimants.

Trax Records has since responded to these reports via a Facebook post, allegedly written by Cain. It reads: “I never tried to hurt the artists who wish to destroy my reputation and I have proof of the truth.”

The post continues: “I wish only good things to all of the classic artists even those who are hateful. Hate is never the answer. The truth will be told and only LOVE can conquer all…” Read the full statement below. 

The legal development comes two months after Larry Heard and Robert Owens won a two-year legal case against the label over copyright infringement and unpaid royalties. Heard and Owens’ lawyer Robert S Meloni confirmed that “the parties amicably resolved their disputes” after Trax could not provide any material proof of copyright ownership, and that Heard and Owens now own the musical composition and sound recording copyrights for all their music. 

According to the new Rolling Stone report, the early years of Trax Records frequently involved “forged signatures, bounced checks, and shoddy accounting”. As obtained for the report, which was written by Michaelangelo Matos, the lawsuit reads: “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.”

“Larry Sherman said he was going to pay them and never did,” said Sean Mulroney, the lawyer representing all the claimants. “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.’”

The report also goes on to quote Marshall Jefferson, who claims Trax released his groundbreaking 1986 single ‘Move Your Body’ without his consent. Jefferson adds that he never received payment for the single. “We didn’t have record companies in Chicago,” Jefferson said 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.”

Founded by Larry Sherman — who died in 2020 — alongside Jesse Saunders and Lawrence in 1984, Trax released iconic house releases including Jamie Principle and Frankie Knuckles’ ‘Your Love’, Larry Heard’s ‘Can You Feel It’ (as Mr. Fingers) and ‘No Way Back’ by Adonis. In 1991, the label declared bankruptcy and has gone on to face numerous lawsuits over several decades, usually relating to alleged unpaid royalties, not providing artists with proper contracts, as well as using cheap, poor-quality vinyl.

In 2006, Sherman was legally obliged to sell Trax to his wife, Screamin’ Rachel Cain — real name Rachel Cain — as part of a divorce settlement. According to the new Rolling Stone report, she has been accused of threatening various artists with defamation lawsuits in order to nix discussion regarding the label’s alleged malpractice. 

The report also reveals that the lawsuit states Cain committed trademark fraud by registering the Trax logo and attempting to register the name Dance Mania — a separate Chicago label from the ’80s.

“Vince Lawrence came up with the name Trax Records and created the now iconic logo,” the filing 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.”

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