There have been a string of breakthroughs this summer for house music’s visibility – if not always its profitability – thanks to Beyoncé and Drake. But away from the spotlight, the aftershocks of a different breakthrough, in an Illinois court, may soon reverberate far beyond debates over superstar dalliances with the genre. After a long, hard-fought legal battle, the house music originators Larry Heard and Robert Owens have won the right to reclaim their music as their own.
“It felt beautiful, and it gives me peace knowing that there is a clear road moving forward,” says Owens. “I’ve seen the destruction that often occurs in this music industry, so I feel blessed and grateful for all those that have been here in my life, helping me through this journey, who wanted to correct something wrong.”
For the past two years, Heard and Owens have been plaintiffs in a civil suit against Trax Records, house’s equivalent to Stax or Motown and their former label. But the fight goes back decades.
Heard and Owens are among house’s most celebrated figures – as songwriters, DJs, vocalists and producers, and collaboratively as Fingers Inc, alongside Ron Wilson. Heard, who started as a jazz-funk drummer, is known as the godfather of deep house, which led to him being sampled by Kanye West and working with Dua Lipa. Owens’ tracks are among house’s most beloved; they include I’ll Be Your Friend and Tears, a collaboration with Frankie Knuckles. In the 2000s, he worked with the UK dance duo Coldcut on Walk a Mile in My Shoes. Sadly, though, their careers have been stunted, and made infamous, by Trax.
The label launched in 1984 to push the burgeoning house sound coming out of Chicago’s Black and gay nightclubs. Co-founded by Lawrence “Larry” Sherman, Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence and run long-term by Sherman (who owned the Precision Pressing vinyl plant), Trax released early music by Heard and Owens, along artists such as Marshall Jefferson, Adonis, Frankie Knuckles and Phuture.
The label has a notorious reputation. First reported by Chicago’s 5 Magazine, and followed up by the international dance music press, Trax has allegedly used dodgy contracts and dirty tactics to falsely maintain ownership of musical copyright and refuse to pay royalties.
Perhaps karmically, trouble has stalked Trax. Bankruptcy in the early 1990s led to a joint venture investment in the early 2000s, and an eventual takeover and sell-off to third parties – all of which complicated the prospects for artists trying to regain control of their music. When Sherman died in April 2020, the ownership of all things Trax-related was split between Sherman’s first and second wives. The latter, Rachael Cain, a producer and vocalist who goes by the name “Screamin’” Rachael Cain, was also a defendant in the lawsuit and regained control of the Trax catalogue with Sherman in 2012.
The impact on the artists who entrusted their work to Trax has been profound. In the summer of 2020, Adonis, producer of the seminal 80s acid house track No Way Back, started fundraising for his own legal fight for unpaid royalties going back almost 40 years. “Not one artist ever received any royalties [from Trax],” he wrote at the time. “If anyone can find an official income statement I would love to see it, because I’ve never seen one myself.”
For Heard and Owens, there have been trying times: “Lost experiences with other artists I worked with during that time … it soured the whole period for many of us,” reflects Owens. “Maybe pride got in the way, too, but we lost many of those relationships between us as a result.”
For years, Heard’s trials with Trax took a back seat to his music career. After leaving Chicago for Memphis in the late 1990s, he went on to release dozens of solo albums, EPs and singles under different aliases, many through his own label, Alleviated Records. “I pretty much kept myself busy evolving what I was doing following the unfortunate business dealing, with the intent of coming back around to it being rectified,” says Heard. “There were several attempts over the years by other lawyers, but it would have been a waste of my time and attention to focus on that matter immediately … I continued on with subsequent releases, as there was an eager audience waiting for more material.”
For Heard and Owens’ team, though, that hard work should have reaped far greater reward. “These early songs should have been their pensions,” says Ben Mawson of Tap Music Publishing, which publishes the songs of Heard, Owens and other songwriters including Dua Lipa and Dermot Kennedy, and decided to fund the claim.
Those early songs – Can You Feel It, Washing Machine, Beyond the Clouds, Bring Down the Walls, Distant Planet, Never No More Lonely and Donnie – were previously named in a lawsuit led by US lawyer Robert S Meloni. He’s represented Heard since 2013, with much frustration and little success (“Trax completely ignored me for seven years,” he says), but the fight gained momentum when Tap came on board. They joined forces for a new lawsuit filed in 2020 and Owens was added as a plaintiff later that year.
The complaint stated that while Heard and Owens were the “original authors” of these recordings and compositions, since 1986, Trax had “sold, distributed and licensed” Heard and Owens’ work around the world, and “materially edited, remixed and altered” it without Heard and Owens’ permission. Shockingly, according to the complaint, more than a dozen versions of Heard’s Can You Feel It have been released by Trax, including versions in which Rachael Cain credits herself as a songwriter.
At its core, the lawsuit argued that despite the label generating “millions of dollars in income stemming from their exploitation of the compositions and recordings”, neither Heard nor Owens had ever been paid a cent – so they sued, for copyright infringement.
“Every musical work has two copyrights,” explains Meloni. “One is the sound recording” – commonly known as the master recording – “and the other is the musical composition embodied on that record”, broadly recognised as the lyrics, melody and music of the recording. “Trax was never assigned any sound recording copyrights, so one part of my job was to stop Trax exploiting the sound recordings,” he says.
In addition, even though Heard had originally assigned a 50% share of the musical composition copyrights of four of his songs to Trax (Can You Feel It, Washing Machine, Beyond the Clouds and Bring Down the Walls), the label “never paid him any royalties, ever”, Meloni claims, “so I had to force Trax to give up those musical composition copyrights.”
After two years of litigation, Trax could not provide any material proof of copyright ownership and “the parties amicably resolved their disputes”, says Meloni. Heard and Owens now own the musical composition and sound recording copyrights for all their music; they can re-release it independently, if they so choose. Since Trax no longer has any rights to their music, it cannot use Heard and Owens in advertising; the label can no longer profit from their music and likenesses.
But fans may be surprised to hear that, technically, the two still haven’t been paid a cent. “Sherman died during the lawsuit, so I focused on Cain and Trax,” says Meloni. “My investigation confirmed that Cain and Trax were impecunious and unable to pay money damages, so even obtaining a money judgment – which would have extended the case for many months – would have resulted in only a pyrrhic victory.”
The lack of payment is a window into just how exploitative and exhausting the fight for musicians’ rights can be. “It’s been an honour to be able to support Larry and Robert with this case,” says Tap’s Anna Neville. “We would ask artists in a similar situation to reach out to us – our job is to help nurture, protect and develop songwriters and ensure they are paid fairly for their work.”
Looking to the future, Heard has some “fun edits and prototypes of select titles” and intends to dig into his archives for more; a recent series of EPs, Vault Sessions, marks the early days of this work. This spring, he released a new album on Alleviated, Around the Sun Pt 1, under his Mr Fingers alias.
Owens is working on a four-part album series intended to “unite artists from around the world”, a project seven years in the making. “If any situation occurs for me to reignite any of the musical compositions from the past, I welcome them with open arms,” says Owens. “I’d love to see how other artists can use them too.”
He says he appreciates the current house boom within pop music. “I think it’s beautiful that some of the mainstream artists are becoming aware of the many talented artists here in the house field, of the work we’ve done and are still doing. I’m looking forward to collaborating with some of them in future.”
Their lawsuit is settled, but Heard and Owens know there are countless more artists in the music industry being exploited for their work. After years of trying, failing and now finally winning, what advice would they offer them? “I know how things can seem insurmountable, but maybe some others will take the actions needed, even if they are in small steps,” says Heard.
“Never let anyone redirect you or misdirect you from your dreams or your vision, of who you want to be and what you want to achieve,” says Owens passionately. “Trust and you will be guided to people that believe in you, people who love you and will always help you. Give back to the world, always.”