(Legal) Career Killers: Geffen Records v. Don Henley

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Nothing can kill an artist’s career quite like a lawsuit.

After all, litigation not only taxes a party’s resources while putting them under an undue amount of mental and physical stress, it can also take time. Lots and lots of time.

And if an artist or band tries to take on their record label, time can be a real killer. After all, most labels simply put an artist on ice once the lawsuit is filed, essentially freezing their careers by refusing to release their recordings or promote them. Since most contracts have an exclusivity clause, artists often have limited-to-nonexistent options when it comes to recording on other labels or guesting on other people’s songs.

Simply put, for many musicians, time is a luxury they don’t have. All acts have a shelf life, and as Clive Davis once pointed out, if they aren’t in the public eye, they risk being forgotten about.

As such, artists end up losing years of their career that they’ll most likely never get back. For instance, George Michael was one of the biggest stars in the world when he sued Sony to try and get out of his record deal. The lawsuit dragged on for nearly two years and Michael’s career never quite recovered. Same for Prince when he challenged Warner Bros.

Same for Don Henley when he took on Geffen Records. Luckily, he had other things to fall back on…

In the 1980s, Don Henley was flying high. The former drummer/lead singer for the Eagles was thriving without his former bandmates. In 1982, he released his debut solo album, I Can’t Stand Still, which went gold off the strength of hit single “Dirty Laundry.”

More hit albums and singles followed. In 1984, he released the triple-platinum Building the Perfect Beast, which yielded hit songs like “Boys of Summer,” “All She Wants To Do is Dance” and “Sunset Grill.” Five years later, he dropped The End of the Innocence, which went 6x platinum and produced several more hit singles, most notably the title track. He’d also become a star on MTV, winning Video Music Awards in 1985 and 1990 for his understated but memorable videos for “The Boys of Summer” and “The End of the Innocence,” respectively.

By the time the 90s rolled around, Henley was an established hitmaker and star. While his former bandmates were struggling to stay relevant amid changing times, Henley had attained a level of solo stardom that had eluded the likes of Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey or Roger Waters. Instead, he had become like Neil Young — a serious artist who had proven he could be successful on his own, away from his famous band.

And like Young, his Geffen labelmate, Henley learned what happens when you cross the boss.

David Geffen had infamously sued Young for breach of contract after the rocker released a pair of unconventional, uncommercial albums that were unrepresentative of his usual fare: the electronic influenced Trans (1983) and the rockabilly inspired Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983).

The ensuing lawsuit cost Young one year of his career, which might not seem like a lot for some people. But for a prolific artist like him, who was known for releasing multiple albums in a year, it was an eternity. Nevertheless, Geffen and Young settled their lawsuit and Young recorded three more albums for the label (one country and two conventional rock albums) before going back to his former label, Reprise.

That was a picnic compared to what Henley and Geffen went through.

Henley and David Geffen had history going back to the former’s tenure with the Eagles — some of it was good, some of it was bad. Geffen had managed the band in the early-to-mid-1970s and signed them to his label, Asylum Records. However, as the decade progressed, The Eagles grew discontented with Geffen and eventually hired Irving Azoff as their manager.

In 1977, The Eagles filed a lawsuit against Geffen, Warner Bros., Companion Music and Benchmark Music, alleging that they had been forced to sign away their publishing royalties and accusing their former manager of a conflict of interest, since he had financial interests in the entities which owned said royalties. Eventually, Azoff was able to get back the Eagles’ royalties, earning his clients’ eternal gratitude. “I thank Irving Azoff every night for that,” Glenn Frey told Rolling Stone.

Despite that, when Henley went solo, he went back to Geffen and Asylum, signing a deal for the label to produce I Can’t Stand Still. When Geffen left Asylum to form Geffen Records, Henley eventually followed, signing on the dotted line in 1984. Why did Henley keep going back to a guy he didn’t have the best history with? “David uses the same pick-up lines every time he comes a courting: ‘You know how much I care about you as an artist, you know what a big fan I am of you.’ So I bought it a second time and I signed with him. And then things started to fall apart,” Henley said in the History of the Eagles documentary (2013).

By 1992, things had soured so much Henley probably had flashbacks to his worst days as an Eagle. Unhappy over how his music was being promoted, upset at his perceived lack of financial support, and annoyed that Geffen had taken a step back from running the label, Henley decided he wanted out.

“I do not wish to record for David Geffen’s company anymore,” Henley told the L.A. Times in April 1993. “David Geffen used to care about music and about his artists, but I don’t feel that’s the case now. David Geffen is not in the record business anymore. He’s in the David Geffen business. I would like to record for a company where I feel at home.”

So despite still owing the label two albums and a greatest hits collection, Henley told them that he didn’t intend to honor his contract and considered himself a free agent. Citing a California law that limited the length of personal services contracts to seven years, Henley also claimed a “key man” clause in his recording deal promising Geffen would remain in charge of day-to-day activities at the label had been breached, thereby allowing him to leave.

The label, obviously, had a difference of opinion and sought to enforce the terms of his record contract. For one thing, the label claimed the “Seven Year Rule” didn’t apply since Henley had renegotiated his contract in 1988, which made it a new contract and not a continuation of his original 1984 deal. The label also pointed out that the Seven Year Rule, which was originally enacted in 1937, was amended 50 years later to specifically add protections for record labels. Under the 1987 amendment, musicians could still terminate their deals after seven years, but labels could then sue for damages for any unrecorded or undelivered albums left on their contracts.

So, that’s exactly what happened. In January 1993, Geffen filed suit against Henley in Los Angeles Superior Court. The case quickly turned ugly, as Henley accused Geffen of trying to blackball him by getting other labels to agree not to sign him. David Geffen was dismissive of Henley’s allegation, flippantly telling the L.A. Times: “I’m about as concerned about this as I am about a baked potato I ate last week.”

For Henley, however, the lawsuit crystallized his views about the music industry and the need to protect artists from businessmen who could barely carry a briefcase, let alone a note. “If powerful corporations like these are having discussions to stop me from recording my music, what does that say about the state of affairs in the music industry?” said Henley. “Unfortunately, record companies are no longer run by people who love music. They’re run by bean counters and attorneys and all that matters to these guys is the bottom line.”

In the meantime, he saw his solo career grind to a halt as a result of the lawsuit. From 1992 to 1994, he mainly appeared on other artists’ singles. His biggest success was his duet with Patty Smyth on “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough,” which ended up being a massive hit, peaking at #2 on the Billboard 100. He also sang background parts on Trisha Yearwood’s “Walkaway Joe” and Aerosmith’s “Amazing,” and recorded a duet with Kermit the Frog on an acoustic version of “Bein’ Green” (Henley knocks it out of the park, if you ask me). One of his few solo singles during this time period was a cover of “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” for the Steve Martin’s 1992 movie Leap of Faith that did well on the Adult Contemporary charts.

Luckily for Henley, he had a pretty nice fallback option. According to the History of the Eagles documentary, Henley had started working with his bandmates again in 1990 with the intention of doing a full-fledged reunion only for Frey to pull out at the last minute.

In 1994, Frey finally changed his mind and The Eagles were back for the Hell Freezes Over album and tour. Since then, the band has been Henley’s main commitment — something that hasn’t changed even with Frey’s death in 2016. The Eagles continue to embark on successful and high-grossing tours to this day, despite the fact that they’ve only recorded one studio album since Hell Freezes Over — and that album came out 15 years ago.

“For me, personally, I think I that I proved pretty much everything I needed to prove in my solo career,” Henley said in the History of the Eagles documentary. “When you’re a solo artist, you have to take responsibility for everything — every mistake, every bad record, every sour note. But when you’re in a band, you get to share the praise and the blame with your bandmates. So I was okay with the notion of going back and being in a band again.”

The Eagles’ 1994 reunion also allowed Henley and Geffen to settle their lawsuit. Geffen got the rights to the Hell Freezes Over album and made out like bandits when the record went 9x platinum in the U.S. After releasing Actual Miles: Henley’s Greatest Hits in 1995, Henley was finally free and clear of Geffen.

The following year, he signed a solo deal with Warner Bros. Despite that, it’s clear that his solo career is no longer his priority, instead becoming more of a side project. He released albums in 2000 and 2015, and his 2000 single, “Taking You Home,” managed to become a minor hit and was famously used in an episode of ER. He also continued doing duet and background vocal work, which makes sense since his voice blends so well with other artists that I’m surprised more people don’t throw him buckets of money just to guest-star on their records.

Despite all seemingly ending well, it’s clear that there’s still bad blood between Henley and Geffen. Geffen called Henley a “malcontent” on the History of the Eagles documentary while Henley made a show of begrudgingly thanking Geffen when the Eagles were inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. “I think Glenn and I both, when we detect dishonesty and unfairness, we are malcontents, as we should be,” Henley said in 2015. “And we smelled a rat pretty early on. So if that makes me a malcontent, then I’ll own it.”

His experience with Geffen also had the effect of turning Henley into an outspoken advocate for artists’ rights. Henley has testified before various state and federal legislatures on issues ranging from reforming the Seven Year Rule to enacting greater protection for musicians’ copyrights.

Most recently, he helped form the Music Artists Coalition in 2019. Headed by his manager, Azoff, the group lobbied in favor of the Free Artists from Industry Restrictions (FAIR) Act when it was proposed in California in 2021. The proposed act would have explicitly cap artists’ contacts at seven years, and remove a label’s right to sue for unfinished recordings, among other things. This past June, the FAIR Act failed to clear the California Senate, prompting its sponsors to promise to keep fighting to get it passed.

If and when they reintroduce the bill, Henley will probably be there to try and get it passed. And who knows? Maybe the other side can call in a certain former music mogul with powerful connections, resources and a seeming grudge against Henley to help them defeat the bill. After all, it certainly doesn’t seem like it would take Hell freezing over for Henley and Geffen to renew their hostilities.