(Legal) Career Killers: Irene Cara Wins Her Lawsuit But Loses Her Career.

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

In doing this (Legal) Career Killers series, one thing that’s always struck me is how, despite many of these artists and labels having legal issues with one another, oftentimes, they’ve managed to put aside their differences afterwards and get back to the business of making music and money together.

George Michael made his way back to Sony despite once likening the label to a modern day slavemaster. Don Henley gave David Geffen a second (but not a third) chance. Michelle Branch (and others, including Prince, of all people) eventually returned to the Warner Bros. fold. I guess it really is show business and is nothing personal.

Irene Cara was an exception. What happened after she filed a lawsuit against her label and boss certainly felt pretty personal to her.

The year is 1985, and Cara should have been riding high. Blessed with a seemingly endless supply of talent, Cara could act, sing, dance, play music and write songs. Dating back to her childhood, she amassed an impressive list of accomplishments that included several hit movie and TV roles. Meanwhile, her singing ability made her a natural choice to perform the theme songs to two blockbuster, era-defining movies: Fame and Flashdance. The latter even got her halfway to an EGOT, snagging Cara an Oscar and Grammy. Essentially, she was Jennifer Lopez, Whitney Houston or Beyoncé before any of them.

Instead, she learned a harsh lesson about the realities of the music industry — namely that having a lot of success and generating tons of revenue and profit doesn’t necessarily mean your bank account will reflect that.

In her case, she accused Al Coury, the head of her label, Network Records, of cheating her out of at least $2 million in royalties and earnings. So, in February 1985, Cara filed a $10 million lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court accusing Coury of wrongfully withholding royalties from the Flashdance soundtrack as well as her first two solo albums.

Cara, who had been signed to RKO, claimed she had been enticed to leave with Coury by signing a new, improved contract that gave her and Coury an equal share of the profits to her songs, according to a 1985 UPI story. Instead, as Billboard reported in 1985, Cara only got around $25,000 in royalties while Coury got more than $60,000.

“The suit claims Coury took advantage of Cara’s trust in him to get her to sign agreements that were ‘patently one-sided, unfair, unjust and oppressive,’” UPI reported at the time.

Coury wasn’t just any music executive. One of the true giants of the industry, Coury had been at Capitol Records, where he had forged strong working relationships with the likes of Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, The Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt and many others while establishing himself as a hit maker and trusted advisor to his artists.

Nicknamed “The Man with the Golden Ears,” Coury was responsible for picking which of his artists’ songs would be singles — for instance, he made the call to release the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” and didn’t bother consulting the band first. Whatever bruised egos there might have been were probably assuaged when the song hit #2 on the Billboard charts. He also gave Pink Floyd, their highest charting single (“Money” off The Dark Side of the Moon) and got Glen Campbell to record his signature hit, “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

In 1973, he co-founded RSO Records with Robert Stigwood. The famed label soon became home to artists like Cream, Eric Clapton, Yvonne Elliman, Andy Gibb and RSO’s signature act, The Bee Gees. The label also released a series of hit soundtracks, including those for Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Meatballs, Fame, and the original Star Wars trilogy. (They also released “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees and his Cast of Idiots, which went to #1 on the Billboard 100.)

As the 70s wore down, however, RSO started showing cracks in the foundation. The label took a bath on a disastrous movie adaptation of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band starring The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton (the movie may have killed Frampton’s career, but that’s another story). In 1980, The Bee Gees and Stigwood filed lawsuits against other over money and after resolving those issues, Stigwood began winding down his involvement with the label. The following year, RSO was absorbed by PolyGram while acts like the Bee Gees and Clapton moved to Warner Bros.

With the label in flux, Coury decided to strike out on his own and founded Network Records. Cara was one of Network’s first big stars, with “Flashdance… What a Feeling” and the Flashdance soundtrack keeping the label afloat during those early years. Network eventually signed some other names, like Del Shannon, Johnny Van Zant and Todd Rundgren’s band, Utopia, but Cara was the star on the label. According to a 2018 interview, Cara said she felt obligated to follow Coury because he had been the one who originally signed her.

“All the other artists that had been on RSO Records went elsewhere. When that dissolved, the Bee Gees left and Yvonne Elliman left. And I, not having good management or a good lawyer, I thought I was obligated to this record president who signed me from a movie (Fame),” she told Songwriter Universe. “And I’d had enough. I had two of the biggest hits of the decade and I was not seeing a dime.”

Coury, of course, didn’t take the lawsuit lying down and fought back. Thanks to his position as label head, he already had a large advantage over Cara when it came to fighting and financing a long and expensive piece of litigation. During the same year that Cara filed her lawsuit, Coury got a boost in power and resources when he joined his label with Geffen Records in a deal that allowed him to manage the newly merged label and its roster of superstars, including Henley, Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, Peter Gabriel, Cher and others.

He also had the contract Cara signed. I tried accessing the court docket to see if I could get a look at her contract, but the docket isn’t accessible online. But based on contemporary and subsequent reports, her contract specified “profits” and not “gross revenue or receipts.” Eddie Murphy once called profit points “monkey points” because they were basically worthless. Any entertainment mogul with control over the books could use all kinds of accounting tricks and gimmicks to magically turn profits into losses. For instance, popular movies like Return of the Jedi and Batman never showed profits on paper even though they were two of the most successful films of all time at the box office.

According to The Sixteenth Minute: Life In The Aftermath of Fame by Jeff Guinn and Douglas Perry, Cara’s lawsuit against Coury seemingly turned on this issue. A witness for Coury testified about all of the expenses incurred in promoting Cara, including seemingly superfluous demands from her like a limousine that had the effect of draining her profits.

“Fortunately, on cross-examination, their expert witness slipped up and characterized the whole mess as ‘Hollywood accounting,’ and you could hear a sigh from that side, sort of an admission,” Cara’s lawyer Tom Nunziato said in The Sixteenth Minute. “And the truth of the matter is, it is how the industry is… they rip off young singers, and it’s not until the artists play the game for a while and get to the point where they can renegotiate their contracts that they can start making a lot of money. Irene just wasn’t willing to wait for that.”

And that might be why she felt like Coury took it personally. Cara believed Coury and Geffen had her blacklisted, although she was never able to prove it in court. “Racism or not, record executives wouldn’t meet with Cara after she filed the lawsuit. Film producers wouldn’t return her calls. Rumors swirled mercilessly about rampant drug use, spreading the notion that, in her early twenties, this great talent already had been hollowed out,” Guinn and Perry wrote in The Sixteenth Minute. “Casting people who once adored me now quickly escorted me out of their offices,” she said to Guinn and Perry. “Restaurants and hangout spots I frequented and felt comfortable in now looked at me with disdain. The glares and sneers of other L.A. celebrities had become so vicious that I knew I could not tolerate living there any longer.”

Ultimately, the lawsuit would not be resolved until 1993, when a jury awarded Cara $1.5 million in compensatory damages — a decent amount but a fraction of what she had been looking for. According to Nunziato, they never got anything close to that because Network Records was bankrupt by then (he believes they transferred a lot of their money out of the label and into shell corporations, but couldn’t prove it).

Worse, the long layoff and potential blackballing had put her career was on ice. Perhaps because she had just emerged from a long, expensive lawsuit, she decided not to sue Coury and others for allegedly colluding against her. Plus, she probably figured it would be hard to prove — especially if the old boys’ network of label heads stuck together.

Or maybe her time had just passed. For an artist indelibly linked to the 80s, the 90s and beyond were always going to be a challenge for her. She released a couple of albums and singles in the years following her lawsuit — none of them charted.

She returned to acting, doing both live-action performances and voiceover work, but her output underscored her diminished standing. She mostly starred in low budget films and sang on their soundtracks, including a weird Snow White sequel film that caused Disney to sue them. One of the rare hits she was involved with during this era was The Full Monty, for which she re-recorded “Flashdance… What a Feeling.”

But mostly she kept a low profile while battling a myriad of personal problems, including substance abuse, which had started when she was a teenager. Thanks to her legal victory, she was able to live off her royalties while working only when she felt like it. That was probably for the best, since she seemed disenchanted by the music industry. “It took me eight years to get through the whole good ol’ boy network in the music industry, because it seemed that I sued one man and it just kind of spiraled into the entire industry turning against me because of it. So it turned me off to the music business entirely,” she told Songwriter Universe.

When she passed away in 2022 from hypertension and high cholesterol, it led to plenty of retrospectives of her career — including the lawsuit that more or less ended it. “I knew Al Coury,” music producer Ed Steinberg told The New York Post after Cara’s death. “Let’s just say the business model for record companies has always involved a little larceny. Being a Latina from the Bronx at that time meant she was even more vulnerable. She was this great singer but she didn’t have connections and a big crew behind her.”

Sometimes I wonder where I’ve been
Who I am, do I fit in
Make believe it, is hard alone
Out here on my own

“(Out Here) On My Own,” Irene Cara

Little did she know that those words would play a much larger role in her life after both Fame and fame.

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