(Legal) Career Killers: Michelle Branch and her Warner Bros. Contract

Welcome to (Legal) Career Killers — a series that looks at how the law, lawyers or lawsuits killed a band’s or artist’s careers. In other words: They fought the law and the law won.

When Michelle Branch was arrested in August for assaulting her husband, Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, it raised so many questions:

“Wait, she married the drummer from the Black Keys? When did that happen?”

“And he allegedly cheated on her? One of the hottest and biggest stars of the early 00s and someone who’s music is still widely beloved by people of a certain age?”

“Speaking of which, what happened to her anyway? Where did she go for 15 years?”

Well, the answers are yes (they got together shortly after Carney produced Branch’s 2017 comeback album, Hopeless Romantic), that’s what she said on Twitter (although she later deleted her Tweet and suspended divorce proceedings), and it’s complicated.

Record label politics can derail an artist or band just as easily as a flop album or personal issues. After all, most artists are completely beholden to their label for funding, distributing, releasing and marketing their music. While some powerful superstars can exert more influence over things, their options are often limited. Just ask Prince. Or Michael Jackson.

For a not-so-big artist or band, they’re pretty much at the mercy of their label. The classic example is when the label wants more radio-friendly songs on your album. Maybe if you’re Metallica or Nirvana, you can get away with telling your label to kiss off, but if you’re a young artist without a track record of multiplatinum or generation-defining hits, then you better or do what they want or they won’t release your album.

There are plenty of other ways a label can interfere with an artist’s career. Maybe they want to market you in a certain way to capitalize on current trends and you don’t want to do it. Or maybe they just don’t know what to do with you because they think you’re past your prime. Or maybe your prior success means they’re reluctant to cut ties since they don’t want to miss out on a possible comeback album. Or maybe there’s upheaval at the label with new executives and priorities coming and going faster than a one-hit wonder.

These four things all happened to Michelle Branch.

In the early 2000s, Branch was a rising star coming off two hit albums: The Spirit Room (2001) and Hotel Paper (2003). The Spirit Room, in particular, was very successful, producing three big, era-defining hits: “Everywhere,” “All You Wanted,” and “Goodbye to You.” She also had a Billboard Top 5 hit singing lead on Santana’s 2002 single, “The Game of Love.”

With her soaring vocals, catchy hooks, pop-rock style and earnest lyrics, Branch was perfect for young adult fans who had outgrown Britney or Christina and were transitioning from TRL to WB shows.

Her songs effortlessly captured what it was like to be young and in love, and the optimism, idealism, naivety and melodrama that often goes with it. Perhaps that’s why her music resonated with so many people. An entire generation most likely experienced their first love, breakup or unrequited crush while listening to one of her songs.

Of course, that can’t last forever. Branch had to evolve, especially since Hotel Paper had sounded a lot like The Spirit Room but had only managed to sell about half its predecessor — not a good sign for an artist’s long-term prospects.

Plus, Branch, who had been 16 years old when she signed with Maverick Records, a Warner Bros. subsidiary co-led by Madonna, was maturing and going through life changes of her own. In 2004, she married her bass player, Teddy Landau, and gave birth to their daughter the following year. She began exploring different types of music, forming country-pop duo called “The Wreckers” with her friend, Jessica Harp.

That influence carried over to her first attempt to follow Hotel Paper. In 2007, she started work on Everything Comes and Goes, a country-flavored album featuring a number of songs co-written with Nashville hitmaker Hillary Lindsey, as well as a duet with Dwight Yoakam. With an anticipated release date of 2008, Branch even started doing promotion for the album, sitting for interviews and playing shows.

But then 2008 came and went and her album did not see the light of day. As did 2009. Finally, in 2010, a truncated version of the album was released as an EP. With very little promotion, the EP was mostly ignored — although lead single “Sooner or Later” managed to crack the Billboard 100, hitting #93. The full album remains unreleased, although bootleg copies are widely available.

As a whole, the album is quite good — albeit it feels more like a pop album that just has some banjo, fiddle and pedal steel guitar added to make it seem more country. Nevertheless, she certainly seems to pull off the move to country better than, say, Jessica Simpson. “Sooner or Later” in particular, is an excellent song that treads on familiar territory for Branch: pining away for someone. Unlike songs like “Everywhere” or “All You Wanted,” “Sooner or Later” shows her maturity and growth by warning the object of her affection that “you’ll be sorry when you figure out/ That I was always everything that you needed/ Sooner or later you’re gonna wish you had me.”

There are other good songs on the album, most notably “Crazy Ride,” “Ready to Let You Go” and “This Way.” “Crazy Ride,” in particular, is a gem of a song that functions as sweet “song to my child about life’s ups and downs.” I don’t know if this album would have made her into a country superstar, but I think it could have been successful and led to an interesting second act for her. After all, it compares favorably to the stuff Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood were putting out at the time. Surely, Branch, who already had a built in fanbase and name recognition, could have found a place in Nashville with this album.

Instead, she had little choice but to go back to the drawing board, beginning work on her next album, West Coast Time. Sounding more like a throwback to The Spirit Room and Hotel Paper, West Coast Time is definitely the more forgettable of her shelved records. There’s more of a rock flavor to it, especially with songs like planned lead single “Loud Music,” “For Dear Life,” “Smoke and Feathers” and “If You Happen to Call.”

From a production standpoint, the album sounds fairly modern — most of these songs could have easily been recorded at the time by Katy Perry or One Direction. Perhaps that’s the problem, though — for an artist as unique as Michelle Branch, this makes her seem like she’s uninspired and makes her album sound generic. The album is also hurt by the lack of a memorable song in the vein of “Everywhere” or “Al You Wanted” to boost its overall appeal.

Perhaps that’s why West Coast Time ultimately met the same fate as Everything Comes and Goes. In 2011, Branch’s label released the Loud Music Hits EP, featuring “Loud Music” alongside her five biggest hits. At least her label valued her enough to cash in on that standard “greatest hits” clause.

So what happened?

The quick answer is that her label was in turmoil at the time and she fell through the cracks.

Long known for being an artist-friendly label that gave its acts lots of creative freedom, Warner Bros. was home to some of the biggest acts in the music industry, such as Prince, Madonna, R.E.M., Van Halen, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Fleetwood Mac and many others.

By the mid-90s, though, things were in flux at Warner Bros. Thanks to a series of corporate mergers, Warner Bros. Records and its various subsidiaries had become part of Time Warner. According to the L.A. Times, a series of internecine power struggles soon emerged as various people jockeyed for power and influence within the new corporate structure.

One of the biggest casualties was the longtime head of Warner Bros. Records, Mo Ostin. In 1994, Ostin and various other label heads were, essentially, forced out by Warner Music Group Chairman Robert Morgado, who had reorganized the management structure at the various Warner labels and instituted a policy of cutting costs.

Ostin had been largely responsible for the artist-first ethos at Warner and his departure shocked many of his colleagues and counterparts — to say nothing of the artists he had helped nurture. “This business is about freedom and creative control,” Ostin said to the L.A. Times in 1994. “An executive has to be able to make risky decisions with minimal corporate interference. But Warner is a different company now than the company I was brought up in. And in the end, I found it impossible to operate in that kind of environment.”

Ostin’s designated successor, Lenny Waronker, turned down the job and left with his former boss. In the years immediately following Ostin’s departure, various executives came and went, including Morgado, who was forced out in 1995. A further merger between Time Warner and AOL in 2000 instituted even great cost-controls. Meanwhile, in the decade following Ostin’s departure, many top artists left the label, including Prince, who waged a high-profile, public and bitter war with Warner, Van Halen, Mötley Crüe and Madonna.

Finally, in 2003, citing sagging revenues and the onset of the digital revolution, Time Warner announced the sale of its music division to a conglomerate of investors including former Universal Music head Edgar Brofman Jr. and private equity giants Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital for a reported $2.6 billion. Eight years later, that group sold Warner to Russian-American billionaire Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries for $3.3 billion.

With so many different bosses and heads coming and going, it’s easy to see how Branch could get stuck in limbo. In a 2017 interview with Elle, she pointed out that she served under five different label presidents, including one that she met with on a Thursday that was gone by the following Monday. “I turned in a full album. We shot artwork and a video for it. There was a single; a release date. And then everyone got fired, and it all just stopped,” she recounted. “Then a new guy comes in, he gives his two cents, calls the new radio department, they give their two cents. It was that…over and over and over.”

According to her, those subsequent heads all had their own opinions about what kind of music Branch should do — a far cry from the halcyon days when the label let artists develop on their own. Branch recalled to Elle that she was told, at various points in her career by various people at her label to be more like Avril Lavigne, Taylor Swift or Katy Perry. At one point, they even advised her to do an EDM album. “This is not who I am,” Branch said. “If I put out the kind of music you want me to put out, everyone will see it for exactly what it is.”

The easy answer to her problems was to leave Warner, however, that was easier said that done. In some ways, she became a victim of her earlier success — because she still had a following, the label was reluctant to cut ties with her. “I was trying to get out of my contract and couldn’t get out of it,” she said to the Observer in 2017. “And the thing was that there was too much money to be made if [my record] was successful. So they wouldn’t let me go anywhere, but they wouldn’t let me release anything.”

Finally, she says President #5 took pity on her and told her she deserved to have a fresh start somewhere else. She was finally dropped by Warner (she had been part of its Reprise subsidiary) in 2014 and signed with Verve Records the following year. That same year, she met Carney and worked with him on her comeback album, Hopeless Romantic. They got married, had two children, produced another album together (with Branch returning to Warner through its Nonesuch imprint) and seemed to live a fairy tale life until her arrest hit the news.

If there were a silver lining to her arrest, it proved that her fans are still very loyal to her. Maybe it’s that early ’00s nostalgia or it’s endemic of our need to take sides when high-profile couples break up (like with Jennifer Aniston/Brad Pitt, Jessica Simpson/Nick Lachey — or more recently, Amber Heard/Johnny Depp).

Or maybe the reason why people still love her so much is because her music strongly resonated with them during a formative time in their lives. Either way, it’s clear that Team Branch still has quite a following. If they keep showing up for her, there’s no reason why her long-delayed and belated second act can’t be a successful one.

December 1, 2022
December 28, 2022

Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

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