The Jamey Johnson contract dispute that has kept the songwriter from releasing any new original material since his double album The Guitar Song in 2010 is not with his label as some have surmised, but with his publisher according to a new interview posted Wednesday (7-9) in The Nashville Scene. Though sometimes labels can function as publishers either directly or through subsidiaries, this is not always the case. Where a label is more concerned with releasing, distributing, and promoting music, a publisher deals more with the songwriting side of things like collecting royalties and distributing rights.
Johnson first let on that he was having contractual issues in February of 2013 “Financially speaking, they treat me worse than they ever did the Dixie Chicks,” Johnson told Rolling Stone. “I feel pretty used by the music industry, in that my contracts are written in such a way that I don’t get paid ”¦ I wish I could tell you that I am writing. I’m not. I wish I could tell you I’m gonna go home next week and record another album. It’s not likely to happen. We haven’t reached such a gridlock that we can’t continue to do work with them in the future. But we can’t do anything right now until that gets resolved.”
Since then we’ve been left mostly in the dark about what specifically is holding Jamey Johnson down. When Saving Country Music contacted Mercury Records, they explained Johnson was no longer signed with the label. So where was the dispute? Did it still have to do with Mercury even though he officially wasn’t under contract?
Last week Johnson spoke to Peter Cooper of The Tennessean, and once again Johnson was quite vague about the situation. “I’d have to contact three managers, and some lawyers and all kinds of people to come up with a reasonable answer for that,” Johnson said about his situation, but didn’t say if it was because of the label, or the publisher. “Contracts are hard to read. Attorneys are hard to get on the phone. But if you’re in a situation where you’re supposed to be making money and you’re not, buddy, it’s up to you whether you quit or not.”
Now when speaking to Jewly Hight of The Nashville Scene, it was finally clarified that it is indeed a publishing issue.
“You’re out of your record deal, but you still have the same publishing deal, right?” Jewly asked.
“Yes, ma’am, I do,” Jamey responded. “In an earlier interview last week a good friend asked me a question, and I responded with the wrong answer. He was referring to my record label contract. I’ve already reached an agreement with Mercury Records that gave me what I wanted ultimately, which was my freedom. I just wanted the ability to go, and they gave that to me. They also gave me the ability to come back, if I decided I wanted to come back. To me, that looks a lot like a revolving door, and that’s what I wanted. But most importantly, I wanted to be able to leave. If I can’t leave, then what’s the point in coming back? My appreciation to Mike Dungan [UMG Nashville Chairman/CEO] and the whole team at Mercury Records for allowing me that ability to come back after I leave. They could’ve slammed the door and locked it and said, ‘Man, enough.'”
Jamey Johnson’s publisher is EMI Music Publishing in Nashville. Johnson was signed by music publisher Gary Overton after being introduced by producer and songwriter Buddy Cannon in the early 00’s. Johnson rose through the ranks of country music first as a songwriter, penning the big hit “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” that put him on the map in 2005. Also in 2005, he singed a recording contract with BNA with the help of Buddy Cannon and Gary Overton, but was later dropped when his album The Dollar performed poorly. Eventually Johnson moved on to Mercury.
The news explains beyond Johnson’s sincere love for Hank Cochran why his last album was a tribute to the late songwriter, and not an album of original material. Jamey didn’t have a problem delivering a new album to Mercury, he had a problem publishing new music through EMI under the same unfavorable conditions.
While we still don’t know the specifics of what is causing the contract dispute between Jamey Johnson and EMI Music Publishing, we finally know who specifically is on the other end of the conflict. Jamey Johnson may have been coy this whole time about who was to blame because he didn’t want to bad mouth his publisher publicly, or speaking out against the publisher directly may put him in violation of his contract, or may hurt his chances of receiving a fair solution through the legal process. Johnson could be tongue tied, whether legally or self-imposed.
Whether Jamey Johnson is able to speak or not, his fans still can. And many are—frustrated that one of their favorite artists is being robbed of some of his most productive years, and is not being fairly compensated for his songwriting work.