Universal Music Group Sued For Breach Of Contract by ‘Spinal Tap’ Creators

It looks like turning the volume up to 11 might have its consequences — that is, if rockers aren’t paid their due.

That’s what the creators of the cult classic mockumentary film, This Is Spinal Tap, and the 70’s band Player are alleging. They’ve all filed suits against Universal Music Group for underpaying royalties.
The Spinal Tap creators, which include director Rob Reiner and actor/writers Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean, allege that Vivendi and its subsidiaries (which include Universal Music Group) provided fraudulent accounting that resulted in substantially reduced royalty payments over several decades. All told, they’re seeking more than $400 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The suit also includes trademark and copyright claims, as well as a breach of contract and breach of good faith claim. Breach of contract cases make up 33% of civil cases filed in state courts today, and this one seems to be a doozy. The plaintiffs allege that Vivendi bundled Spinal Tap with less successful films so that they could under-report revenues. They also allegedly failed to report a $1.6 million settlement payment from MGM Home Video for underreported DVD and VHS sales of the film, as well as improper expense deductions and failure to account for soundtrack music rights. Reportedly, Universal Music Group said they saw only $98 in gross receipts for Spinal Tap music sales between 1989 and 2016 — a number that seems extremely far-fetched, given the film’s renown.

This isn’t the first time the company has found itself in hot water. They’re also being sued by Overrated Productions, an outfit that recently acquired the rights to hit song, “Baby Come Back” by Player. The tune has been used on everything from car commercials to The Simpsons (making it for an interesting tie-in with actor Harry Shearer, who appeared in both the cartoon and the aforementioned rock and roll film). But Overrated claims that Universal Music Group is “willfully underplaying royalties” and releasing intentionally confusing statements in an attempt to conceal it. They’re also suing UMG for breach of contract and have alleged that UMG also transferred rights and master recordings of the song to a European branch in order to artificially decrease their royalty payments by a whopping 25%, attributing it to an “intra-company payment.” Overrated is seeking complete restitution of all profits, which include record sales, digital downloads, ringtones, and streaming, and for the court to force UMG to return the master recordings.

The situation seems unfortunately fitting for a made-up rock band that experienced every music biz mishap there is. One thing’s for sure: neither the Tap creators nor Overrated will be pleading UMG to “come back.”

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