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"Crowe's Big Apple dream turns sour: Allison Crowe leaves deal behind"

"Keep your eyes open. And don't get caught up in the illusion or anything."

Adrian Chamberlain, The Times Colonist (Canada)
Saturday, August 30, 2003

Allison Crowe

Six weeks ago Allison Crowe was recording songs in a New York City studio. Today the Nanaimo singer-songwriter is back in her hometown with no record deal.

Four months ago, the headline in the Times Colonist read: "Sony sends Crowe flying: "'They're grooming Ally for the Big Time."

That flight has ended in a crash.

Six weeks ago Nanaimo's Allison Crowe was recording songs in a New York City studio, heading for international success. Now, the singer-songwriter is back in her humble hometown with no record deal. This particular Big Apple dream has fallen flat, although Crowe -- who's just 21 -- remains optimistic about her future.

Back in late April, it was announced she'd struck a deal with Jack Ponti, a colourful New Jersey record executive who'd once managed pop superstar India.Arie. Ponti was launching a hot new artist-friendly label, Bardic Records. Recording sessions in New York City were planned.
Crowe's disc was to be handled by Sony-owned RED Distribution, the music industry's largest independent distribution company.

Vancouver Islanders have known for years about Crowe's precocious talent as a passionate singer who accompanies her heartfelt, confessional ballads on grand piano. A big-time U.S. record deal seemed a logical and unsurprising step in her career trajectory.

Today, Crowe and her manager -- a former stock market investigator --  relate a cautionary tale that might chill the heart of any aspiring pop idol. For nine months, they struggled unsuccessfully to have Bardic president/founder Ponti put the deal into writing. The deal has died and Crowe -- who says she turned down lucrative gigs to focus full attention on the project -- has lost career momentum. Meanwhile, her Saltspring Island-based manager, Adrian du Plessis, hints that Ponti indulged in peculiar mind games.

Ponti, however, says nothing unseemly happened beyond "some philosophical differences." There were no contract problems, he said in a phone interview this week. The parting, in his view, was mutually agreed upon and amicable.

Ultimately, after 270 days of frustrating negotiations and three weeks of recording in New York City, nothing was ever signed. Crowe's recordings of five original songs now sit gathering dust in a recording studio.

"Those actual songs will remain forever buried in the vaults of Bardic," says du Plessis, adding that his protegé is free to re-record her self-penned tunes.

According to du Plessis, Ponti's Bardic Records promised Crowe a record deal that was, in some aspects, revolutionary for the bureaucratically top-heavy record industry. Bardic had supposedly reached an agreement with Columbia Records (a division of Sony) that, for Crowe, would combine the benefits of working for a small independent label with the commercial clout of a massive record company.

Hers was to be unorthodox record deal. Typically, with a major label, a new artist or band might be offered an advance of $100,000 US (all figures are in US funds) then not see any more cash until sales had (with luck) topped 600,000. After that, the musician is paid an artist
royalty rate of $1.60 per disc.

The Nanaimo singer wasn't to receive the usual cash-fat advance. Upon signing she'd get a modest monthly stipend of $2,000 a month, enabling her to pay living expenses while the recording was being made. She also agreed to a low artist royalty rate of 40 cents a CD. Such concessions would enable Bardic to launch this new artist at a low cost. Crowe was to benefit because she'd start receiving her royalties after sales of about 100,000 rather than the standard 600,000, said du Plessis.

The key component of the deal, however, was a purported "uplift" arrangement with Columbia Records. If she was a big success, achieving sales of between 200,000 and 500,000 CDs, Crowe would shift over to the standard industry royalty of $1.60 a disc and become, in essence, a Columbia Records artist. She also would be a partner with Bardic, receiving 10 per cent of net receipts.

Ultimately, Crowe was told if she sold 600,000 discs, for example, she might earn more than double the artist amount an artist with a standard agreement would receive.

Du Plessis also said Ponti told him between $500,000 and $1 million would be spent on promoting Crowe's new album.

It was the uplift deal with Columbia Records that especially appealed to Crowe and her manager. Without it, she would be committed to a long-term five-album contract paying her only 40 cents instead of $1.60 a disc. Yet Crowe -- who was represented by three different lawyers -- was never able to get the uplift agreement in writing, although Ponti verbally
assured them it would happen. (He also mentioned it in at least one e-mail to du Plessis.)

Could it be that Ponti viewed Crowe, a young woman just out of her teens, and du Plessis, a laid-back Saltspring Islander, as a couple of rubes from Canada's isolated West Coast? Du Plessis said one lawyer involved in contract negotiations commented that, from Ponti's perspective "we appeared to be babes in the woods."

It is true that Crowe is relatively inexperienced in the ways of music industry commerce, but du Plessis has had plenty of dealings in the cut-and-gouge world of finance. Before becoming Crowe's manager, he worked for 12 years as a renowned Canadian stock market detective. In a 1998 article about freelance stock scam spotters, Newsweek magazine described du Plessis as the man who "dominates this arena" in Canada.

His greatest feat was exposing YBM International Magnex Inc. The magnet making company, listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, was ultimately linked to Russian Mafia money laundering. In 1998, 50 FBI agents raided YBM's head offices in Newton, Pa. Du Plessis did his sleuthing from his Saltspring Island computer. The raid followed his investigative articles
about the billion-dollar company.

Du Plessis, then, is no neophyte, although it's true most of his previous music business dealings happened in the early 1980s, when he was a punk rock manager in Vancouver.

He became especially suspicious in his dealings with Ponti during a telephone conversation that occurred on June 12. In the middle of a phone call, Ponti told du Plessis he had to take another call from Will Botwin, the president of Columbia Records, but would let him listen in.
During this conversation with a man identified as Botwin, Ponti praised Crowe's abilities and said he would "knock her record out of the ballpark."

"He said, 'Yes sir, we have a home run' kind of thing," du Plessis recalled.

Crowe had a similar experience when Ponti said she could listen in on a different call between him and Botwin, during which Ponti told a man he said was Botwin that the Nanaimo singer could "kick India.Arie's ass" in terms of musical talent.

Du Plessis questions whether Botwin was on the line either time. He wonders whether it was a ploy to make it seem like Columbia Records was in the loop, even though the uplift agreement was still not in writing. "You're questioning is this real, or is this how it happens in the big leagues ... I still do not know whether these conversations were real or staged."

Crowe's manager was increasingly suspicious about the Botwin/Ponti confabs after speaking to a reporter for American Lawyer Media. The reporter (who subsequently dropped the assignment) was researching a story on the "new model" deal Crowe had with Bardic Records. Ponti and Bardic's general manager, Matt Beckerman, told du Plessis that the
reporter was not to contact Botwin, although he was, ostensibly, the only one at Sony/Columbia who knew about the uplift agreement.

Says du Plessis: "To this day I still find that explanation highly unusual. One would expect that the opposite would be true -- that is, junior label staffers would likely know about Allison's deal at this stage, and the president of Columbia would only learn of Allison if she were to become a huge success."

Although he declined to go into details, du Plessis said Ponti also indulged in some "weird gamesmanship and tactics" Du Plessis said one lawyer involved in the contract negotiations commented: "What you've experienced is beyond the pale in terms of hardball, in terms of what people do in this industry."

Crowe flew home on July 14 once it became clear the contract was not going to be resolved. She says she's relieved to be freed of her association with Bardic Records, and still looks forward to releasing a new disc in six to 12 months. Rocker Randy Bachman of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, who has his own recording studio on Saltspring Island, has expressed preliminary interest in working with her.

It may seem odd to negotiate a record deal for nine months without getting a signature on a contract. Crowe and du Plessis said it was because they believed Ponti and Bardic were operating in good faith. And Canadian industry veterans say such a scenario it is not at all unusual.

"It's not really outside the norm," said Richard Flohil, a Toronto-based publicist and journalist who's been in the music business for nearly 40 years. "(But) there comes a time when you say shit or get off the pot, or else you'll move on."

Vancouver blues singer Jim Byrnes, who's performed and recorded professionally since 1965, says: "Nine months seems like a long time, but people get drawn in for two years, five years.... It's the old carrot-and-stick thing."

Ponti said he spent between $40,000 and $50,000 on Crowe to date, including recording and legal fees. He says he will not sue to recover it, but does hope to be recompensed by the singer and her manager after Crowe's career takes off.

The New Jersey record executive expressed annoyance that du Plessis had talked to the press about the specifics of their negotiations. Ponti said: "There were no contractual problems by any stretch of the imagination, and I'm actually a little pissed off that would be stated as the issue."

He suggested the root of the problems may have been the fact Crowe had previously lived an "encapsulated life" in a small Canadian city only to be vaulted into a big city adventure. Ponti says Bardic is successfully working with new artists such as Ben Arthur, Jennifer Marks and Brand New Sin, all of whom will release albums in the 2004.

Meanwhile, Crowe's advice to fledgling pop singers is: "Keep your eyes open. And don't get caught up in the illusion or anything."

© Copyright 2003 Times Colonist (Victoria)