Unknown Irish girl group Triniti have signed a ?5m record contract. But they are not millionaires just yet and in the tough world of the music industry, they may never be. John Meagher reports
It sounds like the stuff of fantasy. Three Dublin girls who are members of a classical music-meets-pop outfit called Triniti signed a ?5m recording contract with the world's biggest record company, Universal.
According to bosses at the Irish branch of their label, Laura Cunningham, Eve O'Donnell and Sharon Moran are the recipients of the biggest record contract ever signed by an Irish band.
Many of the media reports following this week's band launch in Dublin suggested that the girls - all in their early 20s - would be instant millionaires. The truth is far less glamorous.
Laura Cunningham laughs at the suggestion that she and her friends have become overnight millionaires. "You don't just get handed a cheque for ?5m and get sent on your way," she says. "You have to sing for your supper. We've got a five-album deal and they are going to spend ?5m on us over the course of five albums. But it costs thousands of euro to make albums and videos - it's all being pumped into the product at the moment.
"We're not living on nothing - we got an advance which is what we're living on. We had worked until we got our deal last April, but after that it was no longer necessary. We're comfortable enough, but we are careful with our money because we don't know how long the allowance has to last us.
"We sat down with our manager and went through the contract very carefully to work out how much things cost. We're not naive about it. We don't have dollar signs in our eyes - if you're in this for the money, you'd be disappointed."
Cunningham realises artists who perform their own material enjoy far greater royalties than those who perform other artists' songs. "It may sound premature, but we're working on our second album already and we will have our own songs on it," she says.
She is adamant that Triniti have surrounded themselves with people who will look after their interests. "At the end of the day, we're three young girls and we have to put our faith in other people. I don't know how much money we can get from ringtones, for instance, so I'm certain that the people that look after us will make sure we get a fair cut."
Eileen O'Gorman is a Dublin-based intellectual property lawyer who has represented a number of musicians in their negotiations with record labels. "It sounds great on paper, but every cent that a record company spends on you is recoupable from your earnings," she says. "You are basically starting with a negative bank balance and it's going to take a while, if ever, before it comes up to the level where it evens off and you get your percentage."
The industry is littered with acts who failed to live up to commercial expectation and they ended up with nothing for their trouble, or, in some cases literally owing money to the record company. This is always written off as a bad debt. "The label hangs on to any material produced as well as the copyright and there may well be a restriction on you re-recording any of the material at a future date.
"I'd always encourage artists to put a buy-back clause into their contracts so that if the record company, for whatever reason, doesn't release your music, you can get your recording back. A lot of Irish acts found themselves in a horrendous situation where they signed to a record company and the label left their album on the shelf and they were unable to release any other material."
Courtney Love, wife of the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, itemised her problems with Universal offshoot Geffen prior to a court case in 2001. In an open letter to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), she wrote: "This story is about a bidding-war band that gets a huge deal with a 20pc royalty rate and a million-dollar advance. What happens to that million dollars? They spend half a million to record their album. That leaves the band with $500,000. They pay $100,000 to their manager for 20 percent commission. They pay $25,000 each to their lawyer and business manager. That leaves $350,000 for the four band members to split. After $170,000 in taxes, there's $180,000 left. That comes out to $45,000 per person. That's $45,000 to live on for a year until the record gets released."
Courtney Love isn't the only musician to bring her case to court. George Michael, N*SYNC and Garbage have all challenged their contracts in the courts.
And Eagles frontman Don Henley has led a campaign to free musicians of their "servitude" to record companies. Henley has tried to do for musicians what Olivia de Havilland did for actors. The Oscar-winning starlet sued Warners more than 60 years ago and won a landmark decision that established a seven-year limit on entertainment industry contracts. That eventually led to the end of the Hollywood studio system.
'You don't just get handed a cheque for ?5m and get sent on your way. You have to sing for your supper . . . ' But in 1987 record companies secured an amendment to the law to exclude musicians. This means that some musicians are signed to contracts for longer than seven years from which they have difficulty extricating themselves. The record companies argued successfully that they were a special case because they invested heavily in new artists and the long contracts allowed them to recoup that investment.
The RIAA has argued that artists who take multimillion dollar advances cannot later walk away from their obligations. It argues that musicians often sign the deals and then spend their time seeking to increase their earnings through lucrative film and television work when they should be fulfilling their contractual obligations by completing their albums.
The now defunct British pop act, S Club 7, were no strangers to TV work, having been created to straddle both television and the studio. But despite four UK number ones, album sales of over 12 million, four TV series seen in 120 countries and their very own movie, the group were only paid a regular salary. It's rumoured each member of the group made just £600,000 in four years. It's a fraction of the £50m they made for their manager and creator, Simon Fuller.
While veteran artists such as David Bowie and Paul McCartney have retrospectively expressed their dissatisfaction with deals signed in the past, some artists have called the shots in the record company boardrooms.
U2 are said to enjoy one of the highest royalty rates of all time. In 1993, they struck a $60m, six-album deal with Island Records, giving them a reported 28pc royalty on each album sold. While their contemporaries may still not have found what they're looking for, Bono and the boys most certainly have.
Whether or not the same can be said about Triniti remains to be seen.
Triniti's self-titled debut album is due for release in mid-May.