Guitarist's firing from The Mavericks point up peculiarities and unfairness of the music biz
By Michael McCall
AUGUST 7, 2000: Nick Kane got fired as guitarist for The Mavericks in May, ending a seven-year run with the hip country group that included a Grammy Award and several Country Music Awards. Kane wasn't surprised by the move. His biweekly salary had been suspended in February, along with the salaries of other Mavericks employees. When the other band members held a meeting shortly before his dismissal, he didn't hear anything afterward from bandmates Raul Malo, Robert Reynolds, and Paul Deakin.
Kane had known Deakin since the two played together in a Miami bar band in 1982, and he usually could rely on the drummer to fill him in. This time when he pressed Deakin for information, he received an e-mail that said an upcoming meeting "would clear up any ambiguities about your situation."
Kane repeats the word "ambiguities" and laughs. "That's a $10 word," he says. "I knew then it was over."
The circumstances surrounding Kane's departure indicate the current troubled status of The Mavericks. One of the most critically acclaimed country bands of the '90s, the group was cut from the roster of Mercury Records this spring--this after already having had its contract shifted from MCA Records to Mercury. Only two years ago, the group had released its most cohesive and forward-thinking album, Trampoline, on MCA. But the album challenged country radio at a time when playlists were becoming tighter and more pop-oriented, and U.S. radio stations largely ignored the album. Although the album was embraced by European audiences, last year's follow-up on Mercury failed to sustain the group's momentum overseas. By early 2000, the lack of touring income and record sales put the band in a dire financial situation that led to trimming expenses--which included its most visible salaried employee, guitarist Nick Kane.
For Kane, who was viewed both inside and outside The Mavericks as an integral member, the firing was the culmination of a period during which he'd grown increasingly disenchanted with the band's musical direction, with the band's management, and with singer Raul Malo as well. In a larger sense, his fate casts a light on the expendable way musicians are treated within the music industry. "People think that because I was in The Mavericks, that I'm a rich pop star, that I'm a millionaire," he says. "But I was never more than a glorified sideman in the band. I'm a sideman who saw the other side."
The Mavericks had recorded an independent album and an album for MCA Records prior to inviting the veteran guitarist to join in 1993. But it was the band's second MCA release, 1994's What a Crying Shame, that established the group, bringing on radio hits and music awards. "When I got with them, it was unbelievable," Kane says. "We were making interesting records and putting on these incredible shows. It was great."
Kane already had a long history by then. Born in New Jersey and raised in Germany, he had toured Europe with rock bands through the late '70s. In the '80s, he played in a Miami punk band, The Preachers; a Florida blues band, Iko Iko; and a New York blues group, Little Mike and the Tornadoes. In Los Angeles, he teamed up with former members of The Meters and Tower of Power, and he was in a rock band with former David Bowie sideman Hunt Sales.
When he initially was invited to join The Mavericks, Kane figured it was to become a full member. Then Nashville accountant Al Hagaman advised the band to hire him as an employee rather than incorporate him as a band member. This type of situation had grown more common during the '80s and '90s--bands are presented to the public as an equal, fun-loving bunch of friends, but behind the scenes deals have often been cut that give certain members a bigger piece of the pie. In country music, groups like Sawyer Brown and Confederate Railroad have unusual setups like this; current chart contenders Sons of the Desert went along with a record company decision to publicly emphasize three of its five members, thereby downplaying the role of the other two musicians, both of whom were longstanding players in the group. Such decisions may benefit key band members, but in the long run it likely brings a distressing element to the dynamics of the group as a whole.
In Kane's case, he remembers going with Mavericks manager Frank Callari to the offices of O'Neill/Hagaman to discuss the deal. "That was my first encounter with the Nashville way of doing things," Kane says. "The first thing out of this guy's mouth was, 'Do you know how lucky you are to be in this band?' " Kane shot him a middle finger, "and we ended up in a shouting match with Frank dragging me out of his office."
Nonetheless, Kane accepted the position. At first, he was paid per concert appearance and for his participation on the band's recordings. Later, he was promoted to a salaried position. However, he never received a share of royalties or concert fees, although he did receive "points" on each record, meaning he garnered a small percentage of album earnings. He also got a share of merchandise sales, since his face was put on T-shirts and other items.
But there were plenty of expenses too. The band was expected to dress stylishly, the cost of which came out of the members' own pockets, and they insisted on first-class accommodations wherever they traveled. "We always stayed in these ridiculous hotels where even the incidentals were outrageous," Kane says, noting that he had to pay for everything beyond the room fee. "If you're staying in a $400-a-night hotel, how much do you think you're going to have to pay for a hamburger?"
The Mavericks were asked if they wanted to comment on Kane's firing. Through longtime band manager Frank Callari, the band stated that they had believed Kane's departure was "amicable," that they appreciated the years he devoted to the band, and that they wished him well in the future. Meanwhile, the band is looking for a new label, and singer Raul Malo has recorded a Latin album on his own that he hopes to release on a major label.
Now that he's been let go, Kane says he's relieved to be out of the band and free to pursue other opportunities. He'll devote more time to his own band, The Beautys, which he formed three months ago. Last year, he released an album under his own name, and he was nominated for a Juno Award in Canada for a record he produced for Universal Records by the Johnny Favorite Swing Orchestra. He's interested in producing other albums and helping develop young bands, and he's also looking for other guitar gigs.
"I'm looking forward to spending more time in Nashville and within the Nashville music scene," he says. "Even though I've been living here for more than six years, I've been gone for most of that time. So I'm looking forward to seeing what's next."
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