Pain Pills: The heated copyright debate over a St. Louisan's power-pop compilation

Pain Pills: The heated copyright debate over a St. Louisan's power-pop compilation
St. Louis' Jordan Oakes (left) on the original album art for the Yellow Pills: Prefill.

It's a story as old as the music business itself: A fanatical record collector jumps at the chance to bring some favorite tunes to a wider audience. Somewhere along the line someone doesn't get paid or claims copyright infringement. The whole well-intentioned project ends up in hard feelings and more often than not in a courtroom.

This particular story originated in a St. Louis apartment rather than a recording studio or boardroom. And in this case, it's not a songwriter or session player who's aggrieved but a compilation album curator who's claiming that his work and research were misappropriated.

Either way, it's a 21st-century spin on a sadly familiar story, complete with nasty social-networking posts.

The facts are these: Earlier this year, the Chicago-based record label Numero Group, famed for its high-quality reissue program, announced a new series of archival releases under the title Buttons. (Tom Lunt, one of the Numero Group's three principals, is a former St. Louisan.)

The first release, a compilation album entitled Buttons: Starter Kit, was assigned catalog number Numero 004. According to Numero's website, Starter Kit included "twenty songs from our original 004 cd, plus two bonus cuts, new liners, tons of sleeve scans, photos, and ephemera."

This was apparently news to St. Louis record collector Jordan Oakes. In 2003, he curated the original Numero 004, a double-CD compilation entitled Yellow Pills: Prefill. Starter Kit includes twenty of Prefill's original 33 tracks. Oakes is not thanked or acknowledged on the Starter Kit artwork. In fact, Oakes says that he did not even know of Starter Kit until two months ago. When he found out, he took to the Internet to voice his concern.

"I am the person who picked all of the tracks for Prefill, which was over a year's worth of work," Oakes wrote on Amazon.com. "Each of these songs originated [as a 45 or EP] from my very own collection. I picked every band...The label simply added a couple of tracks, removed my (acclaimed) liner notes and every trace of me ... apparently so they could circumvent paying the royalty agreed in the contract. I consider this theft."

In response, Numero's Ken Shipley posted, "Jordan asked for his version of the Prefill to be deleted. We did so at his request...He chose not to be involved in the project any longer, at great expense to Numero (we ended up destroying 3,000 booklets, tray cards, and slipcases)."

So who's right here? The answer involves those two words familiar to every lawyer and infuriating to every client: It depends.

Jordan Oakes is one of the foremost archivists of power pop, a guitar-heavy, riff-happy subgenre of rock & roll. As the publisher of Yellow Pills fanzine, he helped unearth and popularize a massive underground of power-pop bands dating back four decades, each trying to be the next Beatles or at least the next Raspberries. In the 1990s, he branched out into record production, curating four Yellow Pills: The Best of American Pop compilation albums for the Big Deal indie label.

"I was first contacted by Numero in about 2003," Oakes says via e-mail to the RFT. "They were familiar with the Yellow Pills CDs I did. The label was fairly new and wanted to work with me; they sought me out." Pitching it as a "trip through my mind," Numero execs Lunt and Kevin Shipley allegedly approached Oakes to compile a new Yellow Pills sampler for their then-fledgling label.

Oakes estimates that he spent about a year tracking down bands and record labels from his extensive collection. At one point, he says, Shipley and Lunt came to his apartment and took photo scans of "everything from the LP sleeves to my record crates." Prefill's original artwork included correspondence to Oakes from power-pop legends such as Shoes and Dwight Twilley. The front cover was a photo of Oakes' mailbox. Oakes was credited with research, and Shipley and Lunt were credited as reissue producers. Oakes allegedly has a signed contract for his services. (Note: The RFT has not seen any legal paperwork involved in this production.)

Prefill came out in 2004 and generally received positive reviews. Here the story becomes hazy: In 2006, Numero re-released Prefill with new liner notes and a cover graphic of an overturned pill bottle. On March 12, 2010, Numero posted an unsigned announcement to its website that Prefill would be deleted. "Despite our best efforts to lock down an extension for all of the tracks on Yellow Pills: Prefill, we were unable to get one artist to accept our standard Most Favored Nations deal. As we have less than 40 copies of the double CD in stock, it makes sense to put the record gently to sleep instead of destroying a repress at the eleventh hour."

Oakes thinks this has to do with his original contract. Around 2006, he says, he had been in talks with Numero about a second Yellow Pills compilation. After some negotiation — allegedly memorialized in e-mails and phone calls — Numero made an offer. Oakes found it insufficient and said so in a letter that he describes as "firm yet polite. I received back from (Numero) an e-mail that screamed at me." The two parties stopped communicating shortly thereafter.

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