Tadpole in the early 2000s, including Renée Brennan, front, Chris Long, centre, and Dino Lawton, right. (Image treatment: Archi Banal)

BusinessOctober 31, 2022

Tadpole’s fight for the rights to their back catalogue

Tadpole in the early 2000s, including Renée Brennan, front, Chris Long, centre, and Dino Lawton, right. (Image treatment: Archi Banal)

Members of the successful New Zealand rock band can finally celebrate their musical legacy after coming to an agreement with their former record label.

Earlier this year, Dino Lawton was rustling around in his overstuffed shed choosing things to chuck away. Tucked into a corner was a box of papers he hadn’t seen in a while. When he opened it, he found a surprise. Inside were the long-lost record label contracts he and his bandmates signed 20 years earlier, back when he was the drummer for Tadpole, a now-defunct rock group who were well-known for a string of radio-friendly singles and many, many live shows in the early 2000s.

As he rifled through pages full of bullet points and signatures scrawled in ball point pen, memories came flooding back, of playing to gigantic mosh pits at the Big Day Out, of flying to East Timor to perform for peacekeeping troops, and of the constant and relentless touring the band’s ever-changing line-up endured. “We just worked our asses off,” he says. “We averaged two gigs a week for four to five years.”

Tadpole broke up in 2006, and Lawton hadn’t thought much about his old band, and the music they made, powered by the vocals of Renée Brennan. The group signed its first contract with Pagan Records in 1998, and Lawton believed the label still owned the rights to the group’s music. That meant any royalties earned from streaming or licensing agreements would mostly go to the record label, not to the band.

In essence, the band thought it had no rights to its own music. Aside from one payment of $15,000 – for use of the group’s biggest song, ‘Alright’, as the Gillette Motorsport soundtrack – split between three of the group’s members a few years back, they hadn’t seen a cent from the music they’d invested so much time and energy into for more than a decade.

In 2022, Tadpole’s online footprint is faint. Only some of the group’s songs are available on streaming services. Their second album, The Medusa, is missing completely. There is no official Tadpole YouTube account – instead, someone else has uploaded grainy versions of music videos like ‘Alright’ and ‘Blind’, which have accumulated hundreds of thousands of views, as well as comments from fans saying things like “Bring back Tadpole!”

The band’s three records, released between 1998 and 2006, haven’t been remastered, reissued or re-released on vinyl, like many bands of their time. In the streaming era, when long-defunct bands or decades-old songs can suddenly, randomly, become popular again, Tadpole’s presence has been, to quote one of their biggest songs, a little blind. “None of our material’s on TikTok,” says Lawton. Do fans ask what’s going on? “Yeah, they do,” he says.

Until recently, he didn’t know what to tell them. Lawton thought, because of the contract the band signed in 1998, their hands were tied. That contract meant he and his old band mates couldn’t do anything with their music. It’s a problem for many artists, including Taylor Swift(who is re-recording her early albums after losing the rights to her masters) who signed away rights to their music early in their careers. Not owning the masters, the right to use an artist’s music how they wish, means they can’t earn money from their recordings.

But the contract Lawton pulled from the box of papers in his shed back in March wasn’t Tadpole’s original 1998 contract. It was a long-forgotten second contract, signed in 2002, after the release of the band’s triple-platinum first album The Buddhafinger – the one that earned constant airtime with its crunchy, guitar-driven songs ‘Backdoor’ and ‘Number One’.

That record was so popular, it gave Tadpole the ability to renegotiate their contract with Pagan Records. Lawton had forgotten about this until his shed discovery earlier this year. “We re-signed because The Buddhafinger was such a big record,” says Lawton. “For the second option, we changed a heap of stuff.”

The 2002 contract Dino Lawton found in his shed. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

That “stuff” includes a clause that indicates the rights to any music made for Pagan Records would revert to the band 10 years after its release. “They’ve got the cream period where they can make the most money out of it,” is how Chris Yong, the guitarist who used to fling his dreadlocks around in Tadpole’s music videos, explains things. “Then it goes back to the artist.”

At the kitchen table in Lawton’s Avondale home, history is being compiled. Plastic crates full of CDs, singles, tapes, demos and hard drives are full of content waiting to be sorted, dated and restored. On a nearby computer, old promotional photos and videos full of musicians with fringes, dreadlocks and artfully curated facial hair are being organised into folders. Songs by Deftones, A Perfect Circle and Rage Against the Machine soundtrack this sunny Sunday afternoon activity.

Together, it amounts to the remnants of Tadpole, and Yong and Lawton are busy reminiscing about the band’s time together. “That was fucking epic,” says Lawton about the group’s 2002 tour of East Timor, when Brennan, Lawton, Yong and then-bassist Shannon Brown spent two days in a noisy Hercules with the R&B singer K’Lee and comedian John Glass for perhaps the strangest string of shows ever performed by a crew of New Zealand artists overseas.

Lawton searched his local PB Tech for a CD-Rom drive so he could sort through all of the photos from that tour. “Tadpole disturbs the peace in East Timor” is how the NZ Herald covered the shows at the time, explaining how a 600-strong crowd of troops formed a moshpit for Tadpole’s set, despite being required to keep their weapons on them at all times. Mosquitos, snakes and scorpions were also an issue for the touring party.

Yong remembers a frenzy surrounding the band in the early 2000s, with radio stations like Channel Z and The Dot, as well as music station C4, putting Tadpole songs on high rotate, alongside an emerging line-up of heavier Aotearoa music like The D4, The Datsuns and Blindspott. “It was such a boom,” he says. Why isn’t Renée here with them going through Tadpole’s history? “She’s got a private life now and keeps to herself,” says Lawton.

The Spinoff first met up with Lawton and Yong several months ago, when the pair were worried they were settling in for a lengthy fight with their record label. Expert music lawyer Chris Hocquard had been engaged and emails with Pagan Records weren’t being responded to. (Hocquard declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing negotiations.)

Things seemed to progress around the time The Spinoff got in touch with Timothy Moon, who co-founded Pagan Records with Trevor Reekie back in 1985. In response to a request for an interview, Moon sent this short reply: “We have had no contact from Tadpole until just now. In terms of our current negotiations the matter is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and remains confidential between label and artist.”

Lawton confirmed a 30-page contract had indeed landed in his inbox. While the details of it are confidential, he says the group has all signed it. It gives Tadpole their masters back, meaning they can use their music how they wish, and earn money from it. That means The Medusa will soon land on streaming services, with vinyl and CD reissues – including a four-disc “Tadthology” CD collection – are on their way into stores next month. A vinyl reissue of The Buddhafinger is planned for February.

Moon seemed to confirm this when he told The Spinoff: “We look forward to the reissues!”

A collection of Tadpole’s singles, owned by Dino Lawton. Photo: Chris Schulz

It’s a chance for Tadpole to celebrate their legacy, opening the door for the band to offer fans what they’re asking for, including B-sides, remixes and lost songs that have been stuck on hard drives for more than a decade. Lawton believes there’s enough footage recorded during Tadpole’s time together for a documentary.

On Tadpole’s Facebook page, which Lawton set up only recently, he and Yong have been posting old photos and videos, and reminiscing with fans. “Numbers are limited so make sure to preorder now or you’ll likely miss out,” he recently wrote, drumming up interest in the reissues.

People still talk about Tadpole all the time, says Yong, even though their musical exploits feel like they happened a lifetime ago. “It’s a surreal thing. Twenty years is such a long time, but I get the odd comment about how much they love the music and they’re still cranking it,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Wow, you still remember this thing we did as young ‘uns.’”

But there’s one thing fans shouldn’t get their hopes up for: any kind of tour or live show. Despite promising talks several years ago for a gig to mark The Buddhafinger’s 20-year anniversary, Lawton says it’s unlikely to happen. “It’s going to be too hard. Renée hasn’t sung for years, Paul [Matthews] the bass player lives overseas. I don’t think he’s that keen,” he says.

Lawton doesn’t mind. He’s just glad he found that contract, can pay off his legal bills using proceeds from the upcoming reissues, and get Tadpole’s songs back out into the world. Yes, maybe even on TikTok. “It’s actually cooler if we don’t [play live],” he says. “Everyone else is doing it.”

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