If there’s one thing Hugh Platt loves doing, it’s sh*t-stirring. This whole Black Sabbath/Bill Ward situation has seen him dig out a very large spoon.
By now you’ve no doubt have heard that Bill Ward is – at the time of writing at least – no longer going to be taking part in either the recording of the new Black Sabbath album or the corresponding world tour. This situation all kicked off on Thursday, when Bill Ward published a statement, detailing why he might be forced to sit out the Black Sabbath reunion. The three other members of Black Sabbath then seemingly decided to take matters into their own hands and publicly announce they were moving on without Ward.
But what’s really going on? Let’s look between the lines, shall we? You might want to get a cup of tea on the go before I start off though – this is gonna be a long one….
First of all, go and refresh your memory as to what Bill Ward wrote in his statement. For the sake of space, I’m not going to be reproducing much of it here as I analyse the whole sorry situation, and it never hurts to see the whole thing in context. Likewise, spend 30 seconds of your life reading Black Sabbath’s counter-statement. Everyone done that? Then let’s move on.
Right from the off, this is a dispute over money. That’s hardly a surprise, given the number of times Ozzy and Iommi have sued each other over Black Sabbath-related issues over the years. And as much as the metal world would just love this to be the sole machinations of Sharon Osbourne, the truth of the matter is that Tony Iommi is just as much a factor in this – if not more so – than Ozzy’s infamous manager-wife. It’s Iommi who decided to fire Ozzy back in 1979, and indeed Iommi who shirked on telling Ozzzy and instead got Bill Ward to break the news to him. It’s Iommi that made sure he had sole ownership of the trademarks attached to the Black Sabbath name, and his monopolisation of the profit-making off the back of the band’s legacy that resulting in Ozzy suing him over it in 2009. If we step outside the cozy, nostalgic, “Black-Sabbath-invented-heavy-metal-!!!111!!!” bubble for a second, we have to face facts that some of the people in this band don’t actually particularly like each other, and that this reunion is entirely about the vast, vast, VAST amounts of money it will generate.
Why am I making such a bit deal about why money is pretty much the only factor in this reunion? Well, it’s important to keep it in mind for several reasons. Firstly, to remind you to disregard all the PR bullshit that will come from any and all parties with something invested in the success of this reunion. As much as we might not want to admit it, this isn’t about “Doing justice to the Sabbath name”, or “having fun with some old friends, one last time”. It’s about “getting as much cash as we can before the Black Sabbath cash-cow runs dry”.
Ward’s revelation that negotiations have been going on for over a year…well, it kinda shows up how calculated a lot of the machinations behind this reunion are. Remember when Tony Iommi kept getting pissed off when people kept leaking details of the reunion before it was initially announced? It’s almost certainly because he was involved in some serious backroom bickering with Ward at the time.
But just why is Ward kicking up a fuss in the first place? The other three members of Black Sabbath seem to be getting on just famously. When Bill Ward talks about “unsignable contracts”, what he’s talking about is the three other original members of Black Sabbath coldly calculating how much (or rather, how little) they need to pay to get him on board. Ward uses the phrase “unsignable contract” because he doesn’t think he’s getting his fair share, both of the profits from this tour, and from the publishing and rights for the new Black Sabbath material that’s due to be released. Some of the more naive among you might be thinking “Well, surely they just split everything evenly right? 25% for all of them?” Sorry kids, that’s just not how the world works.
Let’s discuss some rather unpleasant realities. Black Sabbath is more than just a band – and we’re not talking in a euphemistic “Black Sabbath is a way of life!” kinda way. No, what Black Sabbath are is a business, wretched and distasteful as it is to admit it. And the ugly truth of the matter is this: From a business perspective, Bill Ward is the least-important of the original members to have on board for the Black Sabbath 2012 reunion to go ahead and make a fuck-ton of cash.
Please note that I haven’t said “Bill Ward isn’t important”, or ‘The Black Sabbath reunion will not be affected by Bill Ward’s absence”. What I’ve said is “from a business perspective, Bill Ward is the least-important of the original members to have on board for the Black Sabbath 2012 reunion to go ahead and make a fuck-ton of cash“. If we get truly mercenary about it, and rank the four original members of Black Sabbath by importance as far as the business aspect of this reunion is concerned, then it’s Ozzy/Iommi sharing joint position at the top of the tree, Butler sitting fairly contentedly slightly lower down the pecking order, and Bill Ward firmly in last place. That might sound brutally harsh, but it’s the truth.
Would anywhere near as many people want to buy tickets for Black Sabbath in 2012 if it didn’t feature Ozzy Osbourne on vocals, or Tony Iommi on guitar? Of course not. If Geezer Butler was the only absent member, would people still cough up their cash to see that “Black Sabbath” perform? There might be a few less people, true, but I doubt it’d be a dealbreaker for vast majority of people who are going to buy tickets for these shows. But if someone other than Bill Ward is on drums, is that really going to dent ticket sales? As much as I’d like to say otherwise, the truth is that it won’t. Bill Ward drastically over-estimated his market value going in to this contractual public pissing contest.
Unless someone in one of the Black Sabbath management team decides opts for the career-suicide action of leaking the details of the various Sabbath members’ contracts, we will never know the exact deal each of the members are getting, but given Ward’s statement, it’s fair to say that he felt the other three were offering him a far slimmer slice of the pie than he thought he was owed. With his statement, Ward was banking on his inclusion in the line-up (and therefore the increase in value of “the Black Sabbath brand” of being able to market themselves as featuring “all the original members”) would be enough of a bargaining chip to force the other three to give up some of their share to him. He was hoping that by issuing a public statement, he’d be able to gain a bit more leverage in these negotiations, which by this point had clearly stalled.
Instead, the three other members of Sabbath consulted their accountants, and worked out a few sums. First they worked out what the personal financial cost to each of them would be if they increased Ward’s share to the level he was demanding. Then they worked out roughly how much money they’d lose from not having Ward onboard at all. Given that this second scenario would be more than offset by a) not having to pay him any slice at all, and b) the fact that even the world’s most expensive session drummer wouldn’t be getting a slice of the royalties or publishing rights, the decision was simple. That’s why Black Sabbath were so quick in telling Ward they were moving on without him – this wasn’t an emotional decision, requiring them to search their feelings, or to assess what impact it might have on fans around the world. None of them lost any sleep over this, because they let their balance sheets make the decision for them. Now can you see why I was so keen to emphasise the issue of money back at the start of this blog?
If we look at Sabbath’s response to Ward’s statement, then it offers up some interesting information as well. Iommi, Osbourne and Butler imply that Ward has “declined publicly to participate in our current Black Sabbath plans”, as opposed to Ward’s claim that he wants to participate, only that the rest of the band have presented him with an unacceptable contract of terms for doing so. What they mean when they say “declined” is actually “declined to participate on the terms we offered”. Similarly, the Sabbath statement claims the three had “no choice but continue without [Ward]” is again, something of an misleading claim. They could have stopped altogether until the contract issues had been resolved. They could have agreed to different contracts altogether. To pretend they had “no choice” is entirely disingenuous – the three members of Black Sabbath very much made a choice in this matter. That said choice is one that makes them looks bad in the eyes of the people they’re courting for album and ticket sales is what they really have no choice over.
Because here’s the real rub – in their statement, Sabbath say “our door is always open” to Ward returning to the fold. What’s so bad about that? Well, as I hope I’ve explained above, this reunion isn’t about friendship or camaraderie. The reason Black Sabbath are “keeping the door open” for Ward is two-fold, and both reasons are about – yep, you guessed it! – money. If Ward comes back, so does the handy “featuring all the original members!” marketing hook (and the subsequent increased profits such claims will lead to). Even more deviously, after calling Ward out on his bluff and demonstrating they’re more than willing to carry on without him, Sabbath are effectively strong-arming him into accepting the terms he’s previously found to be “unsignable”, or to ship out. As far as Sabbath are concerned, negotiations are well and truly over. It’s their way, or no way.
Of course, there is one other possibility I’ve not talked about yet – one that we’d all rather not mention. It’s that Black Sabbath might end up cancelling these reunion shows altogether, rendering all this Bill Ward speculation moot. Tony Iommi’s lymphoma isn’t going to go away because millions of metal fans around the globe want it to. It is an extremely serious form of cancer, and as anyone who has ever had personal dealings with someone close to them suffering from cancer will know, it is an entirely unpredictable thing. One minute a person can be fine, and the next they can be on their death bed. While Iommi’s treatment is reportedly going well, there is no guarantee that things could take a turn for the worst.
I’m not just throwing around idle speculation here – it’s already been “rumoured” (i.e., a legit story that the concerned parties would rather wasn’t “official”) that Black Sabbath were forced to pull out of a Coachella headlining spot because of Iommi’s condition, and it would only take a similar relapse for this to happen all over again with Download Festival (the almost certain result of which will be Soundgarden being bumped up to headliner status), as well as the rest of the band’s proposed 2012 touring and recording plans.
But what does this a have to do with the Bill Ward situation? Well, if cancellation of any of Sabbath’s plans are on the cards (and if they are, neither Black Sabbath nor any of the festival promoters they’re working with will announce it until they absolutely have to), then it means that the three members of Sabbath have even less reason to negotiate at this point in time. Not only will the overall pot of money that this reunion will generate shrink in proportion to the cancellations, but if Iommi’s condition later alters further, then Sabbath would rather still be holding all of the financial aces at that point, rather than to have given up any up to Bill Ward.
So yeah, apologies if that’s a bit of an essay – as you can see, it’s a complicated and tangled web a the top of the music industry, and not everyone always comes out of it looking like the good guy. Sometimes everyone comes out of it looking like the bad guy. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to put on some records and try to regress back to a time when it really was all about the music, and not just about the size of the percentage points on certain contractual agreements.