The Downward Spiral of TVT Records

How the ambitious NYC indie nearly brought artists from Ambulance LTD to Lil Jon down with it

Not long ago, Marcus Congleton was vying to conquer the indie-rock world. LP, the 2004 debut full-length from his then-NYC-based shoegazer outfit Ambulance LTD, got decent reviews, powering two solid years of touring that started small but ended with stops at Lollapalooza and Coachella, plus a U.K. jaunt opening for R.E.M. Five years later, the frontman still spends much of his time in vans and clubs, but now he's working part-time as a mover and doing odd jobs at a couple L.A. music venues. He blames his label.

Ambulance LTD are one of a handful of acts still hampered by the death of TVT Records, the famed New York City imprint whose 2008 bankruptcy and resulting legal drama handcuffed the band from releasing its second album; such calamity has plagued several other artists on a roster that at one time or another included Nine Inch Nails, Lil Jon, Pitbull, and Guided by Voices.

Owner Steve Gottlieb got it rolling in 1985, working out of his Central Park South apartment; the Harvard law grad bought the rights to old TV-show theme songs—TVT is short for "Tee Vee Toons"—and put out a double album called TV's Greatest Hits. Less than five years later, he sold three million copies of NIN's Pretty Hate Machine, and rode an eclectic rock wave into the '90s, championing multi-platinum metal band Sevendust, industrial NIN clones Gravity Kills, psychedelic garage-rockers the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and a poppier iteration of GBV. By 1996, the company that Gottlieb started with $125,000 was reportedly worth $50 million.

Ambulance LTD's Marcus Congleton, doing his best to survive "financial sodomy"
Ruvan
Ambulance LTD's Marcus Congleton, doing his best to survive "financial sodomy"

"We were the little indie that could," says Sean Roberts, a former senior director of A&R who credits TVT's innovative marketing campaigns and small, efficient staff—as well as its eye for talent—for the label's success. "We were good at identifying the audience and going right to them. It didn't take us a hundred meetings to get things done."

Size also mattered for many artists, lured by the personal attention not available on larger labels with huge rosters. "We liked the idea of being a big fish in a small pond," says Default frontman Dallas Smith, whose Canadian alt-rock band enjoyed a modest radio hit with 2001's "Wasting My Time."

With the success of Lil Jon & Eastside Boyz' Kings of Crunk in 2002, TVT shifted its focus to hip-hop, signing the similarly crunk-minded Ying Yang Twins and Miami rapper Pitbull. But the rockers soon felt left out. "Steve had a lot of distractions," Smith recalls. "I think his attention was elsewhere with rap artists, lawsuits, and other things." (Gottlieb didn't return numerous calls and e-mails for this story.)

The label head famously clashed with TVT artists like Trent Reznor, Pitbull, and Lil Jon, the latter two claiming, among other things, that Gottlieb tried to sabotage them by yanking promotional funds. (Through management, both declined to comment; "We look forward, not backward," Pitbull's rep adds.) The company also juggled a full slate of legal battles toward the end: In New York's federal district court alone, TVT was involved in at least 17 different lawsuits from 2000 to 2007, as either a plaintiff or defendant. In 2003, a jury awarded the company more than $130 million in damages in a suit against Island Def Jam over the release of Ja Rule albums, but the ruling was overturned on appeal; in 2007, TVT was ordered to pay Slip-N-Slide Records $9 million in a dispute over previously unreleased Pitbull tracks.

By 2008, the company was in financial trouble, likely owing to both legal costs and plummeting album sales industry-wide. TVT filed for bankruptcy that February and later sold all its assets—including both back catalog and existing contracts—to the Orchard, a Manhattan-based digital-music distributor. Suddenly, former TVT artists were thrown into a precarious position, under contract with a new company most knew little about, but which controlled the fate of all future recordings, including Ambulance LTD's follow-up.

With the Velvet Underground's John Cale producing, Congleton started work on the record in 2007, his former bandmates having jumped ship a year earlier. Under Cale's direction, the resulting music took on a sleek, groove-heavy quality different from the band's fuzzy, lo-fi origins. But since TVT's bankruptcy, the project is in limbo. First Ambulance and the Polyphonic Spree sued to prevent the label from selling the rights to both bands' recordings; following the deal with TVT, Congleton then sued the Orchard, seeking ownership of all his recordings. In court filings, Congleton claims the band's TVT contract only covered Ambulance's 2003 self-titled EP, and that he hasn't received a dime in royalties from either TVT or the Orchard, with the latter's website nonetheless listing Ambulance releases as part of its catalog. The litigation is ongoing.

A new-look Ambulance previewed the Cale-produced tracks at a smattering of 2008 East Coast shows, but without a new album, the band can't sustain any momentum. "It's not really possible to tour without a new album or EP to promote," says Congleton, who adds that his odd-job gigs since moving to L.A. are necessary to combat the "financial sodomy" caused by mounting legal costs. "I have to take any jobs I can find, which aren't many."

Congleton isn't the only former TVT artist affected by the bankruptcy. Lil Jon's Crunk Rock was five years in the making before its release this summer, stalled first by the rapper's beef with Gottlieb, then shelved for close to two years during the label's bankruptcy proceedings and negotiations with the Orchard, which eventually released Jon from his contract. The r&b singer Teedra Moses followed her old label's lead after TVT went under: She filed for bankruptcy. Default's Smith says his band would have folded entirely if not for its strong following back home, where the band continued to tour while the release of its latest album, Comes and Goes, was delayed. "If it wasn't for Canada, I don't think we'd still exist as a band," he says. The record hits U.S. stores later this month.

A deal between Ambulance and the Orchard seems unlikely, given hard feelings over the online-catalog issue. Congleton maintains that the company is simply not equipped to handle new releases: "They're not a real record label. They're just a digital distributor. They don't physically press or sell CDs, and they don't offer recording funds, marketing budgets, or tour support. They only sell music online."

For its part, the Orchard, which has recently released albums (available both physically and digitally) from former TVT artists the Cinematics and Dude 'n Nem, as well as a digital-only release by the Holloways, says it's ready to fill the void left by its predecessor. Says Jaclyn Ranere, the Orchard's VP of digital marketing: "We're honoring our commitments with respect to the artist agreements we've picked up."

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