been collecting records for about 30 years now and it wasn't until about
10 years ago that I stumbled across the odd genre of 'tax scam' labels
(you'll also see them referred to as 'tax loss' labels).
While I'm worldly enough to recognized the music business is all about making
money, maybe due to the fact I work in the financial
arena, the thought of someone releasing records to not make money always struck me as a fascinating example of how economics and music
sometimes make for strange and uncomfortable bedfellows.
|Anyhow, my entry into the tax scam
album world came courtesy of John Fred and His Playboy Band (the outfit
that was responsible for the hit 'Judy In the Sky'). Over
the years I thought I had acquired the entire John Fred LP catalog and then
one day at a Northern Virginia yard sale I stumbled across a John Fred LP
that I had never seen. The album was entitled "Juke Box" and had
been released by the Guinness Records label. I'd never even heard of
the label (of course there are thousands of obscure records labels I've
never run across), but when I started to look into Guinness I stumbled
across the 'tax scam' label concept. I did a little bit of checking
but couldn't dig out a great deal of information and my interest kind of faded, but
was renewed a couple of years ago when the topic came up on a chat board
that I'm a member of (shout of to the folks at Psychedelica). It turned out there were a couple of
group members who knew quite a bit about the subject (thanks in particular
to Michael Ascherman - psych
The 'tax scam' genre seems to have had a brief heyday - roughly 1976 to 1978, though there are some labels that released material up through the early 1980s. I'm guessing that there must have been some changes to Federal tax laws that made it difficult, or illegal to maintain the scheme beyond that timeframe. There also seem to have been business and 'artistic' connections between many of the tax scam labels. The best known are those associated with the Prelude label (Dellwood, Guinness, and Tomorrow), Morris Levy's infamous Tiger Lily label, and Huey Meaux's Crazy Cajun label. Also frequently associated with the tax scam world are Bob Gallo (aka Robert John Gallo) and his Mandala label, Mike Pinera's Illusion label, and the mysterious Johnny Kitchen who is associated with the Album Globe, Album World, and Koala labels. Other, smaller outfits included Baby Grand, Dobre, Rocking Horse, Tribute, and Lloyd Price's TSG label. I'm sure there are more. Send me an email.
The tax scam catalog appears to be quite extensive. Between them Dellwood, Guinness, and Tomorrow alone released close to 100 albums in a two year period. Tiger Lily issued about 50 LPs. The numbers are probably even higher given there are some large gaps in the company catalogs and documentation. Inexplicably, the number of pressings varies wildly from company to company and even album to album. At the rare end of the spectrum you'll find releases like "Bobby Boyd" and "Steve Drake Band" (both on Tiger Lily) which routinely sell for well over $1,000. Very few original copies seem to exist leading one to wonder if the original pressing runs were purposely small, or the stocks were simply destroyed. That also makes original copies highly collectable and expensive. In fact, with original "Stonewall" copies selling for several thousand dollars, the album has seen both bootleg and official releases. At the other end of the spectrum, Tiger Lily seems to have pressed thousands of copies of Richard Pryor's "L.A. Jail" making it easy to find and affordable (if not very funny).
Tax scam labels all seem to share a similar business plan - the goal being to acquire existing material on the cheap from any possible source including their own vaults, buying material from outside entities, swamping with other labels, or just stealing material from outside sources. Recording material seems to have included demo tapes (in some cases the demos were apparently released without bothering to inform the owners), tapes from recording projects that had been shelved, repackaging previously released material (numerous albums originally released by the Family imprint were subsequently reissued by Tiger Lily). In some cases material seems to have simply been 'stolen'. Originally released on the Electric Fox label, Elderberry Jak's "Long Overdue" album reappeared on the Album World Forrest subsidiary erroneously credited to Eldberry Jak (note the missing 'r') with a new title ("Eldeberry Jak") and new cover art.
The band Felix Harp is another case where an album appears to have been illegally appropriated. The band's debut album "The First of Felix Harp" was originally released in 1972 on the small Western World Music label. Repacked with minor track changes and new generic cover art it was released by Guinness in 1977 under the title as "Dear".
In most cases albums were released without the artist's knowledge or cooperation. As an example, out of idle curiosity I tracked down Bill Jerome who with his brother Steve was listed as tone of the songwriter on a Guinness released LP credited to the group Northern entitled "Lady Luck". Mr. Jerome was unaware the album existed and asked for more information on the album.
That said, there are also a couple of cases where artists/bands were either aware their work was being released, or willingly participated in 'tax scam' releases. Good examples can be found in the band Jasper Wrath who recorded a sought after album for the Sunflower label and then seem to have released a pair of albums for Dellwood under the pseudonyms Arden House and Zoldar and Clark.
Another collaborative example is found in singer Sonny Bottari who recorded an album with the band Aesop's Fable for Chess Records Cadet Concept subsidiary. A second Aesops Fables LP entitled "Pickin' Up the Pieces" was released in Canada and Australia by Mandala Records. As a solo act Bottari released a pair of albums for Guinness ("Never Look Back" and a sophomore set (major surprise here) entitled "Pickin' Up the Pieces"). It seems hard to believe any of these artists were paid more than a pittance for their work, but perhaps they somehow benefited in terms of free studio time, personal tax benefits, or some other form of compensation. I'd love to know what the deal was ...
Tax scam labels seem to have had little concern for the type of material being released. Blues, spoken word children's stories, country, disco, jazz, pop, progressive, and rock were all shoveled out their corporate doors. The labels certainly put little energy or money into packaging. Album covers tended to be fairly generic, though in some cases that actually made for some fascinating artwork - check out the Andy Warhol-ish "Hotgun" or the cartoonish covers decorating Yvonne Hodge's "You Never Wanted Me", or Mike Martin's "Thick Tongue Fool". (For what it may be worth, as far as I know, my small site has the most complete collection of 'tax scam' cover art.) If you have some that I'm missing and are willing to share, I'll be more than happy to credit you for the contributions. Similarly, if an album carried any production, engineering, writing and performance credits, or liner notes they were usually minimal.
I'm not a tax lawyer so I can't say I have a thorough understanding of the legalities behind the concept, but in broad brushstrokes the scheme seems to have been built on establishing a new subsidiary label and then claiming high recording expenses (for product that was obtain for little, if any investment), and a significant loss based on poor sales. What appeared to make the scheme financially plausible was that the labels invested next to nothing in the music and then lied about their investment in order to get a tax credit off of those overstated losses. Normally tax scam albums were pressed in limited quantities; most of labeled as demos, or promotional copies. No attempt was made to actually sell the album with copies being marked as cutouts (you'll seldom find a copy without a clipped corner, or punch out hole) and then dumped with a wholesaling middleman, or simply destroyed outright. The parent label would then claim a much larger pressing run (perhaps 10,000 copies of more) with minimal sales. The result 'losses' would be used to bolster the parent operation. Since the companies released existing material spending next to nothing actually recording new material, invested little on packaging, seldom paid artist royalties, spent nothing on promotion, and pressed relatively few copies of the LPs (many tax scam releases are quite rare and are now sought after collectables), the overall cost-benefit ratio stood to be significant. Those losses could then be applied to offset legitimate profits being made by the mainstream labels under the same corporate umbrella - as an example Tiger Lily losses could be used against profits parent Roulette Records was making. That's the theory ... Nobody with any first hand experience in the business has every been willing to go on record to explain the process. Yes, there are also some folks who feel this is nothing more than an urban myth.
The best description of the process I've ever come across actually came from one of the musicians who got sucked into the tax scam arena. "If I remember right, [the producer] was hooked up with some Beverly Hills accountant that was doing the write-off records. I think the investors were putting up around $15,000 per album. They [the producers] spent about $5,000 to produce [an album] and kept the balance. I think I heard the that the investors got a $250,000 write off as if they spent that much to promote and produce the album. And as you said on your website, during that time period there were a lot of tax scam releases happening. I was told that even major labels signed people who they never intended to succeed just for the write off." By any stretch of the imagination that type of return on your money is simply staggering !!!
As you'd expect, the musical genres and quality of tax scam releases was all over the place. Tax scam labels seemed willing to release virtually anything and everything. Guinness is a good example with a catalog that included country (Billy Rufus), funk (Newban which was a precursor to the soul band Atlantic Starr), hard rock (The Rockets), jazz (Jasmine), progressive (Red Sky), and conventional pop (Northern). With well over 100 known releases I obviously haven't heard the whole catalog, but the ones that I have heard have been surprisingly impressive. Ironically that 'rarity' factor has once again caught the attention of the business side of the house and in recent years some of the rarer tax scam albums have been subject to reissues - both legitimate and bootleg projects.
You can only guess as to the logic for doing it, but each Album World release was credited to a different label (e.g. Blake Records, Mark Holly Records, Trapp Records, Van Dyke Records, etc.). The one thing they all share is that the catalog numbers begin with an 'AW' prefix. Not unique to the tax scam genre, but at least some of the Album World releases sound like multiple artists packaged under a fictional name. It's extremely difficult to track down any of these albums leading to the conclusions that few were pressed, or most of the stock was destroyed.
Album Globe is unique in a couple of ways. There are only eleven documented Album Glove releases, but they seem to have been issued a couple of years after the initial tax loss heyday - 1980 versus the 1977-1978 . Album Globe was also notable for being the daring tax scam labels in terms of their willingness to target big name acts. If you look at most of the other tax scam labels, the acts involved tend to be unknown entities. Album Globe didn't bother fooling around with unknowns, rather went for name acts such as The Beatles, The Doobie Brothers, Kansas and Led Zeppelin. Wonder how they avoided the wrath of the major labels these groups were signed to ...
I'm a little reluctant to include the B.T. Puppy label (the initials stood for The Token's publishing company - Bright Tunes) since there were some significant differences from the operating norms of the other tax scam labels listed here. For one thing, the company was active nearly a decade before these other outfits. B.T. Puppy also differed from the other labels in that it started out as a legitimate enterprise enjoying several major sellers with LP and 45s by The happenings, The Tokens, and some other artists. While it's hard to identify a specific date when the label moved from legitimacy to tax scam front, B.T. Puppy releases start to become eclectic and highly scarce with the release of 1969's "Life Is Groovy" by the United States Double Quintet.
Wish I knew more about this obscure one.
Crazy Cajun (Huey Meaux)
Future project ...
The New York City-based Dellwood seems to have started out as a legitimate label releasing a string of mid-1960s 45s. By 1977 when it was reactivated, it served as an offshoot of the Guinness label, essentially following the former's tax loss business plan. Unlike Guinness, Dellwood only released 13 albums, six (if they were actually pressed) which remained undocumented. The Dellwood catalog is also highly diverse covering everything from jazz (George Butler), MOR crooner (Frank Pisani), to progressive moves (Zoldar & Clark), and even a disco album (Disco Kids).
If you've ever run across a tax scam release, there's a good chance it was a Guinness effort since this is the label that seems to have released the largest overall catalog of material, though there are some major gaps in the listing. The other thing that's funny is the near total absence of descriptive material on most Guinness releases. I've looked and looked and with a handful of exceptions, you simply can't find reviews, or biographical information for Guinness releases - good luck finding something on Mick Martin's "Thick Tongue Fool", Ron Sparks' "Make Her Remember", let alone one of the rarer releases such as Upset's "Midsummer Night". As you'd expect, the caliber of material is all over the musical spectrum, with much of it pretty awful so be careful before spending big bucks on Guinness releases.
Illusion was the brainchild of former Blues Image/Iron Butterfly guitarist Mike Pinera. Unlike most tax loss labels that were based in New York City, Illusion was based in Florida and released about two dozen albums over the 1977 - 1978 timeframe. Several of the releases remain undocumented. Most of the Illusion catalog consisted of mediocre hard rock by Florida-based outfits like Charmer and Sage. Pinera also used the label to release a series of late-inning Blue Image LPs, including "Something To Say", "Leavin' My Troubles Behind", "Clean Loving", "Can't You Believe In Forever" and a reissue of "Ride Captain Ride".
Koala was another offshoot of the Album Globe/Album World family, but seems to have hung on to the tax scam concept well beyond most of the others, apparently releasing material as late as 1981. The label had a large catalog of releases (roughly 120 by my count), but the vast majority of offerings were country, or MOR oriented with little interest to rock and soul collectors. It's so large that I haven't bothered to track down information on the majority of these releases. The exceptions I've made are for those LPs that have some rock or soul orientation. The few Koala releases I've heard seem to rely heavily on archival material, some of it having precious little to do with the namesakes, and little released by the label seems to have much collector value with the vast majority of releases selling for under $50. Potential exceptions include a live Gordon Lightfoot LP "Yellow Bird", a self titled soul effort by the band Main Street, and an instrumental collection of James Brown covers by the John Wager Coalition. The accompanying artwork tends to scrape the bottom of the barrel with many of the albums reflecting artwork that looks like it was commissioned by a high school art class (Gladys Knight and the Pips), or generic photos that look like they were swiped from 1950s era postcards (Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds, Ike and Tina Turner ).
NEW Magna Glide
Added this one in November 2013. Still doing some research on it, but what I've found, including the known discography is out there now. As always, comments and contributions always welcomed and acknowledged.
Run by Robert John Gallo (aka Bob Gallo), Mandala is somewhat unique among tax scam labels in that its heyday seems to have been 1972. Another difference is that at last some of its catalog was only released overseas - primarily in Australia and Canada. It's also one of the tax scam labels that hasn't been well documented. Adding to the confusion, the label seems to have had several ties to the Guinness label. As an example, under the name 'Robert John', Gallo recorded/released a pair of albums for Guinness. The two labels also share an album by the soul great Ben E. King and a common bond in the form of the band Sum Pair which released material for both labels.
Unfortunately this is another one that I know virtually nothing about. The label seems to have started out focusing on music oriented to young children. In fact a large portion of the Rocking Horse catalog consists of fairy tales set to music. If you go by the release numbers, this outfit issued about 50 LPs, but the discography is full of gaps. In fact I've only been able to track down seven of the releases and only a handful of album covers, let alone finding out anything about the artists. Of the seven LPs I've identified, three are country-oriented acts.
So here's the king of the reissue labels. Morris Levy's Tiger Lily is certainly the most famous of the tax scam labels and it happens to have some of the most interesting releases.
Tomorrow seems to have been directly tied into the Guinness label. Based in New York City the label apparently only released ten albums, though all are extremely rare and most are quite expensive. Like other tax loss outfits Tomorrow's product was all over the musical spectrum, including pop (Joey Dee), rock (Goliath), and soul (The Exciters). Not only was the music suspect, but it turns out that much of the artwork was also purloined from New York-based artist Sonja Eisenberg. I actually tracked Ms. Eisenberg down and she was kind enough to tell me about her role with Tomorrow:
"I didn't know [my work had been used] until someone sent me a few copies. Never even knew they used it. A friend of mine once asked me for some transparencies. I gave them to him, at the time probably feeling that they had no value. Forgot all about it until a gentleman sent me a copy of one of the LPs . Don't even know how he knew where to contact me. Just have worked almost every day, sometimes 12 hours at a stretch . No one ever promoted my art and I was too ill to do it. Soooooo--- I get oodles of compliments, which do not pay my rent. But, then you are well aware of this in your own life."
By the way, Ms. Eisenberg's work is fascinating. I'm sure she won't mind it if I provide a link to her website:
Good luck finding copies of Tomorrow releases.
I don't know a great deal about Tribute. It was based in New York and only seems to have released five albums - one by Billy Michaels (Billy Lee Michaels?) one by former Tea Company front man Frankie Carr (which sounds like it was cobbled together from earlier material and various musical odds and ends), one by Teddy Strom, and potentially two undocumented efforts.
TSG was set up as a subsidiary of the legitimate LPG (Lloyd Price Group) label. Like most tax scam labels TSG only seems to have been in existence during the 1976 - 1978 timeframe. The company's catalog was quite small - 15 LP releases (though 5 of those releases are unknown) and a couple of 45s. At least one of the albums (Price's own "Music - Music" had previously been released by LPG. The musical focus seems to have been on soul and dance releases, but the catalog included a couple of country releases by Conway Twitty and Billy Joe Shears. I'd be willing to bet both artists would be surprised to learn about these albums. Very few copies of any of these LPs were pressed, making them highly collectable and expensive, routinely selling for over $1,200 (see the attached link for more information).
The TSG business plan seems to have followed the standard tax loss approach with an album by the Brooklyn-based trio Spice (originally known as The Spice of Life) serving as a textbook example of how the process worked. Led by Richard Brown, the group was signed by Don King Productions who got them signed to Lloyd Pride Records. Without bothering to inform the group, LPG subsequently released an album of Spice material on the TSG label (1976's "Let There Be Spice"). There's an online chat board where Brown seemed surprised to discover his material had seen the light of day - in fact he was wondering where he could score a copy of the LP.
Morris Levy was apparently also the driving force behind a Tiger Lily precursor label - the short-lived Western Hemisphere Records. Western Hemisphere seems to have been active in 1976, but only appears to have released three LPs - all hard to find and expensive. One of the acts (No Dice) subsequently reappeared on the Guinnesss label as The Steve Drake Band (the late Steve Kaczorowski) leading you to wonder if Guinness and Dellwood were part of the Morris Levy/Roulette umbrella.
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