With circles under his eyes almost as dark as the heavy metal he pushes and a countenance that rivals that of a bloodhound's for pure facial fatigue, local concert promoter Mitch Karczewski will never identify with Tom Cruise in terms of aesthetics. But sitting in the cluttered Parma office that serves as the base for his Spotlight Productions, which has put on concerts since the early '80s, Karczewski relates, in a roundabout way, to what it's like to be in Cruise's skin.
"I feel like Jerry Maguire in that movie, when the guy signed with the other agent at the last minute," he says. "It's the Jerry Maguire of music."
Indeed, to borrow that film's clichéd catchphrase, Karczewski is waiting for someone to show him the money. That someone is Mushroomhead, the white-hot local metal band with whom Karczewski has worked for the past six and a half years, booking shows, arranging tours, and overseeing contract negotiations. Recently, the band signed one of the biggest record deals ever for a Cleveland act. Worth millions, Mushroomhead's multi-record deal with Universal pays the band better than $500,000 for the rights to reissue its latest record, XX, released in May, as well as a reported $500,000 video budget and extensive tour support. The band also has been given slots on the soundtrack to the third installment of The Mummy movie series due next summer and has been included on a bonus disc packaged with the latest effort from metal mega-star Rob Zombie -- both Universal projects. In addition, XX has been remixed by noted producer Toby Wright (Metallica, Alice in Chains, Korn) for a planned December rerelease.
"They deserve the deal they got with Universal," Karczewski says. "The band has worked harder than any band in Cleveland, ever. Instead of falling apart when Slipknot came out, they worked even harder to get where they're at. It is definitely Cleveland's band. And they're good guys. They really are. I just hope in the years to come that, when they make deals with people, they fulfill the obligations and they're honest with everybody that's involved with them."
And with that last line, Karczewski sinks in his chair. Though he can produce correspondence between himself and Universal working out the specifics of Mushroomhead's contract, though he was the person the label first contacted when it became interested in signing the band, though he was then given permission by the group to begin negotiations, Karczewski has nothing to show for the mega-deal that he and others believe he helped arrange.
"I've been out there working with Mitch, I saw everything that was going on, and Mitch definitely made this thing happen for them," says Chris Akin, publisher of Music's Bottom Line and host of The Metal Show on WMMS, who shares an office with Karczewski. "I wish to God he'd sue them, because to me, he has a very good case. He has verbal contracts, and there's plenty of people who heard this. But Mitch is a stand-up guy. His basic thought right now is 'I don't want to be known as the guy that took down the one chance for one of these bands to make it.'"
True to Akin's words, Karczewski's story is one of heartache more than resentment. According to Karczewski, he was given the go-ahead by Mushroomhead earlier in the year to seek out an international label deal for the band, which he was in the process of doing when he got the call from Universal inquiring about the group. After then putting Universal in contact with the band members, Karczewski says he was told by Mushroomhead to arrange a meeting between him, the band, and the label. After several rounds of negotiation with Karczewski involved, Mushroomhead agreed to sign with Universal. Karczewski says that, early on, while the band was still shopping for a deal, he was offered 20 percent -- a percentage that he declined, he says, because he felt that, with eight members in the band, the amount was too much, and so he agreed to accept 10 percent.
When Mushroomhead later went to sign a letter of intent with Universal at the Radisson in Middleburg Heights, though, Karczewski found himself the odd man out. The label, unsure of Karczewski and Mushroomhead's exact relationship, had come to the meeting with two sets of letters -- one with both the band and Karczewski's name on it, the other with just the band's. The band signed the latter. Karczewski says he was shocked, but that he didn't say anything at the time because he didn't want to squirrel the deal. He contends that, after the meeting, the band assured him that he would be taken care of. But Mushroomhead hasn't paid him a dime.
The band has a different story.
"When Universal expressed interest, they contacted [Mitch] -- being one of our booking agents and the only contact we had during business hours -- to find out when and where they could come and check us out," says J Mann, one of Mushroomhead's singers. "They came and enjoyed the show and called Mitch back, expressing interest. Mitch came to us with this, and we said, 'Set up a meeting.' Mitch set up the meeting, and we took it from there.
"Now, if Mitch was deserving of a finder's fee, the label is obligated to pay it, but Universal claims they were already aware of us and in pursuit; therefore, in their eyes, he found nothing. Appreciative of his work, we wanted to compensate him, so he was asked what he deserved, and he said $100,000 [20 percent]. That, we simply cannot afford. We employ 10 people, we have a crazy overhead, and the lawyer fees are ridiculous. If a more reasonable reward could be worked out, of course we'd like to compensate him. But honestly, his work was not worth $100,000. Maybe $10,000 tops."
Avery Lipman, president of Republic/ Universal records, confirms that Universal had been keeping tabs on Mushroomhead for the past two or three years -- ever since it first noticed that the band had been regularly outselling some of Universal's acts, despite having virtually no label support. The label finally decided to move on Mushroomhead over the summer, because it felt that the band had matured and developed its fan base to the extent that it was ready for the next level.
Chris Poland thought so, too. As head of fledgling Eclipse Records, the former Megadeth guitarist also believed that Mushroomhead was ready for bigger and better things, and so he signed the band to a 10-year deal early this year. But if Mushroomhead was under contract with Eclipse, how could it sign to Universal? That's what Poland would like to know, as he's found himself in the same outside-looking-in position as Karczewski. He released XX just six months ago and spent several hundred thousand dollars promoting it, only to find out that, unbeknownst to him, Mushroomhead had then sold the rights to XX to another label, though he believed the band to still be under contract to his label. That contract's validity has since come into question.
"My initial reaction was 'Let's work out what we're going to do with our contract, which addresses our relationship, before you guys go ahead and do anything with anybody else,'" Poland says. "Their response? There was no response."
"From his perspective, sure, I can understand him being upset," Lipman says of Poland's beef with Mushroomhead and his label. "But frankly, it's business. Eclipse has done a great job, but I think that, ultimately, for the band, it's a positive thing being with us, because we're going to be able to do things for them that I'm not sure Eclipse could do -- like send them on a world tour or help get their video on MTV."
With Universal's backing, Mushroomhead appears poised to be the biggest act to break out of Cleveland since Nine Inch Nails -- a feat that probably would not have been possible under Eclipse, whose resources are so limited that Mann claims the label actually had to borrow $1,000 from Mushroomhead at one point. Moreover, Mann asserts that both Eclipse and Karczewski have made plenty of money off Mushroomhead.
For Karczewski, though, that's not what it all boils down to.
"It's not about the money," he says with a sigh, which he seems to be doing a lot these days. "It's just about saying, 'Thank you. Thank you for the guidance. Thank you for the time.'"