Ex Guns N’ Roses Manager Took on Don Henley in Contract Gamble
Ahead of the 1991 launch, he told label boss David Geffen that he’d put production on hold and send the band on tour if its percentage wasn’t increased. That led to an argument that included Eagles member Don Henley, as Niven told Vinyl Writer Music in a new interview.
“I had invited [Geffen executive Eddie] Rosenblatt to a birthday dinner for my then-wife,” Niven said. “After the chardonnay had been flowing, I quietly told him that he should tell David that I was about to put the 1991 tour on sale and that we would go out on the road and make pots of money but leave the record unfinished if David did not improve the band’s royalty rate. It was at a new signing rate of 12 percent.”
Geffen, he continued, “went ballistic” on hearing the news, "yelling and screaming that he would not be intimidated or taken advantage of." But, Niven added, "the more he yelled, the more I realized he understood that he was going to have to relent." When 10 days had passed, Niven started to think his plan had failed, but the label boss then pulled a trick. “I received a summons to Geffen’s office. I arrived to find all his A&R and executive staff in the room. I was there alone. Most significantly, I was alone and without the band’s legal representation. I had been bushwhacked.”
Niven recalled, “Geffen asked what I wanted in a contract. Truthfully, I had not had time to think of any such details, but I knew what my concept was: ‘I want the best contract you have with an artist on Geffen.’ ‘Can’t be done,’ Geffen replied. ‘Why would that be?’ I asked. ‘Because Henley has that, and he has a favored nations clause.’ Which means it’s a position only he can have.
“‘Well, that’s not a problem,’ I responded. ‘We’ll have the same terms as Henley, and every time you account to the band, I will go to City National Bank and get a perfect, uncirculated, $1 bill and send it personally to Don.’ At that, David stared at me for what seemed like the longest L.A. minute. He dismissed the others in the room and told me to get the band’s lawyer to call and start renegotiation. The door had been pried open.”
By the time the new deal was cut, Niven was no longer managing Guns N’ Roses because his relationship with Axl Rose had collapsed. Recalling that he refused the invitation to manage the band twice before relenting, he said his first impression of the members was that they were "fuck-ups."
He added, “But that meant they weren’t your typical, calculating L.A. wannabes who had more ambition than talent. … A band is something that must be forged in the fire of adversity. Stay together and allow personal chemistry to percolate. Take on impossible odds. Fuck ’em all; it’s us against them. That was Motley. That was Great White. That was Guns. Us against everything. One for all and all for one.”
He admitted he was worried at times that GNR's debut album, Appetite for Destruction, would never be completed. "I had just become a parent," he said. "The album put us $365,000 in debt to Geffen. Now would come the costs of video and touring on top of that. I figured I’d never see a goddamn penny.
“I acquired insomnia at this point in my life. It was no longer fun. It was stress, worry, and pressure from there out. I wondered if I had made the biggest mistake of my career. In some ways, I had.”