What Really Led To “Chinese Democracy”‘s Impending Release?

One of the strangest narratives surrounding Sunday’s release of Chinese Democracy is that the music itself is something of a non-event, thanks to the circulation of live nu-GNR bootlegs and leaks of in-progress tracks. In fact, enough questions have been answered about how Chinese Democracy sounds that a bigger question looms: Why now? Why, out of all the dates on the calendar, would Axl Rose decide that November 2008 felt like a good time to drop an album?

Only Axl knows for sure. But part of the answer may lie in the idea that Chinese Democracy had, thanks to its many delays, transformed from an album-slash-punchline into a vehicle for Axl to resolve festering disputes and debts tied to his six-year stint as a client of the Sanctuary Group. Sanctuary, an ambitious British artist management firm, spent years-–and a small fortune–trying to branch into various segments of the music business. As financial disaster loomed last year, Sanctuary sold itself to Universal Music Group–which, you may remember, is the same company that puts out Guns N’ Roses’ music.

Axl effectively fired Sanctuary as his management firm in December 2006, after months of speculation and public comments from the company’s top manager, Merck Mercuriadis, trumpeting the imminent release of Chinese Democracy. Rose, in an open letter posted on the band’s Web site, cited “an overall sense of a lack of respect by management for the band and crew and each individual’s particular expertise” as part of the reasons behind Mercuriadis’ firing. (He also claimed that the album would come out March 6, 2007. The best intentions…)

But Axl couldn’t completely kick Sanctuary to the curb–during his time as a client, he struck deals with Sanctuary subsidiaries and affiliates that resulted in them overseeing his music-publishing rights and the production of Guns N’ Roses merchandise. And since at least early 2004 (when Universal’s Geffen Records made clear it wouldn’t underwrite additional production costs for Chinese Democracy) Sanctuary had functioned as Rose’s bank as well, deferring or delaying some commissions for managing him and offering other financial support. According to sources familiar with the situation, Axl’s tab reached well into the seven-figure mark.

By the time Axl announced his firing of Mercuriadis, not only had he piled up a debt to the management company, he had been dragged into a series of disputes–public and private–tied to the publishing and merch deals. In 2005, ex-bandmates Slash and Duff filed a lawsuit alleging that he had switched publishers without their approval and pocketed the royalties, and there was a separate feud brewing where they raised similar charges about his dealings with Sanctuary’s merchandise unit, Bravado.

But two crucial events changed the course of Rose’s career: Sanctuary’s buyout; and Rose finding his way to the management fold of music heavyweight Irving Azoff and longtime hard-rock mastermind Andy Gould. Universal was in a position to sweep away all of Rose’s disputes at once, and Azoff was keen to deal—as it turned out, the number to remember in the Chinese Democracy saga isn’t 17, but 360.

Word is it was Azoff who initiated the push to resolve all the issues at once, in a negotiation led on the Universal side by the corporation’s president, Zach Horowitz–though who was leveraging who depends on who you ask. After months of back and forth, a deal was worked out to resolve all of Axl’s disputes, with Chinese Democracy–and a nice “thanks for the retail exclusive” check from Best Buy–underwriting the peace agreements. Slash and Duff are receiving a little payback for their troubles from Axl’s Sanctuary deals, and Axl himself received a new advance, though the currently undisclosed figure is said to be somewhat less than it would have been if he didn’t have to give something up to settle the outstanding debts.

It’s possible that the satisfaction of clearing both his books and his legal docket all by simply stepping away from the mixing board and saying “OK, I’m done” had no bearing on Axl’s decision to finally put out Chinese Democracy. But is it likely?

(And, of course, whether Chinese Democracy finally being off Axl’s back will result in Guns N’ Roses’ next album coming out before the end of this decade is a question that should at least wait until Sunday’s one-day SoundScan estimates are out.)

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