The same day Victory Records releases the last album in their contract with Streetlight Manifesto on November 6, the band will issue an album containing acoustic versions of the same songs on their own label. The Hand That Thieves, bearing the moniker of lead singer / guitarist Tomas Kalnoky's alter-ego Toh Kay, will essentially be the same album as Streetlight's The Hands That Thieve on Victory, but dialed down in mellower arrangements.
It's something of a musical middle finger to the label from the ska-punk stalwarts, who earlier this year called on their fans to boycott the long-running Chicago-based indie. In a lengthy blog post in February, the New Jersey 7-piece band called Victory Records "an artist-hostile, morally corrupt and generally dishonest company" and directed fans to purchase Streetlight music through their own official website, or even download it illegally.
The band's own Pentimento Music Company will handle The Hand That Thieves, featuring Kalnoky (alongside an acoustic trio) which will be available through the band's web store. Their version and Victory's The Hands That Thieve are both scheduled for November 6.
Speaking with Billboard.biz, Kalnoky says that the band is on friendly terms with some Victory staffers, but has long been at odds with label founder Tony Brummel.
Brummel declined to comment for this story. In an email to Billboard.biz, he wrote, "Enjoy the Victory bashing." However, Robert Meloni, counsel for Victory Records, says the label has no plans to pursue legal action regarding the acoustic release as of this time, although he also says Streetlight Manifesto owes Victory one more album beyond The Hands That Thieve. The band responded in a statement via their rep: "We're aware that Victory have a different interpretation of our contract than we do, and we're fine with dealing with this issue when it comes up in the future."
Kalnoky first began recording for Victory as a member of Catch 22, and entered into his contract with the label fairly casually. "I happened to have an album's worth of music," he said. "So I got some buddies together [after college], thinking it would be a recording project for one album."
He says he didn't have a problem entering into a multi-album deal because he didn't intend to record anything past the first one. But once fans responded strongly to 2003's Everything Goes Numb and the group started to grow closer with each other, they elected to continue together as a real band. "I would never claim that Tony lied to us, but it was bad judgement on my part to sign a four-record deal," he says.
"I do hold Victory responsible for what happened from there."
The 31-year-old musician, whose family moved to America from what is now the Czech Republic when he was five, describes a combative atmosphere where Brummel was often unresponsive to his concerns and communicated almost solely through terse emails. "I always thought having to fight your label was something that was reserved for the major label world. But it always felt like we were fighting Victory on everything. There were no real budgets for albums, music videos or any interesting packaging beyond the minimum they had to do to get it in stores. Then they'd turn around and charge us $7 bucks a CD to sell them at our shows."
The forthcoming double album of sorts, which Kalnoky says he would've probably wanted to release regardless of the situation with Victory, represents the "cusp of freedom" to Streetlight.
"My biggest regret in my entire life is signing Streetlight Manifesto to Victory," he says. "We are very DIY. We've never had a manager. We do everything ourselves. It drove us crazy to do all of the work and hand Victory a completed record."
The group's alleged grievances range from the aforementioned budgets to accounting practices to an alleged lack of attention to detail regarding how the band wanted to be marketed. Kalnoky says he's spoken to Brummel "maybe three times" by phone in the past ten years "and maybe twice in person." He said he rode his bicycle to the Victory office during a recent Chicago tour stop, but was unable to meet with the label owner.
One of the areas of dispute was royalties. Meloni told Billboard that the label has not only always paid royalties to the band, but has done so quarterly despite only being obligated to do so semiannually.
Kalnoky responded through a rep, "The last royalty statement I've received was due in December of 2011. (it took about 3 months of arguing with them to get the check delivered after it got 'lost in the mail.' Twice. But I'm used to that since the USPS seems to make it a habit of losing Victory checks (the lost in the mail trick has been used a few times over the years). Also, as part of our 'reward' for handing in our new record, Victory has promised us payment of all royalties owed and the payment of the album budget (we have to front the money for recording until we give them a record)."
Brummel founded Victory Records in 1989 with a series of 7" single releases and went on to put out metalcore, screamo and other indie genre-defining albums by bands like Taking Back Sunday and Atreyu. Hawthorne Heights and more recently A Day To Remember have been involved in legal fights with the label.
"Our fans have been the best part of this whole situation because they're always asking us how they can support us," Kalnoky insists. "We tell them: don't buy the record. Go steal the record. We're boycotting our own record. If you want to support the band, come to a show." He also suggests purchasing the new Streetlight album from the band's webstore "where we know we'll get at least a portion of the sales."
Not surprisingly, Streetlight is looking forward to being as DIY as possible in their post-Victory era. "We're in an age where there's less dependency on labels then ever. With Facebook and Twitter, talking to your fans directly is much more possible. All of it is more in the bands' hands now.
"A lot of bands don't speak up about the injustices they feel are coming from Victory because they don't want a huge public fight and have a major label be deterred [from signing them]," he says. "But we have no intention of ever signing with another label, independent or major."