Equity Music Group, the Nashville-based independent label that launched with much hope in 2003 under co-founder and flagship artist Clint Black, is suspending operations. The label is currently home to Black, Laura Bryna, Kevin Fowler, Carolina Rain and Blake Wise.

"Our investors tried to find a way to keep the doors open at Equity, but with a struggling industry, an overall decline in discretionary spending by consumers and a freeze on credit markets, the board of directors have been forced to make this difficult decision," label president Tim Wipperman said in a prepared statement. "We want to wish our wonderful staff and artists all the best in all their future endeavors."

Wipperman will stay on for now until the board decides what its next step will be.

The label, distributed by Koch Entertainment, aimed to change the music industry's business model when it launched. It's name was chosen to represent the equality between the artist and the label. "The artists will own what they create and get paid from the very first scanned sale. In turn, the label has a vested interest in other aspects of the artist's career," the label stated in an early press release.

Equity has a YTD .40% label share of the country market, according to Nielsen SoundScan, down from a .52% share in 2007.

The label's fortunes began to unravel when platinum selling Little Big Town bolted for Capitol Nashville earlier this year. The move came on the heels of an announcement in Oct. 2007 that Equity had aligned itself with two investment groups: Southern Maryland Group, a Washington, D.C., venture, and Optimum Venture 3, a California-based fund that includes the co-founder of the PowerBar Energy Bar.

Equity president Mike Kraski, part of the group that launched the label in 2003 and a former Sony Nashville executive who signed Little Big Town to Equity, stepped down at that time. Wipperman, who had served as chief creative officer since the label's launch, was named president in August.

The label struggled to pay its staff and meet expenses early on and Jim Morey, an early investor and Black's former manager, pulled his stake in 2005.

"We're not the first startup to run into problems, but [make] no mistake that we are committed to this label and our artists for the long run," Kraski told Billboard at the time.

In November of this year, Black sued his manager/accountant Charles Sussman and his Music Row firm, Gudvi, Sussman & Oppenheim.

In a complaint filed Nov. 7 in Davidson County Chancery Court, Black asserted that Sussman and his firm "repeatedly engaged in self-dealing, negligence, and/or gross negligence" in steering his finances.

The lawsuit says Sussman convinced Black to assign more than $500,000 in royalties to Equity. Black says he got nothing in return for this arrangement and was, in effect, "providing Equity an interest-free, unsecured loan." He claimed that Sussman was taking monthly payments from Equity without his knowledge. And Sussman also had him sign more than $1 million worth of personal guarantees for Equity, Black asserted.

The label maintained a promotion, A&R and marketing and creative staff, but outsourced publicity and sales.