Last week, David Dann released his first new song in seven years. Today (Oct. 20), the Los Angeles-based artist and label owner is making headlines for a very different reason, with the news that he’s suing his longtime business associate Zhu for $3.5 million.
A lawsuit filed in a Los Angeles court in July claims that the producer (born Stephen Zhu) backed out of an agreement to pay Dann commissions in accordance with the terms of their contract. Dann is now seeking $3.45 million in compensatory damages.
Dann is the founder of the Los Angeles-based label Mind Of a Genius, which represents artists including Gallant and They. (In 2017, he was featured in Billboard’s 40 Under 40 list for his work with the label.) He and Zhu started working together after meeting at a 2013 studio session, with Dann seeing — the complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court states — the potential in Zhu’s voice and believing “he could help Zhu become a successful artist.”
Dann alleges that during this time, Zhu presented Dann with, as the complaint describes, “a melody for what would later become the topline for a song called ‘Faded.’ Plaintiff believed the topline had great potential and agreed to work on the song with Zhu. Plaintiff and Zhu finished the song ‘Faded’ and released it on Plaintiff and Zhu’s joint music label ‘Mind of a Genius’ along with licenses and distribution to other major record companies.”
“Faded” was one of the most successful electronic songs of 2014, helping elevate Zhu’s presence in the electronic music community, hitting No. 12 on Hot Dance/Electronic Songs in 2014 and earning a Grammy nomination for best dance recording that same year. Zhu is listed as the sole songwriter for “Faded” in the BMI database.
“Even further refuting Dann’s fabricated claims that he was somehow intimately involved as a ‘producer,’” Zhu’s attorney Matt Rosengart tells Billboard, “it is telling that he is not even credited on any relevant EPs or albums, including but not limited to ‘Faded.’”
After the success of “Faded,” Dann and Zhu continued working together, with Zhu joining Mind of a Genius as an equal partner and the two co-leasing an office space in Los Angeles. Jade Udell, whose management company Th3rd Brain has clients including Krewella and Gallant, was brought on to manage Zhu, with the terms of Zhu’s agreement with Udell stating that Zhu would pay Udell a 20 percent commission on all music-related income. Per the agreement, “commissions are owed ‘in perpetuity’ for income Zhu earned from works and products developed during the contract term,” according to the complaint.
At the heart of the lawsuit is Dann’s claim that he and Zhu entered into a “parallel agreement” in which he would help Zhu make music and Zhu would pay Dann a 10 percent commission on all music-related income, with the same “in perpetuity” provision outlined in Udell’s contract.
A Motion To Dismiss filed by Zhu’s legal team states, however, that Dann’s lawsuit is simply an “attempt to manufacture a non-existent contract between himself and Zhu” and that “it is telling that Dann failed to attach to his Complaint the purported written agreement upon which he bases his claims.”
Dann is claiming, however, that Zhu attempted to renegotiate and reduce their commission schedule from “in-perpetuity to 15 years after the termination of the Producer Agreement,” according to court papers. Dann did not agree to this new deal and the two parted ways in late 2019. Per the complaint, Zhu has since “failed and refuses to pay Plaintiff certain term and post- term commissions.”
Rosengart says the lawsuit’s allegations are “absurd” and “internally contradictory,” telling Billboard that “it is admittedly based upon an amorphous, unsigned ‘Deal Memo’ that contains no sunset provision and, in any event, terminated in 2018.”
“Dann and his counsel should be ashamed, as they filed an absurd and fabricated lawsuit in violation of fundamental legal principles,” Rosengart continues. “We have placed them on notice that their suit subjects them to monetary sanctions as well as a separate lawsuit for malicious prosecution once their desperate and meritless claims are dismissed and my client is vindicated. In the interim, we have filed a motion to dismiss based on the suit’s complete lack of merit, and we will shortly be filing a Cross-Complaint against Dann for monetary relief and disgorgement.“
“Our office is not in the business of litigating ‘factually and legally frivolous’ claims,” John Vafa, Dann’s attorney, tells Billboard. “The case is straightforward. Zhu reaped the benefits of Dann’s efforts for years and now reneged on his deal to compensate Dann. Amicable discussions broke down between the parties when Zhu retained counsel.”
“It is unfortunate that this matter has reached litigation,” Vafa continues. “Zhu’s threats of filing counterclaims and sanction motions are common ‘Big-Law’ tactics aimed to silence and intimidate. Dann will not be dissuaded by these tactics. Ultimately, we are confident that the court will decide the case in Dann’s favor, but remain open and hopeful that the parties can reach an amicable resolution before then.”
The hearing for the Motion to Dismiss initiated by Zhu’s legal team will be heard in court on Feb. 25, 2021.