"They came to my house, we jammed together in my studio, they even played with my dog." How System Of A Down's Serj Tankian almost signed a young Muse to his own label - but was "screwed over"

Serj Tankian and Muse
(Image credit: Serj: Headline, Muse: Getty)

On May 14, System Of A Down frontman Serj Tankian will release his own memoirs, Down With The System, taking a look back at his fascinating life, the incredible highs and lows of his storied career in the music industry and his passionate, lifelong activism. In an exclusive extract from the book, Metal Hammer can reveal, in Serj's own words, the exciting circumstances that almost resulted in the singer signing British rock icons Muse to his own record label, back when they were a young and upcoming band - and the unfortunate turn of events that allegedly led to him missing out.

"My label, Serjical Strike, was always conceived as an outlet for working with artists I love," he explains. "I didn’t have any real commercial ambitions for it. That notwithstanding, I narrowly missed out on signing the British band Muse in 2002 and early 2003, just before they became huge stars in America. Narrowly missed out is a diplomatic way of putting it. I was kind of screwed over.

"I’d seen Muse play at European festivals where System was performing. At the time, the band already had a big following in Europe but hadn’t broken in the US. In fact, their American record label, Maverick - a Warner Bros. subsidiary run by our old buddy Guy Oseary - didn’t even release their second album, Origin of Symmetry, in the States. Their music is this infectious blend of progressive rock and European pop with deep-seated classical influences, but I guess the label thought American audiences wouldn’t get it. I spoke to their manager about trying to negotiate an exit from their Maverick deal so I could sign them, and he seemed amenable to it. The guys in the band were genuinely good dudes. They came to my house, we jammed together in my studio, they even played with my dog.

"Maverick wanted half a million dollars to let Muse out of their contract, so I went to Sony and pitched them, essentially telling them, “Front this money. This band will be worth it and then some.” Sony hemmed and hawed. At the time, Muse was working on another album, and Sony wanted to wait to hear it before they’d commit to ponying up the half million dollars to pry Muse away from Maverick.

"Around this time, I was spending a lot of time in Australia and New Zealand. This is before I met Angela, and I was still trying to salvage my relationship with my ex-girlfriend, who I’d met on my first trip down to Sydney. Everyone knows that long-distance relationships are tough to maintain, but I’d really fallen for this Australian woman and wanted to try to make it work. I left to go down there for a few months and told my lawyer to let me know when the advance copy of Muse’s album arrived, so I could pitch the band again to Sony. It would seem my lawyer failed to do that.
In the meantime, a VP at Sony tried to go behind my back and sign Muse out from under me. By the time I heard anything about any of this several months later, the whole ship had sailed. Warner Bros. heard the new Muse album, Absolution, moved them off Maverick, and was making arrangements to release the album through a different subsidiary. To date, it has sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide. The band’s follow-up, Black Holes And Revelations, has sold more than five million.

"Now, to be fair, from a business standpoint, I did so many things wrong here. First, I should’ve gone directly to Guy about releasing Muse from his label. We were old friends, and we might have been able to work out something far less onerous than the $500,000 Maverick was asking for. Second, when Sony balked at paying that money, I should’ve found it somewhere else or put it up myself. Third, as annoyed as I was at my lawyer for not letting me know that the album had been delivered, I should’ve been calling in to check on it. I was way too Zen about the whole deal. My spiritual practice seemed to be teaching me to believe that if it’s meant to be, it will be. I wasn’t going to force anything. But that’s not really the way the music business works.

"All that said, ultimately, I came away from this pretty annoyed with Sony. For a record company that I’d made a hell of a lot of money for to not only be unwilling to invest in my vision but to actively undermine it was galling. The fact that their machinations ended up scuttling what would’ve been an extremely lucrative deal for both my company and theirs is even more so."

Down with the System by Serj Tankian is out May 14 via Headline. Read more from Serj in an upcoming issue of Metal Hammer

Serj Tankian's book

(Image credit: Headline)
Merlin Alderslade
Executive Editor, Louder

Merlin moved into his role as Executive Editor of Louder in early 2022, following over ten years working at Metal Hammer. While there, he served as Online Editor and Deputy Editor, before being promoted to Editor in 2016. Before joining Metal Hammer, Merlin worked as Associate Editor at Terrorizer Magazine and has previously written for the likes of Classic Rock, Rock Sound, eFestivals and others. Across his career he has interviewed legends including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Metallica, Iron Maiden (including getting a trip on Ed Force One courtesy of Bruce Dickinson), Guns N' Roses, KISS, Slipknot, System Of A Down and Meat Loaf. He has also presented and produced the Metal Hammer Podcast, presented the Metal Hammer Radio Show and is probably responsible for 90% of all nu metal-related content making it onto the site.