If you’ve been following along on this blog even a little bit, or if you know me offline, you probably know I’ve been the lead singer and primary songwriter of a band called Shelter Dogs since 2013. I kept that name going through three entirely different lineups – name recognition is good for a band, and I like having a back catalog consolidated in one place. But this year, we’ve been forced to change our name for legal reasons. Now this band is called Safe Houses.
I can’t say a band name change was on my agenda when I started planning for our 2022 spring and summer. We were eager to jump back into gigging and releasing new material, after the unpredictability of the previous couple years. The previous lineup of the band had recorded an EP in 2021, the release of which we paused until we had a new gigging lineup together. In March, I was squaring away the details of its release. We had a few options to explore, but one way or another, it was going to be a higher-profile release than our 2019 EP. We also had a music video shoot on the horizon for later in the spring, to accompany a stand-alone single separate from the EP itself. The new lineup hit the stage with a handful of new songs intended for our next EP. We were booking shows at venues we’d never played before. In a few words, we were doing everything a band was supposed to be doing after dropping a couple EPs and gigging regularly.
Then we got a cease and desist letter from attorneys representing a guy who holds a registered trademark on the name “Shelter Dogs” for the purposes of performing and releasing music.
Of course we were incredulous at first. We’d been playing as Shelter Dogs for nearly nine years – and from late 2017 until the start of the Covid pandemic, we’d been gigging twice or thrice per month in a normal month. We were extremely easy to find via Google and Spotify. Other bands with similar names had popped up, and either stuck around or faded, without anyone taking issue with our own name.
But the C&D was legit. The lawyers were legit. The trademark was legit. In fact, that trademark had been approved all the way back in 2014. It’s in the U.S. Patent Office records. It is within a trademark holder’s legal rights to enforce their mark by pushing back against possible infringement. That’s why we’ve needed to change our band’s name.
I promise we explored all possible paths before changing the band’s name. We spoke with multiple people who have expertise in IP law. We presented the lawyers options for resolving the issue. We went back and forth with the lawyers on this for two months. The trademark holder did not want to compromise. They wanted the name. They are legally entitled to it. And we weren’t even the only band to whom they sent C&Ds.
I gotta say, this entire process has been a giant pain. Getting educated on what the law means and what this C&D meant was extremely time-consuming in itself. I had to do a ton of due diligence to understand what kind of legal leverage I might have. I had to draft responses painstakingly. We needed to coordinate with our label, and with their third-party digital distribution partners. We couldn’t release any new music until we knew what name it could be released under. Once we realized we definitely needed to change the name, we had to have our previous EP’s cover re-designed, and to flip all of our social handles and account names. During the months of March and April, I devoted the equivalent of four to five work days to all of this – and I was a freelancer at the time, so that meant I forfeited four-plus days’ worth of pay. Dealing with a situation like this is way more complicated and exhausting than a lot of people realize. I’ve heard all manner of misguided, if well-intentioned, advice from people who assume there must be some kind of quick fix or loophole – everything from “retain a lawyer immediately” (please understand the cost of retaining a lawyer before recommending it) to “just change one letter” (that can still potentially constitute trademark infringement) to “you can override a trademarked band name if you have more Spotify plays” (this is definitely not true, and in fact trademark law is designed to prevent stuff like this from happening). Realistically, I think a lot of these quick-fix ideas are birthed from real-life band name disputes and their real-life resolutions. But I’ll assume that in those situations, either a) both bands involved reached a mutual agreement, or b) neither band had a strong legal case, or c) both. Actual IP law is serious business, and it’s nothing to be flip or improvisational about.
Once we realized we had exhausted all of our feasible/affordable options, I spent a few days walking around and thinking about potential new band names. I wanted some kind of connective tissue between our old name and the new one. Finally, Safe Houses popped into my head. I liked the continuity – like Shelter Dogs, it’s a two-word phrase, a plural noun with no article up front, three syllables, easy to spell and pronounce, starting with an S. Conceptually, it felt on point. “Shelter Dogs” connoted outsiders, rejects. “Safe Houses” connoted something very similar. I immediately thought of Resistance sympathizers in occupied countries, and of groups of dispossessed people moving across borders. Not only is that appealing to me – related to something I’ve been trying to communicate through the band’s name for nine years anyway – it’s very much in the public consciousness right now. Plus, there’s a sinister side. People have pointed out over the years that a shelter dog could be a nasty, ill-tempered animal, and people have also noted a safe house could be a home base for the villains in a wide conflict. The fact that there’s some ambiguity to the name is appealing to me, in itself – as long as the name captures the imagination and quickly inspires an image.
Anyway – point is, this band is called Safe Houses! It’s me, Jon, Cory, and Gabriel. We’ve been gigging all spring and summer, and we’re not about to stop. Keep an eye out for the single and music video “Someday Is Starting Now,” and for the EP Love in the Time of Chloroform. We’re lining up release details for that EP, and we’re stoked to get all of this music out into the world. Meanwhile, go ahead and follow Safe Houses on Instagram. We’ve got some good stuff there.
I actually have a lot more to say about this band name change stuff. I’ll be writing a longer piece about it, targeting a publishing date close to the release date for the EP. Hang tight.