Keepin' It Real?

Music Revolution or a King on the Loose?

The media has been speculating for months that Jackson is having financial problems. Invincible, his latest album, sold a modest 2 million copies domestically, and 5 million worldwide. While that would be more than respectable for a new or emerging artist, such numbers make the King of Pop vulnerable. Jackson also reportedly owes Sony Music $200 million, and Sony wanted him to pay it off by forsaking his claim to the fabled Beatles catalog. Consisting of 251 songs and purchased by Jackson in 1985 for $47.5 million, the catalog is believed to be worth between $400 million and $1 billion. In 1995, according to Snopes.com, "Sony Corp. paid Michael Jackson $95 million . . . to merge ATV [the publishing company holding the catalog rights] with Sony and form Sony/ATV Music Publishing, a 50-50 joint venture." And recently, Sony/ATV purchased Nashville's Acuff-Rose Music Publishing for $157 million.

When Jackson waves the banner of "emancipation," he also raises the issue of the recording industry's historical practices with black musicians. Yet his presence and financial problems could easily obscure the issues. While Jackson has had one of the most lucrative recording careers, some argue that his financial problems are due more to his numerous business failures than to the industry's machinations. And he is also a declining star who seems to believe that mega-budgeted videos alone will sell his music. Even so, that doesn't mean Sony hasn't used Jackson's financial problems and his Sony obligations to extract from him an obvious gold mine.

Yet Jackson's predicament, even if it's partially of his own making, should give all recording artists a reason to think. The Gloved Guy practically pulled the recording industry out of one its worst cyclical downturns in the early 1980s. Back in the day, he sold almost 50 million copies of Thriller.

At the Jackson appearance, Sharpton called for federal and state authorities to investigate the labels, although he did not specify what laws they may have violated. Instead, he invoked the issue of trade, which Congress oversees, and said the music initiative will also be a "consumer movement." (The California State Senate has announced a July 23 hearing on the major labels' accounting practices.)

"We are going to go after the industry," said James Mtume, musician, producer, and WRKS-FM talk-show host, who appeared with Jackson on Saturday.

Sharpton, who has expressed interest in presidential politics and has set up an exploratory campaign committee, needs funds, constant media exposure, and legitimacy, and may be reconsidering his options.

Jackson contacted Sharpton, whom he's known for years, according to a Voicesource, before the April Democratic party fundraiser at the Apollo and spoke to him about doing something about the music industry. (At that event, Jackson and other artists raised $2.7 million for the party.) Sharpton has been quick to point out his longtime interest in music artists, but fundraising may be a greater interest.

While the July 9 summit could be a watershed event, re-establishing a new and fairer relationship between artists and the recording labels, it also has all the earmarks of a revolution on the run. And it doesn't help to have a loose canon like Jackson making ad hominem attacks.

Most knowledgeable people, in and outside the music biz, don't see the Jackson initiative as altering the music industry or providing anything useful to musicians at the bottom or raising legitimate issues of concern to all recording artists. While organizations like the RAC and the FMC are actually doing the real work, today's generation of black artists are saddled, once again, with performance as politics. Jackson and Sharpton, both students of James Brown, may just be talkin' loud, but sayin' nothing . . . and doing even less.

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