There’s an old saying: When you strike at a king, make sure he’s dead. And be even more wary of one who comes up waving the red, black, and green. Michael Jackson, the wounded king of pop, arguably the victim of self-inflicted wounds and heavy-handed treatment by Sony Music, has decided to lead a “revolution” inside the recording industry, a change that could radically alter how recording labels issue contracts to artists. The question now is if he will have troops or generals.
Several weeks ago, when he, Reverend Al Sharpton, and onetime Jackson attorney Johnnie Cochran were announcing their music industry “initiative,” Sharpton also acknowledged speaking to Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola on Jackson’s behalf, according to Billboard. Since then a source close to the events said that a deal was in the works that would give Jackson what he wanted, an exit from Sony, with his Beatles catalog in hand. If Sony had decided to sit down and deal with the King in a more respectful way, it may have been the specter of Sharpton and Cochran making a less than joyful noise that initially gave Sony pause. But something seems to have gone awry.
Jackson’s call for “financial justice” for recording artists, prompted, he said, by Sony’s trying to strong-arm the Beatles catalog away from him, led to the unusual alliance. At a June 5 press conference in New York City, Sharpton and Cochran announced the formation of a music industry initiative that would press for fair contracts for recording artists, and a July 9 National Summit for Fairness in the Recording Industry at Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) on 125th Street.
The day before the press conference, according to an industry insider, Jackson told Sharpton on the phone that he wanted to “lead the revolution.” The next day Jackson released only a terse statement: “Record companies have to start treating their artists with respect, honor, and financial justice. Therefore, I am proud to join this coalition which represents all artists.”
Sharpton stressed that it was not all about Michael, adding, “There will be significant artists [at the summit].” And the goals were, “first, having a summit and going over the areas of concern, and then having community leaders and officials discern which ones were credible and how to go about correcting them.”
But on July 6, Jackson appeared at Sharpton’s House of Justice, dressed in all black—including two black gloves—and before a packed audience of mostly middle-aged or older blacks, spoke of the “conspiracy” of record companies against artists.
“They steal. They cheat. They do whatever they can—especially [to] the black artists,” he said. “Sony’s Tommy Mottola, the president of the record division, he is mean, he’s racist, and he is very, very, very devilish. So, I need your support, not just for me. When you fight for me, you fight for all black people—dead and alive.”
Jackson alleged that Mottola referred to another Sony artist as a “fat, black nigger.” Sony Music issued a statement accusing Jackson of seeking publicity, calling the assertions “ludicrous, spiteful and hurtful.” Sharpton may have been in shock, as he later claimed, but he said nothing at the time. As a matter of fact, Sharpton, exhorting the audience about blacks being dissed, stated, echoing the Gloved One, that people had come to Jackson and told him that “this man made racist remarks.” Oddly, Cochran was not present. Jackson left without taking questions and headed for a rally at Sony’s offices on East 56th Street.
The next day Sharpton moonwalked away from the King’s remarks after being inundated, he said, with calls from other blacks in the industry, who took issue with calling Mottola a racist. Did the pop star just lose it or did the glove not fit because his famous strategists hadn’t done their homework? In any case, the summit seems more likely to be an improvised composition than an orchestrated event. And it has now been closed to the public.
The racism charges aside, Jackson’s business displeasure is shared by many of his colleagues, and they’ve been trying to do something about it. Nashville’s Dixie Chicks, members of the Recording Artists’ Coalition (RAC), negotiated a new contract with Sony after 10 months of feuding with the label and making the rounds of legislative bodies and public events with their complaint of Sony Music’s “systematic thievery.” Madonna and Seal also joined the fledgling RAC, founded by Don Henley and Sheryl Crow. Groups such as RAC and the Future of Music Coalition (FMC) have been doing the heavy work thus far, while most major black recording artists have been MIA. When asked by the Voice why Jackson had not gone that route, Sharpton called the question “arrogant and insulting.”
According to a Voice source, Jackson’s legal representatives did find “breaches” in his contract with Sony Music and the parties were renegotiating his exit from the Epic label. According to the source, a prospective deal would have allowed Jackson to deliver two greatest-hits albums and depart from the label—without handing over the coveted Beatles catalog.
Darrell McNeill, of the Black Rock Coalition, sees the whole initiative as “smoke and mirrors.” He also scoffs at the notion of it being “a civil rights issue—not that there aren’t disparities between black and white issues—but black and white artists are feeling this across the board.”
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 Voice source, 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.