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Power, Money Behind Jackson's Attack on Sony, Insiders Say

Music: Some in the industry question the pop singer's motives in going after his longtime record company.

July 09, 2002|CHUCK PHILIPS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pop star Michael Jackson is taking off the glove.

He has pitted himself against the chairman of Sony Music Entertainment Inc., Thomas D. Mottola, with whom Jackson has successfully worked for more than a decade. The eccentric singer attended Mottola's wedding and birthday party and has, on numerous occasions, showered the executive publicly with "special thanks" for his support at Sony.

Now he's calling Mottola "mean"--and worse.

"He's a racist and he's very, very, very devilish," Jackson said during a weekend news conference in New York, where he waved a sign bearing a horned image of the music honcho, encouraging the entertainment executive to "go back to hell."

Why the fiery words?

Jackson said he is furious with Mottola for the poor showing of the singer's "Invincible" CD, saying Sony failed to adequately promote the recording. He also has accused Sony and other record companies of conspiring to cheat artists--particularly black artists--out of royalty payments.

Mottola declined to comment.

Sony said, "The bizarre, false statements Mr. Jackson made on Saturday make it clear that his difficulties lie elsewhere than with the marketing and promotion of 'Invincible.' "

In fact, a growing consensus in the industry is that Jackson's conversion to civil rights crusader and artist rights activist is selfishly motivated. Label executives and others said Jackson--the best-paid artist in the business--is piggybacking on the current artist rights movement to pressure Sony into breaking its contract so he can leave with his valuable catalog of master recordings.

Technically, Jackson is under contract until 2004 with Sony, which can hold on to his master recordings until 2010, sources said. He owes the firm four more tracks to be released in a greatest-hits and a boxed-set package.

Many in the music industry find Jackson's pleas of poverty and discrimination to be disingenuous. Once the world's most famous music star, the aging singer holds what is believed to be the richest recording contract signed.

At the peak of his fame, Jackson struck an unprecedented partnership deal with Sony under which he receives half of what the company earns on his music, sources said. Most acts sign deals with a 12% royalty, and some of the biggest stars earn no more than 24%.

Jackson also became one of a handful of superstars to be granted so-called reversion rights to their recordings, sources said. That means in eight years Jackson will have the ability to distribute his own greatest-hits packages or license them to one of Sony's competitors. Typically, record companies own and keep all recordings on their labels in perpetuity.

In addition, Jackson's contract requires Sony to pay unusually large advances for recording fees and video costs, as well as similar commitments for marketing and promotion. Jackson was one of the original trendsetters in music videos and has a reputation for spending millions per video.

Jackson has accused Sony of giving his "Invincible" album short shrift. Although he expressed gratitude to Mottola and other Sony executives in the CD's liner notes, he now blames the album's poor performance on the company's alleged lack of commitment to marketing and promoting the project.

Jackson received preferential treatment seldom showered on other artists during the "Invincible" project. The company spent more than $26 million to craft an elaborate global marketing, promotion and publicity campaign to support the album, said sources familiar with the "Invincible" budget.

The project's two music videos cost more than $7 million to produce. That's three or four times what most companies budget for two videos.

Last summer, Jackson showed up a day late to the set of the "You Rock My World" video and left early, forcing Sony to hire a body double to finish the video, which ran about $3 million over budget, sources said. In October, the singer failed to show up at the set of his "Cry" video, which the company was forced to shoot without his participation. Both videos fell quickly out of rotation on MTV.

Jackson got even angrier at Sony when the company rejected his request to do a violence-tinged video for "Unbreakable," for which Jackson submitted an $8-million proposal, sources said. Jackson never responded to a video concept pitched by Sony for "Butterflies," one of the only songs on the album that radio stations seemed to embrace.

Last year, Jackson also agreed to a proposed concert tour of the U.S. and Europe to support the album but then changed his mind. In February, he backed out of a commitment by his managers to appear on a 10-day promotional sweep of European countries.

Jackson also turned down all but one of the company's requests to promote the record to black radio stations, sources said.

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