Michael Jackson’s surprise attack on Sony Music as racist has grabbed headlines, but many in the music industry have turned a deaf ear – suspecting the pop star has been motivated by self-interest rather than a concern for civil rights.
Jackson, under contract with Sony until 2004 and among the highest-paid pop stars of all time, appears to be trying to pressure Sony into breaking the deal so he can exit with his valuable trove of master recordings, industry sources said.
They say Jackson’s assault was prompted mostly by anger at Sony for the poor showing of his latest album, “Invincible,” which cost a reported $30 million to produce and sold only 2 million copies nationwide.
“What it looks like he’s trying to do is to piggy-back his own personal issues onto a very serious long-standing artist movement,” said Kenneth Freundlich, a Los Angeles-based music industry attorney.
Over the weekend, the self-described “King of Pop” Jackson led a protest of about 150 people in front of Sony Music headquarters in New York, calling Sony Music chief Thomas Mottola: “racist” and “very, very, very devilish.”
Jackson also accused record labels of conspiring to cheat artists, particularly black artists, out of royalty payments.
Sony Music, a unit of Japan’s Sony Corp ( news – web sites)., called Jackson’s comments “ludicrous, spiteful and hurtful” and also defended the way it handled “Invincible.”
SONY ‘SPARED NO EXPENSE’
“As for Mr. Jackson’s complaints about what he perceives as poor sales of his most recent album, we can only say that Sony Music spared no expense in creating and executing a series of global marketing, promotion and publicity campaigns in support of the album,” the company said in a statement.
“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’,” it said.
Jackson on Tuesday attended a meeting of musical artists, producers and record executives at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, but ducked into a stretch limousine before fielding any questions.
“If Michael Jackson has issues with Sony he should take it up in the proper forum and stop slandering Tommy Mottola in public,” Freundlich said. “Going after Mottola personally just detracts from the artists’ movement and Jackson himself.”
Others said Jackson’s antics were distracting attention from the campaign by other artists against what they argue are the unfair terms of their own contracts.
The Recording Artists Coalition, led by Don Henley and Sheryl Crow, for example, has lobbied legislators to change a California law that holds record artists to contracts that are longer than in other industries.
Officials from the RAC declined comment.
But L. Londell McMillan, legal counsel to the Artist Empowerment Coalition (AEC), another coalition that includes some top black artists like Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder and Faith Evans, warned the Jackson controversy was a distraction.
“The latest war of words by Michael Jackson against Sony music chief Tommy Mottola is a personal dispute, which may camouflage the real inequalities inherent in the music business,” McMillan said in a statement. The attorney also represented Prince in his battle to break his contract with AOL Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Brothers Records.
“Michael Jackson’s very bitter dispute against Tommy Mottola should not impede constructive change within the industry, as people line up to take sides,” he said. “The fact is, there are serious exploitation issues in the industry, which cannot be merely addressed by name-calling.”
McMillan attended Sharpton’s meeting on Tuesday and called it very constructive. Sharpton called for a meeting with major record companies in the next few months to hammer out strategies for better treatment of black artists and more spending of promotional dollars in black communities.
Sharpton said he was seeking a “working dialogue,” but added the National Action Network would sue record companies or help black artists to file suits against them.
Jackson’s attacks and the various artists’ rights movements emerge as the record industry struggles to stay afloat amid the worst market conditions in over 10 years, dogged by declining sales, increasing online piracy and competition from other entertainment sources, such as video games.
“Everyone is in turmoil and Michael Jackson’s wondering where he’s headed. This just came at an awkward time in terms of the business,” said David Pullman, chairman of The Pullman Group, a firm specializing in entertainment, intellectual property and future-royalty bonds.