Don Engel, the Los Angeles attorney who is known in the record industry as the "contract-buster," says he's never seen anything like it.
"I'm swamped," he says. "In the last couple of months, I've been retained by eight artists and entered discussions with about 10 others. What we're talking about here is major artists trying to break contracts."
The rush to Engel--and other attorneys--followed news of the two biggest signings in record industry history:
* An unprecedented $40-million deal on March 12 between Janet Jackson and Virgin Records.
* An estimated $65-million-plus landmark agreement nine days later between her brother Michael Jackson and Sony Inc., which bought CBS Records in 1988.
Suddenly, the record business--which no one had ever accused of underpaying its superstars--is looking like major league baseball, where deals escalate so fast that a player salary that appears breathtaking one day is dwarfed by a new contract the next. Will these two deals touch off a spending frenzy? What do these two deals mean for artists who are just starting out, journeyman bands that would like to get in on the big money or proven million-sellers like Guns N' Roses or Prince? If Janet Jackson is worth $40 million, how much could Madonna get?
"I wouldn't want to be looking at Bruce Springsteen and (manager) Jon Landau right now, if I was Mr. Morita, after having just done that big deal for Michael," offers Irving Azoff, president of Giant Records, referring to Sony Chairman Akio Morita. "What does Bruce (who is also a Sony artist) deserve now?"
"There is no way that the two Jackson deals will become the model for the industry," says Al Teller, who succeeded Azoff as chairman of the MCA Music Entertainment Group. "It just won't work. If the components of these deals became industry standards, the record business as we know it would not be able to function."
But Engel--and other attorneys--disagree.
"This is a new era and the companies know it," he suggests. "When they say that this isn't the beginning of a trend, they're just putting on a brave front."
Engel likes the baseball analogy.
"When the biggest star in the league suddenly gets $10 million, then all the $3-million guys want to move up the ladder to $5 million," he says. "That's why all of a sudden so many multi-platinum artists are coming to me saying, 'I got to have some of the same things that Michael got.' "
This isn't just the age of MTV and corporate sponsorship in the $7.5-billion-a-year world of pop music. It's also a time when the Dow Jones financial charts seem to be as important to executives as Billboard magazine's weekly pop sales charts.
The recent series of dramatic corporate acquisitions underscored just how much money is at stake in the music industry.
The cycle began in 1986 with the $300-million purchase of RCA Records--the onetime home of such major sellers as Elvis Presley and Perry Como--by Bertelsmann Inc., the West German media conglomerate.
But that figure was surpassed two years later when Sony paid $2 billion for CBS Records, a deal that New York industry attorney Allen Grubman describes as "the day the record business was 'bar mitzvahed.' "
That Sony deal was followed by a buying fever in the industry:
* The Time Inc. and Warner Communications Inc. merger announced in June, 1989, a $14-billion deal that brought together two of the world's leading communication conglomerates.