Jackson Takes Glove Off Against Sony


Michael Jackson on Wednesday became the latest pop star to jump on the artist rights bandwagon, accusing his record company, Sony Music, of questionable accounting practices.

Jackson turned up the pressure by recruiting activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. to launch an initiative to “emancipate” him and other recording artists from unfair contracts.

“Economic servitude, no matter how comfortable the slave, is still slavery,” Sharpton said.

Cochran, who helped Jackson resolve a child molestation lawsuit for an estimated $20-million settlement, said, “This is a problem the record companies should be ashamed of. Artists have made billions for them.”

The flamboyant pair playfully called themselves “the Al and Johnnie” show, as they stood in front of press microphones at the W Court Hotel. But their sudden involvement in a growing artists’ rights movement that began in California 18 months ago could bring additional trouble for the music industry.


Sony executives declined to comment on the conflict with Jackson.

At a time of dipping sales, Internet incursions and assorted lawsuits, the record companies face a new pair of formidable opponents representing East Coast musicians and black artists. The movement has wended its way from the West Coast to Sharpton’s home turf, where he has seized on it as a matter of musicians’ civil rights.

Jackson said Sony is improperly requiring him to pay substantial sums of money that the company contends the singer owes for cash advances and promotion and production costs associated with his recent CD, “Invincible.” Jackson said he does not owe Sony any money and has called into question the way the label has accounted for his royalty payments.

“Record companies have to start treating their artists with respect, honor and financial justice,” Jackson said in a statement.

Industry sources said Jackson blames Sony for the poor performance of “Invincible” and has made overtures to leave the company. Sony has not objected to Jackson departing, company sources said, because under the terms of his contract, he owes the label only a greatest-hits compilation and a box set--neither of which requires new material.

Sources said Jackson is free to shop for a new deal but is not off the hook for the advances he received until the sales of his albums recoup the outstanding amount.

There has been much industry speculation that Jackson is strapped for cash and Sony has urged him to pay off his debt by forsaking his share of Sony/ATV, a music publishing joint venture that owns the rights to many Jackson songs and most of the Beatles catalog.

Jackson procured a cash infusion several years ago from Sony by merging his publishing unit with Sony’s publishing arm to form Sony/ATV.

Sony denied Wednesday that the company was attempting to take over Jackson’s half of the joint venture. Company executives said Sony has had no discussions with Jackson regarding his publishing assets.

On Wednesday, Sharpton said he and Cochran had spoken with Jackson and Thomas D. Mottola, chairman of Sony Music Enterprises, but denied that their involvement in the artist movement was to help leverage Jackson out of his contract.

“It’s not about any one artist, but the whole industry,” Cochran said.

Long-standing industry practices reduce artists to the equivalent of indentured servants, Sharpton said, bound by extended contracts and compelled to repay promotion and production costs fronted by the companies before receiving any royalties.

Sharpton said he will call for a summit of artists to pressure the Big Five record companies to reevaluate accounting practices, particularly the calculation of royalties for music sold in record clubs and other countries.

He said that Mottola was willing to talk, and that they soon would be in discussions with the other four major labels, EMI Group, BMG, Vivendi Universal and AOL Time Warner Inc.

“We come with a unique ability to do what we do,” said Sharpton, alluding to the public opinion he and Cochran can galvanize.

Although artists have long complained about unfair treatment from record companies, the attempt to gain more equitable agreements has gained momentum in the last year and a half.

On Tuesday, rock star Courtney Love will go to trial to try to break what she calls her “unconscionable” contract with Vivendi Universal, the world’s largest music corporation. Later this month, California lawmakers will vote on a bill that could open the door on free agency for music acts.

The Recording Artists Coalition, a recently formed trade group representing more than 100 top acts, has been lobbying Congress for other reforms, including better health-care benefits and accounting techniques.

Jackson isn’t the first star to complain about Sony’s accounting practices.

Rock star Meat Loaf sued the corporation after conducting an audit of his record sales. He settled the case with Sony for an estimated $10 million.

Last summer, the Dixie Chicks filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the Japanese conglomerate, accusing it of “systematic thievery” and “corrupt” accounting. But the country pop trio recently worked out a settlement to resolve their dispute and are expected to drop their lawsuit.


A Band of Artist-Activists

Here are some members of the Recording Artists Coalition, which is fighting for reforms in the music industry.

* Beck

* Clint Black

* Jackson Browne

* Solomon Burke

* Dixie Chicks

* Eric Clapton

* Crosby, Stills & Nash

* Neil Diamond

* John Fogerty

* Emmylou Harris

* Don Henley

* Enrique Iglesias

* Elton John

* Madonna

* Randy Newman

* Bonnie Raitt

* R.E.M.

* Bruce Springsteen

* Sting

* Stone Temple Pilots

Source: Recording Artists Coalition