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Music

Manchild Revisited: Race Crusader or Falling Star?

Marty Thau

We're talking mucho bucks and financial strategy and public image when all is said and done. It's big-time scumbag business.

Michael "the self proclaimed King of Pop" Jackson has a complaint to make, and when this happens, people listen. Online journals like the Drudge Report can't wait to print Jackson's pronouncements, while rags like the New York Post (one step up from the gutter) can't wait to further discredit the now pathetic megalomaniac singer who won't accept the fact that these days most consider him to be an irrelevant freak show. But our very own modern Howard Hughes still sells in the low millions, still has fans and can't be totally dismissed. We all still wanna know the inside scoop on him, although we think we already know. And with Michael we do want blood because he has been so transparently phony and disingenuous, from his staged marriage to Lisa Marie Presley to his denials of misconduct with young boys. Anyway, today let's all be good citizens and hear what the 'once-great-always-great' music manchild has to say. Whatever Michael is these days, be it a suspected closet gay, or accused recalcitrant pedophile, or a knight in rusted armor out to save the record business, let's analyze his anti-music biz complaint very closely and be fair to him and Sony Music, too, although they deserve very little from me. (More on that later).

This is what it's about: Michael believes Sony Music has sabotaged his latest release, Invincible, by mishandling its promotion. And to take it one step further, Michael has labeled Sony chieftain Tommy Mottola "a racist and the devil". These accusations have appalled Mottola's supporters who believe these are unwarranted and ugly attacks on his character and have sparked support for Mottola from producers, artists and record industry executives across the country.

In an alliance against alleged exploitation in the industry, Jackson has joined forces with the Rev. Al Sharpton and the notorious Johnny Cochran to protest an alleged conspiracy to defraud artists. "They steal, they cheat, they do whatever they can. Especially against black artists" Jackson told an audience of 350 at Sharpton's headquarters in Harlem last weekend.

Sony says they've spent an estimated $25 million promoting Invincible, calling Jackson's accusations "ludicrous, spiteful and hurtful". And they are demanding he pay back tens of millions spent on promotion. (Invincible only sold five million worldwide, a far cry from Thriller's 45 million copies). The Manchester Guardian reported that, according to Jackson supporters, Sony is attempting to drive Jackson into debt so that he would have to give up his half-ownership of the Beatles catalog (which he co-owns with Sony).

Is this about Jackson wanting to start over at some other label? Is this his way of abandoning his contract with Sony because their bean counters have deemed his contract too rich for their blood? Yet one must wonder if Sony has actually sabotaged Invincible in order to get Jackson to ask for a release and settlement. (That Beatles catalog sure is alluring.) We're talking mucho bucks and financial strategy and public image when all is said and done. It's big-time scumbag business.

But let's backtrack to the racism element of this insanity. I'm in the midst of dispute with Sony, and Jackson's statements just confirm my suspicions that racism just might be a reality there. The kind of racism Sony and the entire music industry might be guilty of is "unconscious and insensitive racism". They don't wanna be; they don't think they are but are they too removed from the real world to realize that it's very possible that that is exactly what they are: racists of a new stripe.

Here's my example. Heineken, the Dutch beer folks, decided to get into the record biz and promote their beer through music CD releases directed to the black audience. So they formed a label, struck up a distribution deal with Sony's Epic Records division and decided to call themselves Red Star Records.

Now my company is Red Star Records and has been for 25 years. Yet, Heineken is attempting to steal my company name out from under me because I failed to trademark it in 1977. They know, without any doubt, because I've provided them with samples of my releases, interstate invoices, reviews, and the like, that I've been Red Star for 25 years. But that doesn't seem to matter. They want the name because their beer bottles have a red star design on the label and that, in their selfish way of thinking, is good enough reason to steal the name "Red Star" without thinking twice about who it might hurt. Heineken even tried to persuade me that since they are a "non-profit music initiative designed to benefit urban musicians", I should give up my company name and go along with the program because it would be the righteous thing to do. (Sure . . . I'll do that guys).

Now, you may ask, what does this have to do with racism? Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Heineken wants to sell more beer to blacks . . . but the way in which they are positioning themselves, under the false pretense of their "non profit music initiative to aid urban musicians", they are actually degrading blacks. If you think about it, blacks don't seem to have any difficulty getting their urban music across because they are urban music! If Heineken really and truly wants to help the needy they can donate computers to poor schools in Detroit, or Philly, or Africa, or donate money to AIDS research.

Is Heineken racist? Is Epic? Not in the true and commonly known sense but certainly yes in the "unconscious and insensitive sense". Is this the new face of racism in corporate white ivory towers? Is the Pope Catholic?

On the other hand, is Jackson a suitable advocate to champion his campaign against racism, or is this his business strategy as he clings to his share of the Beatles back catalog?

It seems, though, Jackson is through at Sony. Probably Warners, or BMG, or one of the few remaining other major scumbag organizations, are waiting in the wings to pounce on MJ and give him $75 million, or more, to sign up with them. (Don't underestimate Jackson. He'll be back).

Here's the bottom line -- the record business needs a complete overhaul. Its artist contracts are one sided and incredibly unfair, its musical offerings are stale, formulaic, disposable, and they cater to the lowest common denominator crowd with some rare exceptions. There is too much product on the marketplace of inferior quality at inflated prices. And any musical attempts at creativity are left as crumbs for the indies to fight over. As Don Henley recently said; "the major record business has a 90% failure rate; it's the 10% that make the season". I say this: any business that fails 90% of the time should be closed down.

Marty Thau writes for the excellent weblog Tres Producers.

Reprinted by permission of Marty Thau and Tres Producers - Copyright July 2002.

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