Jackson, Sharpton make strange duet

Singer's stand against recording industry may be about Sony feud

No one expects conventional behavior from Michael Jackson. But the singer considered one of the most eccentric figures in show business has stunned everyone with his latest pose: labor activist and sidewalk protester.

Jackson � who has recently accused Sony Music, in general, and the label president, Tommy Mottola, in particular, of sabotaging sales of his 2001 album "Invincible" � has aligned himself with an advocacy group formed by attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton to address discrimination and unfair business practices in the recording industry.

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AP Photo

Michael Jackson, left, stands with the Rev. Al Sharpton at Sharpton's National Action Network headquarters in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, where Sharpton was host to a "Summit for Fairness in the Recording Industry." Sharpton said Tuesday that Jackson's allegations of racism in the music industry should be taken seriously and called for record companies to address the problem.

The issue has brought the usually reclusive, painfully shy Jackson into public focus. "The recording companies really, really do conspire against the artists," he said at a news conference Saturday with Sharpton in Manhattan. "They steal, they cheat, they do everything they can, (especially) against the black artists."

Sharpton followed up Tuesday by calling for meetings with record label heads "to discuss artists' contracts and their business dealings in the African American community."

The Sharpton-Jackson initiative layers racial bias atop growing resistance by artists angry at what they call exploitative industry practices. Singers as diverse as Courtney Love and the Dixie Chicks have lobbied to free musicians from the constrictive, long-term recording contracts that are the norm. Their restiveness comes at a vulnerable time for the record business, hemorrhaging profits due to Internet file-sharing and international piracy.

For Jackson, 43, the crusade comes at an equally turbulent time. His sudden concern with industry abuses coincides with � and, some have suggested, grows out of � a personal war he is waging against his own record company.

Jackson has publicly expressed bitterness about what he interprets as Sony's lack of promotion for "Invincible." Sources close to the label have stated that Sony spent at least $25 million to record the CD, and $26 million more to market it.

Despite tepid reviews, little airplay, and only two videos � in which Jackson reportedly took only a small role � the CD has sold 6 million copies since October, two-thirds of them overseas. But that's far short of the more-than-40-million benchmark Jackson set with 1982's "Thriller."

In 1991, Jackson signed a six-album deal with Sony that gave him an unprecedented 50 percent royalty rate and other potentially lucrative concessions. This fall, a greatest-hits release with two new songs ends that deal. While no announcement has been made, insiders say Sony decided months ago not to retain Jackson.

That rejection, difficult for an artist of Jackson's stature and temperament, may well be at the heart of the singer's recent remarks.

Even if Jackson aligned himself with Sharpton out of selfless concern, he makes an unlikely figurehead.

"If you're fighting for me," the singer proclaimed, "you're fighting for all black people, dead and alive."

Yet with his repeated plastic surgeries and associations with kitschy icons such as Liza Minnelli, he is rarely perceived as a black artist. And the issue he is campaigning for � black artists being exploited by the recording industry � has never seemed less relevant.

"There's a sense of entrepreneurship in this generation that didn't exist before," says the black commentator Nelson George, who frequently writes about black culture. "Puff Daddy, Irv Gotti, Nelly � these guys are about owning their own labels, having equity, diversifying their portfolios in terms of their brand identity. It's a different era."

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