Intellectual Property & Music Business


When Michael Jackson appeared at the National Action Network in Harlem with Al Sharpton’s, he was trying to let people know how the music industry was hopelessly corrupt. He blamed them, described the recording industry as racist, and denounced the injustice against artists, dead and alive.

At that time, it was not just Michael Jackson having problems with record companies. Many USA artists joined forces with the Artist Empowerment Coalition (“AEC”), an activist organization rallying recording artists to end what they believed was unfair business practices. Artists such as Roberta Flack, Faith Evans, Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, and many others, invoked throughout the evening the names of those musical greats who – after huge recording successes – woke up one day and were unable to scrape together two nickels.  Blues legends like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith were denied royalties and died indigent.

Beck and Billy Joel protested against restrictive contracts; the Dixie Chicks were locked in a contract dispute over money with Sony. Courtney Love was fighting with the Universal Music Group. George Michael had to insist on reviewing his contract with Polydor each time he had a new album.

The central conflict had to do with a complex equation of copyright laws, publishing rights, royalty formulas, and expense recoupment, how money was paid out. The paradox for artists was that while they are obligated to pay back most of the costs for recording and promote an album, labels retained control of the master recordings, which is essential to generate ongoing income from minims and greatest hits reprints. Record companies’ response had always been they couldn’t exist without assets like masters.  With the battle between artists and record companies, AEC was taking its case to the legislature of New York State (the center of the music business).

On the other side, they had the help of California Democratic state senator Kevin Murray. A bill was introduced to repeal the music business’s exemption to California’s seven-year contract rule. The little-known labor code allowed record companies to sue for damages if an artist did not complete an agreed-upon specified number of albums regardless of how long that might take. The music industry execs predicted dire consequences for the California economy and foresaw fewer artists’ signings. But Murray was unmoved, calling the seven-year rule “a well-paid form of indentured servitude that gives record companies unfair control of artists.” The debate over the seven-year rule inspired Murray to hold two additional hearings on the recording business accounting practices before the California Senate Selected Committee on the Entertainment Industry. For once, the record companies were on the hot seat.

The demands of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network were pressing, and Jackson’s contribution compelling and straightforward. But it backfired him, and there was no shortage of coverage of the outburst. It took a couple of comments made by some “insiders” to trigger a media war against him. Tabloids brought the trashing of Michael Jackson to another level, plastering mockery headlines picturing him as an eccentric star of bizarre behaviors and made him a joke in the English-speaking parts of the world. Who was behind the Media headlines knew very well the meaning of these actions. For MJ, the problem was more than a black and white issue: it was about big businesses and questionable distribution of wealth.

Michael was more politically savvy than what people gave him credit.  Prince, putting the word ‘slave’ on himself in his struggle with Warner Music, didn’t reach out. He succeeded to some degree, but he didn’t exploit black consciousness. Michael reached out to the black community successfully, as evidenced by the enthusiastic presence during his rallies.

Media fine-tuned propaganda was highly implausible and went hand in hand with the winning backed up formula of the insider that does not want to be mentioned and whose tip becomes the backbone info in the whole article. And the anonymous “donor” spills the “breaking news” semen protected by the first amendment.

Tabloids sold millions of copies launching headlines telling a sordid story of MJ pawning a $2 million diamond watch to borrow money from a bank. Never mind if  Jackson spokesperson Howard Rubenstein dismissed it. The same happened with the story of borrowing cash from Sony against the Beatles songs. The industry insider stating the record label did not seek to buy” ATV Music Publishing but that the word “foreclose” would have been appropriate since Sony technically already owned the songs. Sony’s execs asserting that the Harlem speech was staged cause of MJ’last album had sold only 2 million copies, calling Invincible a flop when worldwide sales figures listed the record from 8 million to 13 million.

Daily News June6, 2002
Daily News June 6, 2002


During an exhausting back and forth on the same day, Jackson accused Sony Music of making a false claim such he owed it $200 million, calling it ”outrageous and offensive.” And Sony immediately denied the quote of the anonymous executive saying, “’We have never issued any statement verbally or in writing claiming that Michael Jackson owes us $200 million; as a result, we are baffled by the comments issued today by his press representatives.” 

All of the above, when just seven weeks before the Harlem speech, MJ was with President Clinton at the Democratic National Committee benefit concert, and the Media described him as a role model. How come, once he decided to expose Sony, he became, all of a sudden, “a freak”?

Sony Harakiri for the Invincible album was the juxtaposition that tells there was more going on than what transpired in the news.

Many people think that record companies loan money to artists to record their album. Well, there is a big difference between an “advance” and a “loan.” An “advance” is a pre-payment of royalties, and no interest is applied. It is a misperception that artists are in debt “with record companies or writers concerning their publishing. The advance is NOT a “debt,” and it doesn’t have to be repaid. The advance is only “recoupable,” meaning that it is applied against earned royalties.

The artist funds album using their own royalties. That means paying for recording costs, the recording studios, producers, arrangers, and engineers. And it’s part of the artist’s lawyer’s job to get as much of an advance on royalties as possible. The record company can recoup the investment selling more records to increase the volume of the artist’s royalties. If the artist doesn’t generate enough royalties to pay that back, then the record company has to live with that. They can’t pursue the artist personally for un-recouped royalties. Also, the cost of producing videos is considered advances against the artist’s royalties. Record companies try to recoup 100%, but a good negotiation gives the chances they agree only to recover 50% of video costs.

No record company would do something like what Sony did with the Invincible album that unless there’s so much more at stake. And that’s why Sony’ execs felt comfortable: MJ was not just an artist under-recording contract. He was their business partner, with his ass firmly fixed on an armchair of Sony/ATV board of directors and a bunch of other companies’ agreements and Joint Venture business. In short, he had a say in Sony. For obvious reasons, most of his income flow (not all but many) was credited into Sony accounts and reverted to him deducting the records company commissions and percentage. And it was the card they played. Whatever sum was for MJ accounts as a recording artist could have been used to implement Sony/ATV, recover advances, and any other company emergency because of their joint venture.

When Sony/ATV was set up, technically and in practice, it was Michael Jackson purchasing Sony Publishing, not the contrary. Sony Publishing had limited ownership of the libraries. It was generated by co-publishing or administration deals. Instead, Michael Jackson was the sole 100% owner of the publishing rights – including all of the Beatles’ titles – owned by ATV and was almost the sole owner of his publishing right and copyrights of MIJAC.

Here the excerpt of one of the few articles that got the news correctly:


Michael Jackson’s made sure to keep the most valuable stake of the ATV catalog. His 50% ATV Catalog had higher incomes compared with Sony’s other half. There’s an article in the operating agreement, specifying that Sony had to pay to MJ “all losses and various reimbursements while the two companies started making money together.” Did they comply with their obligations? I strongly doubt it, and by listening to MJ words, they didn’t pay the due.

From Court documents, it is clear that already in 2002, MJ wanted to take back from Sony the licensing distribution of his master recording catalog and not to renew his recording contract with them. And he was actively looking for a financial solution to take back from Sony’s at least his stake in ATV. Sony balked. And it was the beginning of a whole series of shading episodes to destabilize his finances, a peculiarity which distinguished Michael Jackson during the last decade of his life.

While seeking for solutions, he stumbled across a bunch of adventurers. These typical leeches gravitated in the undergrowth of political and financial environments. Among others, they include Marc Schaffel, Ronald Konitzer Rabbi “Shmuley” Boteach, and James Meiskin. Jackson met Meiskin, a commercial real estate broker, at the house of Howard Rubinstein while presenting his new charity with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. At that time, the media described Meiskin as Jackson’s financial advisor.

Meiskin himself spread the news that he had helped set up Jackson’s performance at the Apollo Theatre while trying to line up investors to salvage Jackson’s financial problems. However, the only real connection I found between Meiskin and Jackson is Meiskin’s research for a mansion in South Florida on behalf of Jackson (early 2003). In the lawsuit that Marc Schaffel leveled against Jackson, there’s a statement from Jackson confirming that, in April 2003, he had instructed his accountant Alan Witman to transfer a deposit for a house. However, in October 2003, Meiskin was arrested along with his attorney Samuel Gen on charges of extortion. I would like to dispel an internet myth about the discovery of Jackson’s name linked to Samuel Gen on Epstein’s black book. Gen was never Michael Jackson’s lawyer in any form or occasion.

MJ’s name appearing in Epstein’s book might come from the grapevine of those who mention big names to impress people. This infamous book is also obsolete. It contains email addresses from portals that no longer exist, Epstein’s own phone numbers, hotels, restaurants, and contacts of representatives places. It looks like an old business agenda of general contacts met at parties or meetings. A superficial tool. Nothing useful for any criminal discovery. Since countless notable names are included, the mention (but not the contacts) of a worldwide personality like Jackson is not surprising. But was Gen Jackson’s lawyer? In short, no. The only mention of Samuel Gen as Jackson’s lawyer comes from a 2012 article by a freelance blogger, David Musk, who wrote one of the many improbable stories about Michael Jackson. The story is about Musk’s meeting with Denise Rich in Jackson’s hotel suite in New York. The article is mostly focused on the sarcastic and relentless body-shaming of Jackson. Given how the content could have been subjected to a defamation lawsuit, Musk would not have been able to write such claims while Jackson was alive. While I read (with much disgust) the tons of offenses leveled at a human being, I found the following passage:

“We all saw Michael Jackson on August 31st, 2001, when NASDAQ officials presented him with an original 1934 Shirley Temple’s poster, while staffers rolled out a vanilla birthday cake lined with strawberries and sang “Happy Birthday.”

There are two options here: either Musk is giving an offensive and disrespectful fictional narrative or Jackson took the piss (which wouldn’t surprise me).

All of the above seems to debunk the preconception that someone’s name listed into anyone’s contact book has their reputation compromised.



Vibe Mag 2003





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