The Scramble Begins for New Michael Jackson Songs


Ownership of up to 150 unreleased songs, including a comeback album, may be up for grabs among Sony and other music labels

To add to the many mysteries surrounding the untimely death of music superstar Michael Jackson, now industry sources are buzzing over who owns the rights to a large number of unreleased songs that the performer recorded over the last decade. That includes some that were almost certainly to be released to coincide with his scheduled 50 concerts at London's O2 arena that were to have begun on July 13.

At issue is whether Sony (SNE), whose Epic Records label released Jackson's last six original albums, has the rights to the new music. Jackson's deal with Sony, which also released two compilations of his music, ended with the 2001 release of his Invincible album. But in the sometimes convoluted world of music contracts, Jackson still could owe music to the Japanese company, according to one high-ranking source with knowledge of the deal.

Another source with knowledge of the Jackson estate, however, says that the musician's estate has begun a lengthy inventory of the estimated 150 songs the singer left, to determine whether they may be free of Sony and thus available to be peddled to another record label for a likely hefty up-front payment.

The 150 unreleased songs are said to include a potential comeback album that Jackson was preparing. He had recorded several songs with leading hip-hop artists, including Will.i.am, and with Senegalese pop artist Akon. Veteran music producer Bruce Swedien, who worked on Jackson's mammoth Thriller album, told USA Today that he and Jackson "had a bunch of things in the works," mostly pop songs.

Special Administrators' Role

Music industry sources say they expect Jackson's longtime lawyer, John Branca, who on July 6 was named one of two "special administrators" of the estate, to try to stoke a bidding war among labels to get the highest royalty he can for any new album. His fellow "special administrator," John McClain, a longtime Jackson family friend and record company executive, has been put in charge of reviewing the unreleased music. Some of the unreleased music is said to date back to Jackson's Motown days in the early 1970s, when he released albums such as his 1972 solo debut Got to Be There, according to one source with knowledge of the estate.

Neither Branca nor McClain would comment. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge is expected to decide whether to grant the two men permanent status as the Jackson estate executors at an Aug. 3 hearing.

But the struggle for who gets the next album may have already begun. Epic President Amanda Ghost told Britain's digital radio network BBC 6 Music on July 9 that she has "no idea when [a new album] is coming out, but it will come out on Sony/Epic." Epic officials immediately said she had been misquoted, although one source with knowledge of Sony's dealings says the Japanese company maintains the rights through 2011 to all Michael Jackson songs. Those are the conditions contained in his original contract, this source says, which also included the "reversion" to Jackson of the "masters" of his songs at that point. Under a reversion, a recording artist gets back the rights to all of his music, including both new music and music that has been released, according to music industry sources.

New-Album Roadblock Till 2012?

That may mean that Branca could try to block Sony for the next two and a half years from using new Michael Jackson music for an album, thus giving Branca the right to negotiate a deal to distribute music through another label. That would effectively pit most of the music industry against Sony in a potential bidding war, says one current label executive. Once Jackson's estate is out of the contract with Sony, says University of Southern California law professor Lance Grode, a former head of worldwide business affairs for MCA Music, it would have wide latitude to distribute Jackson's music how it wishes, even doing so without a music label.

If there is such a free-for-all, there would be no shortage of takers. Universal Music Group, which owns the Motown label, would likely be interested. This month, the Vivendi-owned (VIV.PA) music company began distributing more than 300 types of Michael Jackson merchandise to retail outlets, including sunglasses and clothes, some of which Jackson had designed. Warner Music Group (WMG) would likely also be interested since it administers the publishing rights to Jackson's music under his MiJack catalog, by which other musicians pay royalties to use the words to Jackson's songs. Universal and Warner executives would not comment.

At this point, however, all roads seem to go through Sony, at least according to a former executive at Sony Music Entertainment, who believes that Sony has already catalogued Jackson's new music and would have first call on what it wants for a new album. Tommy Mottola, a former chairman and CEO of Sony Music, agrees. "Sony is in an ideal position right now to sell tons of Michael Jackson catalog, collector's sets, unreleased music, and packaged music," he says. Sony executives would not comment on what rights they possess or their plans for releasing any Michael Jackson material.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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