After 13 years, more than 140 million albums sold, 15 No. 1 singles, and one of the most storied musical careers in recent memory, Mariah Carey is finally being paid not to sing.
This just hasn’t been her year.
On Jan. 23, the singer’s erratic behavior, a Glitter-free movie debut, and the bust of both a soundtrack album and a greatest-hits set (which have sold fewer than a million copies combined) allowed Carey to hit rock & roll bottom: Virgin and EMI shelled out $28 million to buy the 31-year-old out of the unprecedented $80 million, five-album contract to which they had signed her only last April. (EMI had no comment beyond the press release announcing the settlement.)
”It’s a staggering amount,” says Danny Hayes, a music industry lawyer who represents Linkin Park and Tool. ”It just tells you what the company realized they’re saving — or what they believe they’re saving — by paying that much money out.”
Virgin’s decision amounts to one of the most expensive kiss-offs in pop history: Including the $21 million she had received on signing the deal, Mariah reaped $49 million for the Glitter soundtrack, her sole Virgin release—or roughly $98 for each of the 501,000 copies that were sold. ”She probably came out better than any artist who got dropped by a label,” says Don Engel, a lawyer specializing in artists’ rights.
Carey’s camp, in full spin cycle, says the massive settlement indicates how much the label respects Mariah. ”This was a situation where both parties came to the realization that they desired to part amicably. That helps explain the rather extraordinary payment,” says Marshall B. Grossman, who negotiated for Carey. ”The size of the payment reflects well on her and reflects the value that is on her.” (Carey declined to comment for this story.)
Although reports suggest that Arista, Def Jam, and J Records have all approached the singer, representatives at each of those labels denied they had entered discussions at press time. Still, Carey’s team insists a deal is forthcoming. ”We’re being chased by almost everybody and we’re currently considering our options,” says Don Passman, Carey’s lawyer. ”We’ll be talking in earnest over the next couple of weeks.”
But the fact that Virgin would dump an A-list star — who, despite recent setbacks, ranks behind only the Beatles and Elvis in record sales — underscores the perilous state of the music industry. Last year, labels suffered their biggest sales downturn in 18 years. As a result, music bosses are looking to cut costly, underperforming acts from their rosters. Atlantic recently parted ways with Tori Amos, Rod Stewart, and Collective Soul, while Warner Bros. quietly ended its relationship with Van Halen. Since taking the helm at EMI in October, chair/CEO Alain Levy has signaled a new sensibility favoring the bottom line over loyalty. In addition to ousting Carey, Levy also opted not to renew the contract of David Bowie, who hasn’t had a platinum album since 1991.