Some think the pop singer is worth the $20 million plus per album Virgin is reportedly paying her

By Lori Reese
Updated April 10, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Apparently, all that glitters really IS gold for Mariah Carey. This week the 30 year old chart topper snagged a contract with Virgin Records that’s reportedly the biggest music deal ever. Exact terms weren’t disclosed, but Virgin called it an ”unprecedented, multialbum, multimillion dollar recording agreement.” The contract is rumored to surpass the $20 million per album that R.E.M. inked with Warner Bros in 1996.

However, some observers wonder whether Carey will prove worth the high cost to Virgin. Her $20 million plus paycheck is just a portion of what the label will have to earn back to break even, points out Steve Gottlieb of the trade magazine CVC Report. That number doesn’t include the costs associated with producing and marketing the albums, ensuring that Carey’s tunes get airplay on radio and MTV. ”She’ll need to sell a lot of records to recoup their expenses,” Gottlieb says.

Meanwhile, the singer’s sales have begun to slide since the mid-’90s. Her most recent album, ”Rainbow,” sold more than 2 million copies. But it didn’t perform nearly as well as her 1995 smash ”Daydream,” which was certified 10 times platinum, or even her 1997 quadruple platinum release ”Butterfly.” And Carey has had 15 No. 1 singles since her career began in 1990, but her most recent release, ”Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme),” was her lowest performing song ever, peaking at No. 28 on the Billboard charts.

Nevertheless, many industry watchers say that Virgin is well suited to supporting an artist like Carey. The label is home to such R&B superstars as Aaliyah and Janet Jackson, whose upcoming album ”All For You” (April 24) should go No. 1 upon release. ”The Mariah deal seems to fit into their game plan,” says Geoff Mayfield, a senior editor at Billboard magazine. ”The dollars we hear being thrown about suggest that they know what they’re doing.” Indeed, the label signed a similarly head turning — and profit making — three disc deal with Jackson for $40 million in 1991.

A high profile singer like Carey will add invaluable prestige to a label, Mayfield admits. But it’s unlikely that Virgin would agree to such an expensive deal unless it saw potential for making its money back. ”You don’t throw $20 million out there just for window dressing,” he says. ”Hitwise they’re probably safe,” concurs CVC’s Gottlieb. ”Worse case, they could probably nudge her onto a blockbuster soundtrack with a Celine Dion / Diane Warren type ballad and just ride that wave.”

The first test will come in August when Carey releases her first album for Virgin, the soundtrack to her upcoming feature film debut, ”All That Glitters,” for which the singer wrote and performed each track (the first single is due in June). That’s when we’ll see if all that glitters truly is gold — or better yet, quadruple platinum.