Michael Jackson joins artists' fight against labels. The star enlists Johnnie Cochran and Al Sharpton to fight exploitative contracts that leave singers -- like him? -- in financial ruin

He won’t stop ’til he gets enough. Michael Jackson said Wednesday that he’s joining the battle against record company contracts that, many artists say, unfairly exploit them and leave them nearly bankrupt. ”Record companies have to start treating their artists with respect, honor and financial justice,” said Jackson in a statement. ”Therefore, I am proud to join this coalition, which represents all artists.”

The coalition, yet unnamed, is run by celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran (who helped Jackson negotiate an out-of-court settlement a decade ago with the 13-year-old boy who accused him of molestation, before charges could be filed) and civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton. Cochran and Sharpton held a New York press conference yesterday, at which Sharpton likened record contracts to slavery, saying that labels make millions while charging the artists for so many recording and promotional expenses that musicians are often left with little money or in debt. ”It is our intention to break up the kinds of indentured servant-type of arrangement that many in the record industry now have with record companies,” he said. ”We hope that this initiative would make it possible where one day the artist on the CD is as big as the companies that put out the CD.”

Sharpton and Cochran didn’t name other artists who would join their group, but they did say they’d be willing to work with the West Coast-based Recording Artists Coalition, the group that includes Don Henley, Sheryl Crow, Dixie Chicks, Billy Joel, and Clint Black that has been raising money and lobbying legislators to fight record labels on the same artists’ rights issues. Jackson’s participation would mark the first entry by a high-profile African-American or R&B artist into the battle, even though critics of industry practices have complained for decades that R&B and hip-hop deals are just as unfair to artists as pop and rock contracts.

Jackson himself may have a personal stake in this fight, as low sales of last fall’s ”Invincible” have led to speculation that Jackson is in financial trouble. A New York Daily News report on Wednesday quoted an unnamed executive at Sony (Jackson’s label) as saying that Jackson was only using Cochran and Sharpton to get out of the $200 million debt he owes the company for recording and promotional expenses. Jackson responded in his statement, ”For Sony to make a false claim that I owe them $200 million is outrageous and offensive.” But Sony responded, ”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.” In March, however, EW.com reported that Jackson had put up the Beatles’ publishing catalog, which he owns, as collateral for such a loan from Sony, and Sony simply hasn’t moved to call the loan or foreclose on it. So he may not owe money to Sony only in the sense that the label hasn’t asked him to pay it. Still, as Cochran and Sharpton note, with most artists, companies are not so generous.