Michael Jackson may sue Sony. As Jackson reiterates charges of industry racism, Rev. Al Sharpton acknowledges that his current initiative to help black musicians was prompted by Jackson's dispute with Sony over ''Invincible''
Michael Jackson
Credit: Michael Jackson: Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images/Newscom

Guess Michael Ovitz isn’t the only entertainment bigwig who blames his career woes on a conspiracy. In widely reported remarks at yesterday’s Rev. Al Sharpton-sponsored Music Industry Summit, Michael Jackson reiterated his charges that the recording industry is thoroughly racist, and that it launched a smear campaign against him as soon as he became as big a seller as Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Yet, even as Sharpton tried to expand upon Jackson’s critique, extending it to the way all music companies treat all African-American artists (not just Sony and its chief Tommy Mottola, whom Jackson singled out Saturday as a racist, in remarks that Sharpton and many black music executives have disagreed with), the New York Times reported that Sharpton and lawyer Johnnie Cochran’s current initiative to help black musicians really originated with Jackson’s dispute with Sony, which the Times says may erupt into a lawsuit.

Jackson has spent the last couple of months complaining that Sony didn’t do enough to promote and market ”Invincible,” released last November on Sony’s Epic label, which sold 2 million copies in the U.S. and only a few million more in the rest of the world — lackluster figures by Jackson’s standards. Sony says it has done plenty, having spent $50 million producing and promoting the album, but it balked at Jackson’s request earlier this year for $8 million to shoot a third video for the album, the Times reports. But the dispute over the handling of ”Invincible” grew out of a larger struggle between Jackson and Sony over Jackson’s effort this year to renegotiate his contract with the label, where he has spent his entire adult career, those involved in the negotiations tell the Times.

At issue are two sets of assets. One is Jackson’s master recordings, which Sony is supposed to turn over to him in seven years, but which he wants in three. (Owning those will mean he no longer has to split royalties with Sony.) The other is Sony/ATV, the music publishing company that Jackson co-owns with Sony, which holds the copyrights to several hundred thousand songs, including the catalogs of the Beatles and such Sony artists as Bob Dylan. (Last week, Sony/ATV bought Nashville publisher Acuff-Rose, which holds the rights to 55,000 country songs.) Both Jackson and Sony want to buy out each other’s stake in the publishing venture, the Times says.

The Times quotes two people close to Jackson as saying he plans to sue Sony. ”If you look ahead to what can happen, it’s in the courtroom,” one of them told the Times. ”Then it gets interesting.”

Sharpton tells the Times he didn’t know that the dispute between Jackson and Sony was that acrimonious when Jackson called him in May with the idea for the black musicians’ initiative. ”Michael had told me he was involved in a negotiation at that point,” Sharpton said. “But I did not know if it had turned hostile or not”.

But it had, coming to a head with Jackson’s public appearances Saturday, including one at a Sharpton-sponsored rally, at which Jackson called Mottola (who is also Mariah Carey’s ex-husband) a racist. Later in the day, he held up a poster depicting Mottola as the devil. Sharpton distanced himself from those comments, saying he had never known Mottola to say or do anything racist in the 15 or 20 years he has known the exec. Other African-American music executives and producers rushed to Mottola’s defense.

At Sharpton’s Music Industry Summit yesterday, Jackson continued to call the industry racist, though he no longer singled out Mottola by name. He blamed industry racism for turning the public against him. ”Once I started breaking sales records,” he began, ”I broke Elvis Presley’s record, I broke the Beatles’ record — once I started doing that, overnight, they called me a freak, a homosexual, a child molester.” (Actually, it was about 10 years between Jackson breaking sales records with 1982’s ”Thriller” and the child molestation allegations, which Jackson settled out of court with a multimillion-dollar payment to his accuser’s family. He was never charged with a criminal offense.) ”They said I bleached my skin. They did everything they could to turn the public against me. It’s a conspiracy.” He added, ”I know my race. I look in the mirror, and I know that I’m black.”

Sharpton called Jackson’s comments ”eloquent” and also tried to expand Jackson’s complaint into a systemic critique. ”We are today calling for a meeting with every head of every record company… to begin to discuss artists’ contracts and their business dealings in the African-American community,” he said.

Still, it was hard to see the complaints as pertaining to any artist besides Jackson, since only one other musician seems to have joined Sharpton and Cochran’s crusade: ’80s rapper Doug E. Fresh. Explained Fresh, ”There’s a lot of artists who are afraid to stand up.”