Saturday, August 1, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Record Label as 'Family'

So there’s Berry Gordy at the Memorial Service. Rambling on, really. Talking and talking and talking about Michael Jackson and his own personal role in Michael Jackson’s life. More than a little self-serving. But vain. There’s Smokey Robinson, unusually prominent. Stevie Wonder. Lionel Richie. Why, it’s a regular family reunion.

Of what family? Of course, the Motown Family. You know, the label Michael Jackson was with for all of six years, as opposed to the 33 years he spent as a Sony employee. The label the Jacksons left with no small acrimony.

I find it interesting to compare Berry Gordy’s extremely personal eulogy with the icky, plastic “Sony comments on the passing of Michael Jackson” statement posted on Michael Jackson’s YouTube page. Michael Jackson’s life saw the evolution of the music industry from small, up-close-and-personal music ‘shoppes’ to faceless multimedia conglomerates – the same companies that have squeezed the music industry so tight that it is currently dying an unmourned death. The fact is, though, that Michael Jackson not only witnessed the evolution: he is in no small part responsible for it.

I won’t defend Motown. The strictures Gordy put on the Jacksons were ridiculous, and they were right to decamp to greener pastures. Berry Gordy presided over an empire that made some amazing music, but it did what so many empires do: find a formula and stick to it well after that formula’s best-before date has expired and in spite of all rising tides of criticism. Motown, today a meaningless imprint of the Universal conglomerate, sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Michael Jackson was certainly not to blame.

What did, however, happen as Michael Jackson slid from Philadelphia International to Epic to CBS to Sony to SonyBMG to whatever they are today is that Sony redefined their relationships to artists as a whole in response to their redefinition of their relationship with Michael Jackson. They did need to redefine that relationship: as Michael Jackson went supernova and tore up the entire rulebook of success, it was only natural for his record company to help to rewrite that rulebook. And after being given a royalty rate at Motown that would make Vietnamese Nike employees tut-tut in indignation, Michael Jackson set new records for highest royalty rate. Which was great: the artist deserves more money; the money-hungry multinational deserves less, right? Well, absolutely. But I think you could make an argument that Michael Jackson’s inflated royalty rate was one of the things that inflated every aspect of his relationship with Sony, to the extent that the Commodification of Michael Jackson became a test case whose results were copied throughout the music business.

Michael Jackson became huge, Sony became huge, Sony became anonymous (probably always was, actually). No surprise there. It is interesting, though, that when they came to mourn Michael Jackson publicly, that small label that he spent six stress-filled years with was in full effect, while the monolith he spent a third of a century with was… completely absent. Just an observation.

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