Michael Jackson, Al Sharpton, Johnnie Cochran Take On Labels

New coalition is latest artist-rights group to accuse record companies of exploiting musicians.

Michael Jackson addressed his rumored dispute with Sony Music for the first

time Wednesday when he aligned himself with a new artist-rights initiative

and released a statement condemning the music industry and his label.

At a New York press conference Jackson was named the first member of a

coalition formed by the Rev. Al Sharpton and attorney Johnnie Cochran to

investigate whether record companies are financially exploiting artists.

"Record companies have to start treating their artists with respect, honor,

and financial justice," Jackson said in a statement. "Therefore, I am proud

to join this coalition which represents all artists."

The reclusive millionaire also used his brief statement to address recent

comments from unnamed Sony executives who said he owes the label $200

million for studio time and promotion.

"For Sony to make a false claim that I owe them $200 million is outrageous

and offensive," Jackson said.

Sony responded with its own statement: "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."

Jackson's feud with Sony has been the focus of several Web sites set up by

fans who allege that early this year the label stopped promoting last fall's

Invincible, Jackson's long-awaited comeback album. The sites claim

Sony sabotaged the record in a plot to take over Jackson's share of a song

catalog he and the label co-own that includes the work of the Beatles. The

online campaigns, which have bombarded Sony with faxes and e-mails, also

cite Sony's failure to release Jackson's star-studded September 11 tribute

song, "What More Can I Give" (see "Post-9/11 Tribute Albums And Singles: Big Plans, Not So Big

Results").

Sony spokespeople did not return calls Thursday (June 6), but a company rep

told the New York Times, "We are proud of the job we have done

marketing and promoting Invincible worldwide."

Jackson himself did little to promote Invincible. Though he did

perform at two high-profile concerts in September and he staged one record

signing (see "Jackson Fans Stop Traffic In

Times Square During In-Store"), he did not tour. The media-shy singer

has also granted almost zero interviews.

In spite of his recent lackluster sales, though, Jackson is still regarded

as a music superstar, and aligned with Sharpton and Cochran their

organization could be a powerful player in the growing war between artists

and the record labels.

Sharpton, a popular civil rights activist, said his initiative is willing to

work with the Record Artists Coalition, a similar artist-rights group Don

Henley and Sheryl Crow formed last year that includes No Doubt, the

Offspring and Deftones (see "No Doubt,

Beck Concerts Are Not Anti-Label, Artist Coalition Says")

One of the RAC's leaders, No Doubt manager Jim Guerinot, said his group

welcomes the new coalition and wishes them success on their parallel agenda.

"The RAC maintains our own leadership, our own agenda and means for fighting

the artist-rights battle but encourage any and all groups like AFTRA

(American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), FMC (Future of Music

Coalition) and this new collective," he said. "There is plenty of room for

another voice to pitch in and defend the rights of musicians and working

artists."

Operating under Sharpton's civil liberties organization the National Action

Network, the new coalition will hold a summit in New York later this month

to introduce more members. Aside from financial issues, the group will also

fight for health care and free agency for artists.

"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," Sharpton said, according to Billboard. "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."

The new initiative is Jackson's second time teaming with Cochran. The

lawyer, who famously defended O. J. Simpson, helped negotiate a settlement

between Jackson and a 13-year-old boy who brought molestation charges

against him in 1993.