(Legal) Career Killers: George Michael v. Sony

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced this week that George Michael had been named as a finalist for the 2023 class, my reaction was: “Wait, he hasn’t been inducted yet? What gives?”

After all, when I was growing up, he was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. He was also a highly respected artist who was a fantastic singer, a charismatic performer and an excellent songwriter. The Hall was built for people like him.

But then I remembered: He wasn’t a big star for very long. In fact, he disappeared at the height of his career, and when he came back, he seemed well past his prime. It all started with his decision to sue his record label.

In 1982, a then-unknown George Michael and his equally-unknown partner and friend, Andrew Ridgeley, were signed to Innervision Records, a subsidiary of CBS Records, as the bubblegum pop/teeny-bopper duo, Wham! The two signed a typical music industry contract and got to work. They had a couple of chart hits and generated buzz in the U.K. when they staged a memorable performance of “Young Guns (Go For It!)” on the BBC’s popular Top of the Pops program.

Like many artists who get famous quickly, they were stunned when they got their checks and it wasn’t anything close to what they thought they would get, given their record sales, radio airplay and concert grosses. Like many unsophisticated artists who don’t really understand the business aspect of the record industry, they didn’t realize that the label always recoups its costs, such as paying for production costs, studio time, promotional campaigns, music video shoots and lots of other stuff, before doling out any profits.

So they did what a lot of artists who feel like they were screwed over do. They sued Innervision, and as part of the eventual settlement, they got a better deal from CBS Records in that they received larger advances, budgets and royalties, but would owe the company 6 more albums. And if Wham! broke up, Michael and Ridgeley would still belong to the label as solo artists. “In the record business, you get out of one bad contract, you get into another that’s slightly less bad,” Wham!’s manager Simon Napier-Bell said in George Michael: A Life by James Gavin.

In the years to come, Michael spoke gratefully of having signed Innervision’s deal — “because otherwise I wouldn’t be here.” But it led him to mistrust all record companies, the entities on which his hopes rested. Until now, he said, the Wham! experience had been “just magical” — a magic-carpet ride “with your best mate, playing out your fantasies.” But he sensed that Wham!’s honeymoon was over.

James Gavin, George Michael: A Life (2022)

Indeed, Wham! broke up in 1986 and George Michael immediately set about becoming a solo star. His 1987 solo debut, Faith, had been phenomenally successful, selling 25 million copies worldwide and producing four #1 hit singles in the U.S. His blockbuster 1988 world tour confirmed his status as one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Faith also landed him a boatload of prestigious awards, including Album of the Year at the Grammys in 1989. By the time the 90s came around, it was fair to ask whether George Michael was on the same level of Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson.

So in January 1988, CBS rewarded him with a new contract, one that reflected his new A-List status. Michael received advances and royalties in excess of £11 million, but would owe CBS up to 8 albums. According to Gavin, Michael was troubled by this, but signed the deal anyway. Shortly afterwards, CBS sold its music division to Sony, giving Michael a bunch of brand new bosses that he had no prior relationship with.

Record company politics weren’t his only concern. During this time, Michael was becoming more and more uncomfortable with all of the attention he was getting from fans, critics, other artists, and most notably, the press. In one infamous interview, a reporter who thought Michael’s sexually-charged (hetero) image may have been designed to throw people off his scent led things off by directly asking Michael whether he was gay. The still-closeted Michael was taken aback but managed to brush off the question and finish the interview gracefully. Nevertheless, more people (especially in the U.K.) started asking questions about Michael’s personal life — questions that he, himself, was still wrestling with.

As such, when it came time for him to record his follow up to Faith, George Michael decided he was done being a pop megastar and sex symbol. He wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and judged solely by the content of his songwriting and singing. “I think it will be obvious from my next record that Faith was a transitional album,” Michael told the New York Times in 1988. “There was a lot of aggression on Faith, which has been worked out. The next record will probably be softer, more relaxed and acoustic and probably not as aggressively commercial.”

And he was true to his word, dropping the somber, ballad-heavy Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 in 1990. The title said it all, as he made a conscious effort to have his music front-and-center without his sex-appeal or pop stardom detracting from or adding to it. His handsome face was nowhere on the album packaging, nor was it in any of the music videos (although “Freedom ’90” had plenty of other beautiful people in it). On the whole, the songs on Listen Without Prejudice were much less accessible and more introspective and socially conscious than the ones on its predecessor (to say nothing of the stuff recorded by Wham!).

Sony was not pleased, especially since it had renegotiated Michael’s contract yet again earlier in the year in anticipation of receiving Faith II to promote. The 1990 renegotiation gave Michael more royalties on his American sales — a big deal since he was arguably bigger in the States than he was at home.

Some executives begged, pleaded and cajoled Michael not to follow through with his plans. Others knew there was nothing they could do, since they didn’t want to alienate one of the label’s most important artists, so they set about playing down expectations for Michael’s next album. “I think you’ll have a lot of disappointed fans because there is no video, but when they get to understand his point of view and hear the record, I don’t think there will be any problem,” Sony chairman Tommy Mottola said at the time. “I told George Michael that I respected his position, so long as he was fully aware that we would have more difficulty marketing the album, which he was. I said we would still be fully behind the album and would do everything we could to ensure that it received maximum promotion,” Sony U.K. executive Paul Russell said.

Listen Without Prejudice managed to sell 8 million copies worldwide, while lead single “Praying for Time” went to #1 in the U.S. and “Freedom ’90” hit #6.

But the album felt like a failure — especially when compare to its predecessor. Michael blamed Sony, accusing the label of not promoting the album properly — despite Russell’s promise to do so. “I heard they said the album is shit, he’s not promoting it and let’s let it go,” Michael said. “I thought if I told them truth and I was transparent with them that it would pay dividends and they would be patient with me. But they just shat on me!”

Michael then poked the bear even more by taking his 1991 world tour, which was supposed to promote Listen Without Prejudice, and turning it into a vanity project. Called the “Cover to Cover Tour,” Michael spent most of his shows singing his favorite cover songs, including a well-received duet with Elton John on John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” that became a big hit for Michael in 1991, but spent very little time on his then-current album. “What he wanted to do was piss off all of the right people at his record company,” his one-time close friend Andros Georgiou said.

The tour did have one bright spot for Michael. While performing at Rock in Rio, Michael met and fell in love with Brazilian fashion designer Anselmo Feleppa. Because Michael was still, officially, in the closet, his relationship with Feleppa was kept under wraps. But Michael later described it as one of the happiest times of his life. “This was the first love of my entire life” he said in an interview with the BBC years later. “I was happier than I’ve ever been. Fame, money, everything else just kind of paled by comparison to finally, at 27 years-old, be waking up in bed with someone who loves you.”

However, their bliss was short-lived. HIV was still a death sentence in those days, and mere months after Michael and Feleppa met, the latter got the bad news. While keeping a strong public face, Michael threw himself into his work. Perhaps that’s why his rendition of “Somebody to Love” at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 was so good. On a night honoring one of his heroes, one who had succumbed to AIDS, Michael had managed to channel his rage, fear and devastation into a show-stealing performance.

The looming specter of AIDS also caused Michael to decide to scrap his planned Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2, which was scheduled to include a lot of upbeat, dance numbers like “Too Funky,” “Happy” and “Do You Really Want to Know.” Instead, he donated those songs to the Red Hot & Dance AIDS benefit album that would be distributed by Sony.

According to Gavin, the decision was a bit of Michael testing the waters and taking a tentative first step towards coming out — after all, in those days, being associated with any AIDS-related project, especially as a man whose sexuality had previously been questioned, was still very much taboo. It was a very personal and brave decision, and placed against the backdrop of his lover’s diagnosis, it was clear that Michael took this project very seriously. Even though Red Hot & Dance was a glorified remix album consisting mostly of songs from other artists that had already been released (Michael’s songs were the only original ones on the record), the compilation did fairly well. It hit the Top Ten in several countries, while “Too Funky” reached #4 in the U.K. and #10 in the U.S. Despite that, Michael felt like the project had failed and, once again, blamed Sony for not promoting the album.

Things got worse between label and star when, according to Michael and his then-manager, Rob Kahane, Sony chairman Don Ienner called and used a gay slur to refer to Michael (Ienner has repeatedly denied this).

In late 1992, George Michael decided to do something about it. He filed a lawsuit alleging his 1988 contract constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade that was illegal under the Treaty of Rome.

Essentially, Michael’s argument was that Sony had all of the power in their relationship and that he was, essentially, a professional slave. He couldn’t leave for a label that would promote him the way he saw fit. He couldn’t release any music without the label’s okay. He couldn’t own his master recordings, even though Sony had recouped its costs by taking first dibs on his profits.

As many commentators pointed out, these were fairly standard terms in any recording contract. So if Michael had prevailed, he would have turned the music industry completely on its head. In fact, Michael even cast himself as the embattled everyman seeking to take down the big, powerful, unscrupulous record industry.

Nevertheless, he understood that he wasn’t necessarily going to have public opinion on his side. “One of the difficult things about taking on Sony was that I knew a lot of people’s attitude would be: ‘The silly git doesn’t want to do any interviews, doesn’t make any videos, he’s not going to do this, he’s not going to do that, and then he complains that they don’t push his music,’” Michael said in an interview prior to a 1996 MTV Unplugged performance.

Michael held out hope that the court would see things his way. In 1988, Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood won his lawsuit against ZTT Records as the High Court found that his contract constituted an unfair restraint of trade. Like Michael, Johnson had left his band to go solo, however in the latter’s case, he had tried to sign a deal with MCA only for ZTT to assert that he was bound to the label thanks to a clause obligating departing members of Frankie Goes to Hollywood to remain in place under the same terms and conditions as spelled out in their band’s original deal. Johnson’s lawyer in the case was Tony Russell, one of the top lawyers in the industry and someone who had previously represented Michael in his prior contract squabbles. Michael surely hoped lightning would strike twice.

But the Johnson case had some important distinctions. For one, ZTT’s deals had not been standard within the industry and were found to be much more restrictive in certain ways. For instance, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s original contract was ostensibly for five albums, but the label had a series of open-ended options that could, essentially, keep extend the deal for an indefinite amount of time. ZTT’s royalty payouts were lower than other comparable labels in the U.K. The label also had a clause in their deals giving them final say over choice of producer and location of studio, and if the band used anyone besides Trevor Horn, ZTT’s co-head, that producer would get extra royalties on the record that would come out of the band’s end.

Michael and Johnson also differed in one very important sense. Frankie Goes to Hollywood had been overlooked by almost every other label due to its controversial nature and sexualized content, to say nothing of the open homosexuality of two of its members (Johnson and dancer/secondary singer Paul Rutherford) and had taken the ZTT deal because they had no other options.

Michael had been a superstar when he signed his 1988 deal and had the best lawyers money could buy advising him. In fact, the judge presiding over his case made note of this when he ruled in favor of Sony in 1994, stating that whatever imbalance of bargaining power that existed in the original 1984 deal signed by Michael the unknown had been addressed by the 1988 renegotiation, when Michael the star had much more leverage and sophistication. “It would be unfair to Sony and unconscionable to allow Mr. Michael now to assert that the 1988 agreement was unenforceable,” Justice Jonathan Parker wrote in his opinion.

Michael didn’t do himself any favors with his testimony. The singer came across as petty and even arrogant — at one point, he bragged about how much money he was worth and admitted that he wanted to leave Sony, not because of any legal reasons but because he felt they had abandoned him in America. He even suggested that the reason why was because Sony chairman Mottola had become enamored with Mariah Carey, whom he later married.

Years later, he admitted that he regretted going to war with Sony and that he had been spoiling for a fight because of his anger and sense of helplessness over Feleppa’s health. When he died in 1993, Michael was heartbroken and never got over his loss. “Had Anselmo not been diagnosed with HIV, I don’t think I would have had the anger to take Sony to court for treating me badly. I was too happy,” Michael later said.

Either way, the damage to his career was done. The lawsuit had kept him out of the studio and record stores for the better part of two years. Another two years elapsed before he finally returned with a new album, 1996’s Older (released on DreamWorks Records after the nascent label bought out Michael’s Sony contract). By then, the music industry had changed considerably, and Michael was no longer a top star.

Older was also a tough sell for some fans. While it had some upbeat songs on it, like “Fastlove,” much of the album is somber and melancholic, with a heavy Brazilian bossa nova influence that reflected his newfound fascination with the genre and served as a way for him to dedicate the album to Feleppa. In fact, his departed lover weighs heavily throughout the record, most notably with lead single “Jesus to a Child” that spurred even more speculation about Michael’s sexuality.

The album did well in the U.K. and in parts of Europe, but was largely ignored in the U.S., where it failed to go platinum. Once again, Michael had put his heart and soul into a project only to see it come up short, and once again, he pointed the finger at his record label, in this case DreamWorks Records and its head, music titan David Geffen. Only this time, Michael’s star had diminished to the point where Geffen thought nothing of dropping him from the label, even though he still had one album on his contract.

After he was outed following his bathroom scandal in L.A., his career was pretty much over, especially in the U.S. He spent much of the next two decades focusing on projects that interested him and recording only sporadically. He only made two albums after Older: Songs from the Last Century (1999), a covers album, and Patience (2004), which marked Michael’s return to Sony, of all places.

That is the thing that made George different from his contemporaries. He was willing to pay the price of his rebellion. While Prince, with whom I also worked, wrote ‘slave’ on his face, recorded furiously and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, in part, to escape his Warner Bros. Records contract, George retreated. He wouldn’t tour again for 17 years and would record new material only sporadically. Fences with Sony were eventually mended, for the sake of greatest hits packages, but it was far too late to matter. A large swath of his fans had been either alienated or bored or moved on to the next big thing. The bathroom incident in Beverly Hills kicked the last nail in…

“I’m done chasing it,” he said to me in a candid moment at the time. And he was. The fans ultimately returned for his recent tours, singing back at George from the rafters. The best part was they had come for the only reason that mattered to him: The music.

Michael Pagnotta, George Michael’s former publicist, January 6, 2017.

Since his 2016 death, his music has seemingly made a comeback into public consciousness as people seemingly remembered why they loved his songs so much in the first place. Whether it’s movies centered around his greatest hits, documentaries, social media challenges, or possible biopics, his music seems more ubiquitous today than it was during the two-plus decades between the Sony lawsuit and his death.

Throw in the fact that, as of this writing, he’s running neck-and-neck with Cyndi Lauper at the top of the Fan Vote for the Rock Hall of Fame (Fan Vote winners almost always get in — unless you’re the Dave Matthews Band), maybe Michael’s surviving relatives and Ridgeley should start making plans to travel to Cleveland (or wherever the ceremony is this year).

1 comment

Alvin December 3, 2023 - 11:26 am

Wrong information. Older was so popular outside UK & World.

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