Michael Jackson's Xscape, the second posthumous compilation from the late King of Pop, is launching across the world this week. The album will include unreleased songs from 1993 to 1999, reworked and contemporized by Timbaland and a team of record producers including StarGate, Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon, John McClain, and Rodney Jerkins. A deluxe version features the original songs and a duet with Jackson and Justin Timberlake.
Although early reviews have been favorable, with a 68% rating at Metacritic, many fans and critics claim that Sony's (NYSE:SNE) Epic Records -- which has released a film, a film soundtrack, a remix album, and two new albums since Jackson's death in 2009 -- is endlessly exploiting the late singer's catalog of unfinished work. Others defend the album, claiming that it keeps Jackson's legacy alive.
Yet regardless of public opinion, Xscape is widely expected to be a hit, which will only encourage Sony to launch "new" Michael Jackson albums for years to come. Are Sony and Epic crossing ethical lines by repeatedly mining Michael Jackson's unreleased songs, or is this just business as usual in the recording industry?
The business of posthumous albums
The idea of keeping a musician alive with posthumous albums is problematic because it pieces together tracks that the artist never intended to release. Edward Keeble at Gigwise calls this practice "the equivalent of stripping a chicken after roast and eating all the bits you were told not to, including the bones."
Michael Jackson wouldn't be the first musician to be kept alive in this manner. Tupac "2Pac" Shakur only released four studio albums during his life, yet studios went on to release seven more after his death in 1996. None of 2Pac's posthumous albums outsold his final album in life, All Eyez on Me (1996, 5.89 million copies), but they all sold over a million copies until Pac's Life (2006, 470,000 copies). But just when fans thought that 2Pac could finally rest in peace, they revived him onstage with a hologram-like CGI projection during the Coachella music festival in 2012. Michael Jackson returned to the stage in a similar ghostly manner during Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson One performance in Las Vegas last May.
On one hand, Michael Jackson and 2Pac's extended lives are testaments to their lasting appeal. On the other hand, it's hard to overlook the obvious profits reaped from keeping them alive with films, new albums, and holographic projections.
How long with Michael Jackson's legacy last?
Michael Jackson's career peaked with Thriller (1982), which sold 65 million copies worldwide. Bad (1987) and Dangerous (1991) sold 30 million copies each. HIStory (1995), which combined new and old songs, sold 20 million, and sales of Invincible (2001), his final studio album, dropped to 13 million.
That decline continued after Jackson's death -- the soundtrack for This Is It (2009) sold 6 million copies, and Michael (2010), Epic's first "new" Jackson album, only sold 4 million copies. Granted, selling 4 million albums is incredible for any modern pop artist -- Beyoncé's latest self-titled album sold 3 million copies worldwide and Lady Gaga's Artpop sold 2.3 million -- but the decline of Jackson's posthumous albums is undeniable.
One possible reason for this declining interest was Jackson's volatile relationship with Sony. Prior to the release of Invincible, Jackson became engaged with a legal dispute with Sony regarding the masters to his previous albums. Jackson expected the masters to revert to him by 2002, allowing him to book full profits from his previous songs, but Sony claimed that the rights couldn't revert to Jackson until at least seven years later, due to a clause in their 1991 contract. That conflict led to Jackson's widely publicized divorce from Sony in 2002, which in turn led to Sony halting promotion for Invincible.
Regardless of whether or not Jackson's divorce from Sony was justified, that conflict cast a dark shadow over Sony's $250 million deal with the Jackson estate in 2010, which granted the rights to 10 recordings (from Jackson's back catalog and unreleased tracks) by 2017. The deal also granted Sony the exclusive rights to use Jackson's music in video games, amusement park rides, television advertisements, memorabilia, and additional compilations.
Clever or tasteless?
Considering the sensitive nature of Sony's past relationship with Michael Jackson, it would make sense for Sony to tread carefully with its new compilations and albums.
Unfortunately, Sony's promotional efforts for Xscape are anything but careful. Sony is already using Xscape to promote its Xperia line of smartphones, and bundling the entire album as a free digital download with the Xperia Z2 in select markets. Recent commercials for the Xperia prominently feature a snippet of "Slave to the Rhythm," the fifth track on the album.
Using Xscape -- a track never meant to be an entire album's title -- to highlight the similarly spelled Xperia is a blunt marketing tactic that has already been called "tasteless" on Reddit. But Sony's grand Xscape plan doesn't stop with albums and smartphones -- it is also offering PlayStation owners a chance to check out a behind-the-scenes video for the album.
Don't stop 'til you earn enough?
It's unclear how long it will take Sony to break even on its $250 million investment in Jackson's legacy. At a price of $17 per album, matching the 4 million copies that Michael sold in 2010 would equal approximately $68 million in revenue.
If sales of Xscape fail to measure up to Sony's previous efforts, it will be clear that Sony and Epic could be pushing too fast and hard with its posthumous promotions of Michael Jackson. But if Xscape is a bigger hit than Michael, we can expect to see many more "original" Michael Jackson albums released over the next few years.
Sony's Music segment, which accounts for 6% of its top line, certainly needs a boost. Despite being propped up by strong hits like One Direction's Midnight Memories, Beyoncé's self-titled album, and Miley Cyrus' Bangerz, revenue at the segment slid 1% year-over-year last quarter to $1.38 billion.
The bottom line
Michael Jackson was certainly one of the greatest musicians of our time, so studios and admirers will inevitably try to keep his legacy alive. However, will Sony's aggressive strategy of releasing "new" albums, which feature work that Jackson never intended to see the light of day, tarnish the reputations of Sony and the late King of Pop instead?