'Howard Hughes' of the pop world in $3bn deal

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The reclusive music magnate behind Britney Spears and the Back Street Boys may soon be reaping rewards beyond the dreams of any of his better-known peers – a one-off cheque from the recording giant Bertelsmann for as much as $3bn (£2.06bn).

Clive Calder, the head of Zomba Records – now the most profitable label in the business, with offices in London and New York – is understood to be in talks about triggering a lucrative clause in a deal he negotiated with BMG, the music arm of Germany's Bertelsmann, several years ago.

The extraordinary pay-day for Mr Calder, 56, who was born in South Africa, will add another milestone to a career that began humbly in Johannesburg in the Sixties. After playing guitar for a Motown group in the city, he turned to producing local acts, promoting concerts and even selling records on the street. He launched Zomba in London in 1975 with a friend, Ralph Simon, who is now chairman of the label's entertainment division.

Under the terms of the deal, Bertelsmann, which already owns a 20 per cent stake in Zomba and looks after distribution for one of its record labels, Jive, would reportedly end up owning the company. Jive, which boasts Ms Spears and the Back Street Boys as well as NSync and R Kelly among its acts, is already vital to Bertelsmann in ensuring market share. The assumption is that such a deal would mean Mr Calder taking a large role in Bertelsmann.

The success of Zomba has been phenomenal. It is expected to generate revenues of about $1bn this year, with profits running at about $300m. The exact amount Mr Calder could expect from Bertelsmann depends on the final profit. The size of the cheque is likely to equal between eight and 12 times the annual profit at Zomba, so $3bn may be not far from whatever sum is finally arrived at.

Mr Calder, sometimes called the Howard Hughes of the industry because of his desire for privacy, has been credited with fusing new, young talent with mass marketing to create the phenomenon that has been Ms Spears, in particular. (Next year, the world will see her in her first film role.) He took on Ms Spears after she turned up at his studios for an audition.

His reputation for reclusive behaviour was fuelled by his request for a special room at the company's New York offices in Chelsea, sealed off from the rest of the building and given its own air supply. Staff members began calling it the "bunker". It was constructed that way, in fact, because Mr Calder has a history of severe allergy problems.

He may not be as mysterious as he seems, but Mr Calder certainly doesn't fit the stereotype of big-shot music executives throwing their weight around. Ajax Scott of Music Week in London said recently: "He's very friendly; he just doesn't mix and mingle. He has bigger fish to fry."

Zomba was named after the former capital of Malawi. Mr Calder and Mr Simon liked the name more when they discovered that a tribe lived outside Zomba that was reputed to have extraordinary powers of hearing. Jive comes from "township jive", a form of music and dance from South Africa.

While details of the deal are being officially withheld, Zomba confirmed in a statement this week that the issue was on the table. "Zomba and BMG's parent, Bertelsmann, are currently in discussions as to the future of these options," Zomba said.

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