Material Girl's demands for cash rock TimeWarner

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The Independent Culture

The partnership between Madonna, the singer and actress, and the world's largest media conglomerate, TimeWarner, may be on the rocks after 11 years with both sides arguing over the value of her contract and the future of her recording label, Maverick.

It is a battle that could mean problems for Maverick, a so-called "vanity label", created by Madonna, with her manager, Freddy DeMann, in 1992. A contract that guarantees financial support for Maverick from TimeWarner will expire at the end of 2004. And there is no certainty it will be renewed.

There has been talk in the industry of a break-up between Madonna and TimeWarner for weeks. It has been enough for Roger Ames, the chairman and chief executive officer of Warner Music Group, to make a public statement of support for the singer: "Madonna is one of the most important artists in the world from both a creative and a commercial standpoint and has been for the past two decades," Mr Ames told The New York Times. "I hope she spends the rest of her career with Warner."

Madonna is also reportedly threatening to sue TimeWarner over her contract with its music division. At issue are options in TimeWarner stock that were granted to her in 1999. Valued at the time between $20m and $25m (£11.8m and £14.8m), they have become almost worthless because of the battering taken by TimeWarner's stock in the wake of its 2001 merger with America Online. But Madonna wants the money.

The timing of the disputes could hardly be worse for TimeWarner, which, like other big recording companies, has seen the fortunes of its music business go into a nosedive. This week, the board of TimeWarner is to ponder the possible sale of Warner Music Group, either to the EMI Group or to another set of bidders led by Edgar Bronfman.

It is not uncommon for the music giants to team up with big stars to bankroll vanity labels. Maverick, which is home to singers such as Alanis Morissette and Prodigy, has been one of the more successful companies to undertake such partnerships. Mr DeMann left Maverick in 1999 and the company is now led by Gay Oseary.

Madonna may find that she has less leverage with TimeWarner than she had at one time. Her latest album, American Life, released earlier this year, has been a disappointment with sales of 3.5 million, less than half the total for her 2000 hit, Music.

If no agreement on the future of Maverick is struck, Madonna and her business associates can legally demand that TimeWarner buy-out their stake. But even that may be hard to achieve with the Madonna camp putting the value of their stake at about $60m (£35.5m), while executives at TimeWarner argue it is worth half that.

Liz Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for the singer, said that neither Madonna's age (she is 45-years old) nor the decline of her album sales had led to any disenchantment with her by TimeWarner. She said: "They still love her. Has she sold the number of records she used to sell? No. But I still believe she is an unbelievable force in the music business, and her influence is tremendous. Madonna has been said to be over so many times, and each time she comes back bigger and better."

Vanity labels: Business and pleasure

The Beatles: Apple Records

The definitive vanity label set up by the Beatles when they could do no wrong. It was more a tax shelter than a creative outlet. The band's own "Hey Jude" was the first on the Apple label and became a huge hit. Non-Beatles releases under the label included Mary Hopkin's "Those were the Days", James Taylor's "Something in the way she Moves" and "Sour Milk Sea" by Jackie Lomax. Costly errors were made signing unpopular artists. It ceased trading in 1976.

Curtis Mayfield: Curtom

This was started by the late soul legend after he became frustrated with exploitation of black artists by "white" record companies. The labeI was inspired by Sam Cooke's SAR imprint and fuelled by a belief in supporting his home city of Chicago, Curtom became a publishing company in 1963 and a label in 1968. It was an outlet for his work, and that of his contemporaries such as The Five Stairsteps, Leroy Hutson, and Mavis Staples.

Mick Hucknall: Blood and Fire

The Simply Red singer, inspired by Lee "Scratch" Parry and King Tubby, started the label in 1993 to give obscure Jamaican reggae artists a British outlet. It aims to bring the standard of reggae reissues up to the level of the best in jazz, blues and r'n'b and make sure artists get paid for their work. Notable successes include King Tubby, The Congos and Horace Andy and Gregory Isaacs. Hucknall said: "It goes well with the hashish."

Eminem: Shady Records

After the success of Eminem's first mainstream album, The Slim Shady LP, he set up the label in 1999 and signed his own backing group D-12, then the Detroit rapper Obie Trice. The latest signing, DJ Green Lantern, a 26-year-old Puerto Rican Italian from New York toured with Eminem and D-12.