Yesterday the rock star began his case to free himself from his contract with Sony, his record company, accusing it of restraint of trade. It is a case being watched closely by the music industry. If George Michael wins the case to make his contract with Sony unenforceable it will have enormous repercussions, probably ending the tradition of artists being signed for years to a single record company, giving them the freedom of movement that film stars have among studios. The industry in turn has warned that if it cannot rely on keeping the star artists it will not be able to invest in new acts.
Mark Cran QC, for the star, told the court: 'This case is not about money. It is about restraint of trade. It is about an agreement which binds George Michael for the whole of his career on terms which are capable of being worked to his substantial disadvantage. . . Although large amounts of money are involved in this case Mr Michael's bottom-line income from recording is relatively modest. It is unlikely to be less than six to one in favour of Sony.'
The recording agreement led to several issues in which there was an imbalance of power, Mr Cran said. The artist could not make a record for anyone other than Sony, except as a background vocalist, the style of which was dissimilar to any of his other recordings. He could not appear on film or video for anyone other than Sony, unless he neither sang nor played music.
He was bound for eight albums, which in reality meant a further 12 to 16 years. If he failed to deliver the albums he was liable for damages and Sony could reject recordings if they were 'not of the quality of the artist's prior recordings'. Mr Cran added that Sony was the judge of this quality. The court could not make such a judgement, to which Mr Justice Parker muttered: 'This is very true.'
Even though Sony gets copyright it has no obligation or commitment to market or promote the material.
Mr Cran, referring to a 'startling imbalance', said that George Michael's gross worldwide royalties, in a five-year period up to December 1992, amounted to pounds 16.89m, while Sony's share over that time came to pounds 95.5m. Over the same period, the star's gross profits were pounds 7.35m while Sony's were pounds 52.45m.
Mr Cran explained to the court the significance of the title of the artist's last album, Listen Without Prejudice. His follow- up to Faith, which had sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, was intended to shed his sex symbol image and concentrate on the music. Hence the title and his refusal to have his picture on the album sleeve. But he felt that Sony, particularly in the United States, was not supportive of him, and failed to promote the album