Sony/Jackson Estate renew partnership in the face of ongoing fraud lawsuit

Share Button

Cascio, Porte, Sony & Estate sued by MJ fan

SONY Music and the Estate of Michael Jackson today announced they will remain business partners well into the future after inking a renewal of their previous deal together, again tying Jackson’s music to the record company he once campaigned against.

“Effective January 1, 2018, Sony Music will extend the term of their administration of Michael’s record catalog in a long term recording agreement,” their joint press release states. “Sony will also have the opportunity to partner on additional projects that the Estate may produce during the term of the agreement.”

The December 14, 2017 press release goes on to detail a number of projects Sony and the Estate completed over the course of their previous seven-year deal – signed in March 2010 and reportedly worth a record US$250 million – including two Spike Lee documentaries, 2014’s Xscape album, and ‘virtual Michael Jackson’ performance (which was actually just a visual projection of a pre-recorded MJ impersonator) at the Billboard Music Awards.

However, one glaring omission from the self-glorifying press release was the first posthumous collection of unreleased songs by the King of Pop – the Michael album – which, released in the U.S. seven years ago today, continues to be haunted by ongoing allegations of fraud.

What should have been a triumphant smash hit became a catastrophe in late 2010 when Jackson’s family, collaborators and fans said three of the songs on the album sounded like fakes. After years of dismissing the claims, lawyers for Sony and the Estate have made the startling admission that the songs might actually be forgeries after all – sung by an impostor.

For several years, a David and Goliath battle has been unfolding in the Los Angeles Superior Court where a single, extremely determined Michael Jackson fan is taking on some of the entertainment industry’s most powerful players. Reputations are on the line in what has the potential to be one of the most infamous lawsuits the music business has ever seen. Yet most people have no idea the case is even happening – the media has almost completely ignored it.

California-based consumer Vera Serova contends in her class action lawsuit that millions of consumers have been defrauded since the Jackson Estate and Sony Music Entertainment released the Michael album, including three songs – “Breaking News,” “Keep Your Head Up” and “Monster” –  with fake vocals sung by a Jackson soundalike.

While today the media has all but forgotten about the issue, it generated a lot of coverage at the time. In December 2010, co-defendant in Serova’s lawsuit, Eddie Cascio, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss the authenticity of the songs, which Cascio and his collaborative partner James Porte, also a co-defendant, supplied to Sony earlier that year. When asked to respond to accusations that the voice on his songs was not Jackson’s, Cascio simply told Winfrey: “I can tell you that it is Michael’s voice.” Unchallenged by the talk show host for any kind of evidence beyond his word, Cascio added that Jackson had recorded the three songs – along with nine others that remain unreleased – in his New Jersey basement in 2007. Serova’s lawsuit contends Jackson did no such thing.

It was Jackson’s family who first raised the alarm about the allegedly forged vocals. They, along with thousands of fans, petitioned Sony not to release the Cascio tracks, but were dismissed by the label and media as troublemakers and conspiracy theorists. Sony released a brief statement at the time saying the company had ‘complete confidence’ that the vocals were legitimate.

Attorney for the Jackson Estate, Howard Weitzman, also responded to the backlash by issuing a statement. It listed six of Jackson’s former engineers who had reportedly attended listening sessions, been played the isolated vocal tracks a capella (without the music), and confirmed that the voice was ‘definitely’ Jackson’s. Several people who attended the listening sessions, however, refuted Weitzman’s statement, which also claimed that two forensic musicologists had authenticated the vocals as Jackson’s.

Even the Estate’s co-executors, John Branca and John McClain, could not agree on the matter, with McClain joining the Jackson family in their stance against the songs. “My friend John McClain (co-executor) and I have insisted for many weeks to have certain tracks removed from Michael’s new album,” said Jackson’s brother Jackie at the time. “Unfortunately, our concerns were not taken seriously.” Despite all of this, the media seemed satisfied with Sony and Weitzman’s statements, and the controversy has scarcely been reported on since.

But thanks to Serova’s ongoing class action consumer fraud lawsuit, Sony and the Jackson Estate are being forced to face the music. In a public courtroom late last year, on December 7, 2016, lawyers for the record company and estate finally conceded that the songs might actually be forgeries. Zia Modabber said Sony and the Estate had taken the songs original producers – Porte and Cascio – at their word. Shockingly, he insisted that even if the vocals were not Jackson’s, Sony and the Estate had done nothing wrong by saying they were. This was noncommercial speech protected by the First Amendment, Modabber claimed.

The argument didn’t sit well with presiding Judge Ann I. Jones of the Los Angeles Superior Court. “What is problematic is that you are ripping people off under your admitted facts,” she countered. Modabber insisted the Constitution allowed Sony and the Estate to lie to consumers: “If we ripped people off and it’s noncommercial speech, they lose under the statutes; that is just the law.”

To be culpable, Modabber told the court, the seller of the product should be ‘in a position to know what it is they are selling’. “In this case, that is not what has gone on,” he argued, adding that co-defendants Porte and Cascio “failed to disclose to Sony or the Estate that Michael Jackson did not provide the lead vocals.”

Judge Jones summarized Modabber’s argument as follows: “I think what he is saying here is. ‘We were as duped as the Plaintiffs… We didn’t know you guys were recording stuff in a basement that wasn’t recorded by Michael. You told us it was Michael. We believed it was Michael. And if there is a bad guy here, who was engaging in false commercial speech, it’s not us.’”

Sony and the Estate’s position in court may seem staggering, but it is not foolish. Over the years, as the defendants tried to sweep the controversy under the rug, evidence against the Cascio tracks has continued to mount.

Neither Porte nor Cascio have ever provided convincing evidence of Jackson’s contribution to the songs – not even a mention of them in the singer’s countless handwritten notes. Jackson was well known for scribbling song ideas and lyrics on scraps of paper. When he died, a handwritten list of approximately 30 songs the singer was working on was found taped to his bedroom wall. The list did not feature a single Cascio track.

Longtime Jackson collaborators pointed out that the vocals on the Cascio tracks lacked signature MJ recording habits, including finger snaps and foot stomps. Asked to provide alternate vocal takes, Porte and Cascio claimed they had deleted them all. Also questioned were the vibrato and dialect of the singer – neither of which matched Jackson’s. Serova’s lawsuit cites these inconsistencies, which are supported by a 41-page report by forensic audiologist Dr. George Papcun, PhD, who concluded the songs were sung not by Jackson.

To this day, fans around the globe remain equally unconvinced. Just last month, to mark the seventh anniversary of the November 8, 2010 “Breaking News” premiere, dozens of fans emailed Howard Weitzman, John Branca, and Sony Music’s CEO Rob Stringer urging them to remove the Cascio tracks from Jackson’s discography. “The continued presence of the three ‘Cascio tracks’ on MJ’s official catalogue is an ongoing sprinkling of salt in a wound that just won’t heal,” wrote one fan. “Please, it’s finally time to set the record straight – push aside the corporate coldness and let’s do right by Michael like he deserves,” pleaded another.

In today’s press release announcing the renewal of their recording contract, Branca (and McClain) heaped praise on Stringer and Sony, saying that the Estate ‘couldn’t ask for more creative and innovative partners’ than them, adding: “Michael continues to inspire generations of artists who have come after him and attract new fans who understand that his music and message are more important than ever.  We look forward to continuing to preserve and develop his remarkable musical legacy with Sony.”

Meanwhile, emails from fans regarding their continued sale of the Cascio tracks – despite their concession that they may be forgeries – were met with silence, and the Michael album – including “Breaking News,” “Keep Your Head Up” and “Monster” – remains available for purchase via online retailers and in record stores around the world.

Unlike Sony and the Estate, however, Cascio and Porte seem unwilling to make any concessions regarding the vocals on their songs, standing by their claims that Jackson is the singer. In a bizarre development earlier this year, Eddie’s brother, Frank Cascio, brazenly attempted to cash in on what auction house Gotta Have Rock & Roll listed as ‘Michael Jackson’s personally owned copy of his final album’ – a homemade CD scribed with the word ‘Bible’ (not in Jackson’s handwriting) and featuring the songs tangled in his brother’s pending fraud lawsuit – for a staggering opening bid of $50,000.

The auction house described the CD as “Michael Jackson’s personally owned copy of his final album consisting of 12 finished tracks, all with finished vocals,” adding that the music on the disc was ‘master quality’ while telling the media it anticipated bids of anywhere up to US$1 million.

Interestingly, the titles and track lengths detailed in the CD’s lot description matched exactly with versions of the songs co-produced and mixed by Jackson’s former engineer, Stuart Brawley, almost a year after Jackson’s death. Eddie Cascio and James Porte brought Brawley in to help prepare the 12 songs for their ultimate sale to Sony and the Jackson Estate. This caused an uproar in the Jackson fan community, with many quick to point out that if the music burnt on the CD was completed posthumously, it would not be possible for Jackson to have ever personally owned it.

The lot was withdrawn from auction days later – after it made headlines on several major media outlets including Rolling Stone and Billboard. In an email to me, a rep for the auction house explained: “We’ve been asked to take it down from the auction by the consignor who has had second thoughts on selling it publicly and would prefer to sell it privately. I think Frank was very surprised by the massive amount of media attention that it garnered and he felt that a private sale was a more respectful way to go since it was [Jackson’s] last album, and we are respecting Frank’s wishes.” The rep added that Cascio’s decision to remove the CD from auction was motivated by his desire to ‘keep the integrity of Michael Jackson’s legacy’, despite moving forward with the sale of dozens of other items including what Cascio claims were Jackson’s personally worn underwear, and intimate gifts given to the superstar by his children.

Beyond the notion of  ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’, the sale of the album would have been legally improper considering the ongoing fraud lawsuit its contents are subject to. The Cascio brothers have a duty to preserve the CD and, if sold, could be considered destruction of evidence.

For the past seven years I have been investigating the origins and authenticity of the Cascio tracks. The findings of my investigation will be detailed in a book I’m writing about the issue. With Sony and the Estate’s admission that the songs might actually be forgeries, the courtroom battle ahead promises to be very interesting to say the least. As someone who has followed this story from day one, I can only hope its resolution will be respectful to Jackson’s legacy, and cathartic to his family and aching fan community.

Share Button