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.
Faking Michael podcast series will shed new light on controversial songs and album.
Also in-the-works is Faking Michael – an investigative true-crime podcast series chronicling my quest for the truth about the Cascio tracks and the Michael album. The series will take you behind the scenes to find out once and for all where the controversial songs truly came from, and how they ended up on an official Michael Jackson album.
The podcast series will detail the findings of my investigation, drawing on hundreds of hours of exclusive interviews with many of those closest to the controversy, thousands of pages of correspondence and official records, and never-before-heard evidence that has lead to shocking breakthrough discoveries.
A trailer for Faking Michael is live on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.
Supreme Court Judge Grills Sony Lawyer Over ‘Contradictory’ Arguments in Alleged Michael Jackson Fraud
A lawyer defending Sony Music and the Estate of Michael Jackson in a consumer fraud lawsuit has today argued that the billion-dollar corporations should be able to sell forgeries to unwitting consumers – without being held liable for doing so.
During the California Supreme Court hearing, which was streamed live around the world, Sony attorney Zia Modabber was pulled up for presenting contradictory arguments when attempting to justify the record company’s false attribution of three songs to Jackson on the 2010 Michael album.
The hearing centred around a class action lawsuit filed by Californian consumer Vera Serova – a Michael Jackson fan who purchased the Michael album under the premise that it was a collection of unreleased songs performed by the King of Pop.
In her lawsuit, Serova contends that three of the songs on Michael – “Breaking News,” “Monster” and “Keep Your Head Up” – are forgeries, and that Jackson’s estate and Sony misled her and millions of consumers around the world by falsely representing those forgeries as authentic Jackson material.
Today’s Supreme Court hearing focused specifically on Sony and the Estate’s culpability in the matter.
The corporations argue that the First Amendment (free speech) gives them the constitutional right to lie to consumers without remedy, and that they should be removed from the lawsuit because of this.
In fact, Sony and the Estate have been petitioning to be removed from this case for 6 years, alleging that plaintiff Serova strategically filed her lawsuit to prevent the record company from exercising their First Amendment rights by participating in the public dialogue regarding the authenticity of the songs.
The dialogue in question is the wording on the reverse side of the album cover, which stipulates that the vocals on the album were “performed by Michael Jackson” (see below).
In a 2016 hearing regarding this matter, attorney Zia Modabber argued on behalf of Sony and the Estate that if anyone were to be held liable for the fraud it should be the original producers of the songs – Eddie Cascio and James Porte – because they provided them under the false pretence that they were authentic.
Today, in front of seven Supreme Court Justices, Mr. Modabber made the same argument on behalf of Sony and the Estate.
In what was a rollercoaster hearing, Modabber told the court that Sony and the Estate were “100%” certain that the vocals on the songs in question were authentic based on an investigation conducted by former Estate attorney Howard Weitzman in November 2010.
A few minutes later, in a complete about-face, Modabber claimed that neither Sony nor the Estate were in a position to know who sang the vocals – a backflip which Justice Groban took issue with:
“How can it be both? Why is Sony saying with 100% certainty that Michael is the singer if you weren’t certain? Which is essentially what I hear you saying now.”
Mr. Modabber also made a number of arguments throughout his 30-minute presentation which seemed only to benefit plaintiff Serova’s side.
At one point, Modabber explained the identity of the artist is what gives art its meaning and value. In other words, if Michael Jackson wasn’t singing on the songs in question, they’d be irrelevant and worthless:
“The identity of the artist is part and parcel of the art. It imparts meaning to the art.”
The attorney, on behalf of Sony and the Estate, went on to give an example:
“There’s a song that Michael wrote called ‘Leave Me Alone‘, and it’s about being persecuted by the press. When Michael Jackson sings that song – because it’s Michael Jackson singing it – it gives a certain meaning to that song. If I sang that song – nobody cares about me – it doesn’t have the same meaning as if Michael Jackson sings that song. And that’s why authors and the source of the art are part of – and intimately connected to – the art itself… It undeniably adds to the meaning of the art.”
Without Michael Jackson’s name on the songs in question, they couldn’t commercially exploit them.
Therefore, according to Sony’s logic, the company had no choice other than to falsely attribute the authorship to Jackson in order to give them meaning and value in the eyes of consumers.
In what can only be described and an own goal, Modabber continued by asserting that the consumers of art want to know who the artist is, and that he cannot think of a scenario in which the identity of the artist doesn’t matter:
“Imagine art, out in the world, with no attribution of authorship. Imagine you just didn’t know who it came from or what the source was. It’s not the same. There is a character and a quality and an impact and a curiosity by those who consume the art about where it came from and what the source was. It adds meaning to it. We want to know who it is. We want to know where it came from. We want to know what inspired it. And part of that is the identity of the artist. And so I can’t think of a situation where the identity of the artist doesn’t matter.”
More to come when the California Supreme Court hands down their ruling on this matter.
For those of you who are interested, a podcast series detailing my investigation of this case, called Faking Michael, is currently in production. Subscribe to Faking Michael on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or YouTube to be notified when episodes are released.
Court Date Set in Supreme Court Battle Over Legal Right to Sell Alleged Michael Jackson Forgeries
Sony Music and the Estate of Michael Jackson will again fight for their right to sell alleged forgeries as authentic Jackson songs in an oral argument set to be heard by the Supreme Court of California on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
The hearing centres around a class action lawsuit filed by Californian consumer Vera Serova, who purchased the Michael album – released by Sony and Jackson’s estate in 2010 – under the premise that it was a collection of unreleased songs recorded by pop star Michael Jackson.
In her lawsuit, Serova alleges that three of the songs on Michael are forgeries – sung by an impostor vocalist – and that she, along with millions of fans around the world, were misled when the pop star’s estate and record company falsely represented the tracks as authentic Jackson material in the album’s product labelling and advertising.
The three songs in question – “Breaking News,” “Monster” and “Keep Your Head Up” – were produced by Jackson associates Eddie Cascio and James Porte and are known as the ‘Cascio tracks’.
Cascio, Porte and their production company are also included in the lawsuit – sued by Serova for fraud. The May 24 hearing will not deal with their culpability.
The lawsuit has been in the California court system for almost eight years, since June 2014. For six of those years, Sony and the Estate have argued that it is their constitutional right to sell forgeries under the First Amendment – the right to free speech – and they should therefore not be liable in this case.
In a 2016 hearing, Sony lawyer Zia Modabber argued that if anyone were to be held liable, it should be Cascio and Porte, because they sold the songs to Sony and the Estate under the premise that they were authentic.
After several rulings and subsequent appeals from both sides in the lower courts, the Supreme Court of California will finally decide whether Sony and the Estate should face the music in this case.
If Sony and the Estate can successfully convince the Supreme Court that they should indeed be able to sell forgeries as authentic Jackson material, they will be removed from the case – once and for all.
And if plaintiff Serova prevails, the corporations may be forced to decide between settling the case – which would involve dissociating Jackson from the songs and removing them from record stores and streaming platforms around the world – or defending their actions at trial.
Serova’s position is supported by several consumer advocacy groups and government branches, including the California Attorney General.
In a press release issued on January 29, 2021, the AG said:
“Products must deliver on their claims. If someone buys an album from a recording artist, they should expect that the songs on the album were made by that artist unless noted otherwise… We must hold companies accountable to stand by their products. Companies have a First Amendment right to communicate, but their claims must be informed and accurate.”
Sony is supported by the First Amendment Coalition.
Counsel for both sides will present their oral arguments remotely via video link, while the public will be able to stream the hearing live via the judicial branch website.
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding Sony and the Estate’s liability, the fraud component of Serova’s lawsuit against Cascio, Porte and their production company will move forward.
At that time, Serova will finally be able to add the alleged singer of the forgeries, Jason Cupeta, as a defendant to her lawsuit.
Cupeta is Deputy Sheriff at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office who goes by the artistic pseudonym Jason Malachi.
Serova first informed the court of her intention to add Cupeta in a March 2018 filing, but has been unable to complete this process due to the case being stayed pending the outcome of the oral arguments set to be heard by the Supreme Court on May 24.
A podcast series detailing my investigation of this case, called Faking Michael, is currently in production. Subscribe to Faking Michael on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or YouTube to be notified when episodes are released.
First Amendment Coalition to Support Sony and the Jackson Estate in Fake Songs Lawsuit
There has been yet another twist in the class action lawsuit filed by Californian consumer Vera Serova against Sony Music and the Estate of Michael Jackson regarding three allegedly fake songs commercially released on the 2010 Michael album.
In documents filed with the California Supreme Court yesterday, an organisation called The First Amendment Coalition has requested permission to file an amicus brief in support of Sony and the Estate’s purported constitutional right to sell fake songs as authentic Michael Jackson material.
FAC’s request comes after four separate amici were filed in support of plaintiff Serova by several consumer protection groups along with the California Attorney General’s Office.
All previously filed briefs support Serova’s assertion that this is a straightforward case of false advertising, and that billion-dollar corporations should not be able to commercially label fake art as authentic.
They also assert that by filing an anti-SLAPP motion against Serova, Sony and the Estate misappropriated a statute which is supposed to protect the general public against the limitless resources of wealthy corporations, and to prevent those corporations from intimidating the public into abandoning legal action against them.
Nine consumer protection organisations stated in a joint filing that Sony and the Estate have misused the anti-SLAPP statute to achieve the exact opposite of its intended purpose.
But according to documents filed yesterday, The First Amendment Coalition believes that if the Supreme Court rules in plaintiff Serova’s favour, and if a precedent is set that Sony and the Estate cannot sell fake songs as authentic Jackson material, it could have “significant implications for many different First Amendment contexts beyond the particular circumstances of this case.”
In this case, Sony asserts that they should not be held accountable for the statements made on the Michael album cover and in their television commercial, because those statements were “noncommercial” in nature. Rather, they argue, those statements are merely their contribution to the ongoing public debate about whether the vocals on three of the songs were authentic or fake, and that this makes it free speech under the First Amendment.
FAC has indicated that they will stand with Sony on this matter.
According to the mission statement published on their website, FAC is a nonprofit public interest organisation dedicated to “advancing free speech” and “public participation in civic affairs.”
By definition, public participation in civic affairs is a process in which members of society take collective action to address issues of public concern.
This begs the question: Is the definition of FAC’s mission more appropriately applied to a multi-billion dollar corporation’s purported right to claim that a commercial product is legit, when in fact it is fake? Or to a member of the public who seeks to take collective action to address the issue of that multi-billion dollar corporation falsely advertising that same product to millions of unwitting consumers?
Despite Sony and the Estate’s best efforts to stop her, the plaintiff in this case (Miss Serova) is a member of society who is attempting to take collective action (by filing a class action lawsuit) to address an issue of public concern (that a corporation may be defrauding consumers).
Moreover, FAC’s mission statement also claims to advocate for a “more open and accountable government” and “the people’s right to know”.
It should be noted that the Californian government is in fact advocating for openness and accountability and for the public’s right to know in this case – on behalf of the plaintiff, against the billion-dollar corporation that has conceded in its legal arguments to have ripped her off.
For the purposes of this proceeding, defendants Sony and the Estate have stipulated that the songs in question are indeed fake. And while their exact arguments aren’t due to be filed with the court until March 10, 2021, in the context of the defendants’ concessions, FAC could, in theory, be perceived to be advocating in favour of fraudulent representation of forged art, rather than for openness and accountability and the people’s right to know.
In a press release issued on January 29, 2021, the California Attorney General said:
More to come when FAC files their amicus brief.
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