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Carey lands on Island; joint venture label set

Songstress pacts for three albums at $5-7 mil per record

NEW YORK — After weeks of rumors and wrangling, Mariah Carey has finally found a new home with the Universal Music Group’s Island Def Jam.

The capricious R&B superstar, who was paid nearly $30 million in January to walk away from an ill-fated contract with EMI, will get her own joint venture label on IDJ’s Island Records unit as part of a pact worth at least $20 million.

Deal calls for Carey to deliver three records, with the option for a fourth, for between $5 million and $7 million per album. In addition, Carey will get an advance of between $5 million and $8 million.

With the deal, IDJ, which reportedly beat out such high-powered rivals as Elektra and J Records, is wagering that seasoned hitmakers like UMG topper Doug Morris and IDJ chief Lyor Cohen can return Carey to glory after a tough year of contract battles, emotional troubles and lackluster sales. But the singer herself is confident that she’s betting on the right people.

“Lyor is an incredible executive, and what he’s doing is pretty unprecedented right now,” Carey told Daily Variety. “The way we’ve set this up, it’s like it was a whole new approach to the business.”

The as-yet untitled venture will be overseen by Jerry Blair, a veteran of BMG’s Arista Records and Carey’s former label, Sony Music’s Columbia Records, and a longtime confidant of the singer.

Next record

Blair said the company will focus initially on Carey’s next release, which she has already begun working on, but later broaden its horizons, signing new acts and potentially veering into film/television production, e-business and even publishing.

“This company is going to be the guarantor of her legacy,” Blair told Daily Variety. “And having a company like Vivendi on board gives us the freedom to take advantage of lots of different opportunities as they present themselves.”

Carey’s legacy has been far from clear for the past several months, since she parted ways with Virgin Records amid an organizational upheaval at the label’s British parent company EMI.

A year ago in April, the singer inked a five-album deal with Virgin for a record-breaking $100 million. But her first disc, the soundtrack to her movie “Glitter,” was a resounding flop by superstar standards, selling just 2 million copies worldwide.

Album was ill-fated from the start, as Carey suffered a series of mental breakdowns that delayed its release date, which was disastrously set for Sept. 11.

Shortly thereafter, EMI topper Ken Berry was sacked as the ailing major made a drastic push to revamp its troubled finances. The new chief, Alain Levy, soon moved to unwind Carey’s deal, giving her a staggering $28 million cash, plus $21 million already paid under the contract.

More than ‘Glitter’

Label execs, recognizing that “Glitter” was at least partly a victim of lousy circumstances, immediately began vying to help Carey revive her career.

“What people haven’t really focused on here is that this girl had one stumble and it was a soundtrack album, released in a very bad moment,” said UMG chief exec Morris. “If you look at her album sales, they will just blow your mind.”

Carey’s decadelong tenure with Columbia made her the bestselling artist of the 1990s, with such runaway successes as 1995’s “Daydream,” which sold more than 24 million copies worldwide. Overall, Carey has sold more than 100 million records during her career.

Some observers have argued that her success at Columbia wouldn’t have happened without the creative and business guidance of Tommy Mottola, head of Sony Music and Carey’s former husband. When Carey was given free rein at Virgin, the argument goes, things went awry.

For her part, Carey counters that she’s always had a measure of creative control in her music — a right she negotiated even into her initial deal with Sony. But that doesn’t mean she turns a deaf ear to outside input.

“I think that during this whole media blitz, that issue got kind of blown out of proportion,” she said. “I’m an open-minded person — if somebody wants me to do a duet, or even record a particular song, I’m open to that. It’s not about having absolute control, it’s about the creative process.”

Creative balance

IDJ’s Cohen, who is highly regarded in the biz as a developer of talent, said the ideal creative situation is one in which the artist’s input is respected and balanced with good guidance from the label.

“What we do is try to make our artists feel comfortable with us, and supported by us, so that they feel good about taking creative input,” Cohen said. “Contractual control is really just a piece of paper; it’s the relationship that’s the key.”

IDJ’s recent track record is formidable. The label group boasts the largest U.S. market share in the business, at 9.2%, and its roster boasts such R&B and hip-hop luminaries as Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Ludacris and DMX. Universal Music as a whole leads the big five label groups in 2002 market share to date, with 28%.

Carey has not yet set a release date for the album she’s begun work on, but Blair said the record would come out “as soon as possible.” Meanwhile, the diva appears opposite Mira Sorvino in the film “Wisegirls,” set for premiere on HBO in November.