It was a brutal week for Sony Music. The tragic death of singer Jeff Buckley overshadowed all, but there was other bleak news as well. First, one of Sony’s most prestigious artists, Bob Dylan, canceled a tour after being diagnosed with a heart infection. Then, a new album by the conglom’s biggest seller, Michael Jackson, which entered the charts at a mere No. 24, plummeted to No. 43. And the latest market share figures showed Sony — until recently always among the top three U.S. major-label groups — ranked sixth out of six.
Oh, and the boss and his wife split up.
To Sonyites, an executive marital breakup might seem a trifle among those other concerns, except that this wife, Mariah Carey, 27, also happens to be the company’s top seller since the turn of the decade. She and the husband credited with mentoring her into superstardom, Sony Music president and CEO Thomas D. Mottola, 47, have helped each other stay at the top of their games since well before they wed in 1993, fueling speculation about how each might fare without the other. And gossips couldn’t help but wonder if this has the potential to be an industry-rattling divorce of Desi-and-Lucy proportions.
Officially, Sony is treating the split as a purely personal matter. ”[The couple] have mutually and amicably agreed to a trial separation,” reads the company’s terse statement. ”They will maintain a very close friendship. They look forward to continued success in their professional relationship.” However, if Sony’s Japanese bosses were ever forced to choose sides between Carey and Mottola, it’s unlikely Carey would come out the loser. (Her last album, Daydream, reportedly contributed $250 million to Sony’s coffers in 1996.) But Mottola, who reportedly signed a five-year, $35 million contract recently, isn’t likely to be booted anytime soon. The strong year the music division had in ‘96, many observers suggest, has created enough goodwill toward Mottola to ensure that Sony’s overseas honchos won’t make any sudden moves. Another scenario envisions Carey’s new vanity label, Crave Records, suffering from neglect if Mottola’s shifting affections cause it to lose fast-track status.
Ironically, the nascent label might even have been a factor in the split. Carey has been surprisingly active in personally scouting talent for her new imprint, an enthusiasm that’s lately brought her onto the Manhattan nightlife circuit. She’d been increasingly absent from the $10 million estate she and Mottola shared in sedate Bedford, N.Y., where, according to a Vanity Fair story last year, he allegedly kept her under extremely close watch. Friends say Carey has relished her time out with people her own age. She’s frequently been spotted around town with hip-hop types like Q-Tip (of the rap group A Tribe Called Quest) and Bad Boy Entertainment head Sean ”Puffy” Combs, both of whom will be producing on her next album. ”Mariah wants to have an edgier sound now,” says a friend. ”That’s why she’s hanging out with Q-Tip and Puff .”