Would You Like a Rolex With That?

Michael Jackson is back in the news, and as usual, not in a good way. This time, at least, it’s no fault of his own. Rather, it’s his employer, Sony, who assumes the blame. It was imprudently careless with the keys to Jackson’s bank vault. In particular, hackers reportedly broke in and downloaded the late singer’s entire back catalog.

Sony has a sorry record with web security. You will recall that much to the chagrin of 77 million users the PlayStation network was hacked into last April, and another smaller breach occurred last October. Now it appears that hackers have grabbed Michael Jackson’s back catalog comprising some 50,000 files. That sounds like a lot but if you add up all the unreleased songs, tracks, live recordings, snippets and studio outtakes, it’s probably about right. Whenever an artist of Jackson’s caliber is involved, the Record button is always pushed so everything gets recorded. And now it’s potentially out in the wild.

The Daily Star reports that “Record bosses only discovered the theft of 50,000 music files when a worker saw Jackson fans chatting about it on forums.” The material was probably taken around the same time as the Playstation hack. Two men appeared in a UK court last week and Sony confirmed the hack.

Now, you might argue that the loss is trivial. After all, about 2 seconds after the material would be legally available, it would be pirated anyway. But, a catalog is the only thing a musician owns. When that content is taken away, the artist has nothing, particularly a deceased artist who can never produce more. Moreover, if the hacked material is leaked, it steals the marketing clout of releasing new, never-heard material. Once it’s been heard, and the novelty is gone, it’s infinitely tougher to generate future sales buzz.

It’s still not clear exactly what content was hacked, but Jackson had amassed huge amounts of material. The purloined tracks may have included duets Jackson recorded with the late Freddie Mercury, and will.i.am. Sony had reportedly planned to release Jackson’s material across 10 albums. Clearly, Sony can still do that but, all in all, the loss here is incalculable. But if you have to find a number, start with $250 million. That’s how much Sony paid for the files last year. Ouch.