Virgin Records Gets a Shuffle

Janet Jackson, Stones: New Leader?

Good morning! It's Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

And at Virgin Records, that may portend more than just the traditional apples and honey that signify the start of a new season. It also may be the beginning of a new regime.

My sources tell me that someone's going to have rearrange the seating cards at Thursday's 30th annual T.J. Martell Foundation Gala, because Jason Flom, the guest of honor and former head of Lava/Atlantic Records, should be the chief of Virgin Records by then.

The music business wunderkind who launched Matchbox Twenty, Kid Rock, Sugar Ray and Uncle Kracker was chosen as recipient of the Martell Foundation's Humanitarian Award before being ousted from Lava — which he founded — by Warner Music Group's Edgar Bronfman, Lyor Cohen and Craig Kallman.

In what's certainly a strange twist, the honorary chairmen of the Martell dinner are Thomas Lee and Scott Sperling, the men who raised the money for Bronfman to buy Warner Music Group from Time Warner last year.

The successful charity raises money for cancer research in memory of the son of Sony Music exec Tony Martell. T.J. Martell succumbed to cancer in 1975 at age 21.

Flom started Lava in 1995 and had skyrocketing success, which culminated in the old Warner Music Group buying the part it didn't already own for $50 million in early 2004.

But when Bronfman and friends arrived in March 2004, and Flom was subsequently named co-chairman of Atlantic Records with Kallman, tensions ran high.

In August of this year, Flom was forced out, and Lava was absorbed into Atlantic.

Yesterday, Warner announced it was taking a $25-$30 million charge against its fiscal fourth quarter financial results in connection with its integration of Lava Records into The Atlantic Records Group.

Of course, if Flom is in at Virgin, then Matt Serletic, who's been trying to keep the EMI-owned label afloat, could be out.

Serletic came to Virgin in the winter of 2002, based on his success producing Matchbox Twenty, Aerosmith and others.

But at Virgin, he never really achieved much in the way of hits.

Last year, he and A&R man Josh Deutsch launched modern R&B star Ricky Fante with an album that featured two tracks that were borrowed, without credit, from previous incarnations.

If Flom does take over Virgin — which now seems to be certain — he will be assigned the task of immediately reviving the Rolling Stones' faltering "A Bigger Bang" album.

The group is currently selling lots of $450 concert tickets, but almost no copies of its album.

"A Bigger Bang" is Virgin's only album in the top 40, and that's by just a hair.

I reported in this space a couple of weeks ago that Virgin has also been unable to get the "World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band" much radio play.

Flom would also have to devise a plan for Janet Jackson's next album after her last, "Damita Jo," suffered from her Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.

Jackson has been hard at work with producers Terry Lewis and Jimmy "Jam" Harris on her next one, and Flom will have to devise a marketing plan to undo that damage.

Bringing Flom to Virgin means that several of his unhappy artists could follow him there.

Warner Music Group won't be too sad about that, since its demonstrated mandate since Bronfman et al. took over 18 months ago has been to keep hits at a minimum.

Ironically, Warner is said to be in lingering merger talks with Virgin parent EMI. If that union does happen, Flom would be right back where he started, in charge of his old gang.

All this comes just as the Martell dinner promises to be one of the weirder events in recent music-biz history.

Norah Jones, a Virgin artist, was already set to headline the show, despite the fact that in years past, artists from the honored exec's label usually perform at the dinner. Now that's called prescient!

Even more ironic: Bronfman and Cohen, sticking to tradition, were Flom's dinner chairs.

How this is all supposed to play out on Thursday night is anyone's guess, but the music business is a fluid, inside world that makes "The Sopranos" look like "Desperate Housewives." Bada bing!

P.S. On an interesting note: we've seen the forced demise of first Arista Records, then Miramax Films, now Lava Records in the last couple of years. Dreamworks SKG is teetering on the brink of extinction now, too. The much-respected United Artists studio, where the now celebrated "Capote" began its life, was consumed by Sony this year, courtesy of the MGM sale. It isn't easy being the creative little guy, is it?