Sanctuary Picture Gets Merckier

Although the music business has waited a couple of months for some clarification of what’s going on between Merck Mercuriadis and Sanctuary Music Group, the news of his departure has actually made the picture murkier.

It came as a footnote on an October 31st statement from Twenty-First Artists, the Sanctuary-owned management company that represents Sir Elton John and James Blunt.

The statement ostensibly said the future creative management for Sir Elton would be handled by Twenty-First’s Johnny Barbis in the U.S. and by Clive Banks in the U.K. and the rest of the world.

Below that, a solitary sentence: “Merck Mercuriadis has resigned from Sanctuary Group, effective today.”

There was no comment from Mercuriadis or from Sanctuary at press time.

More curious, four days earlier Gary Farrow’s London-based The Corporation – which handles Elton’s personal press and PR – had already put out a statement saying Barbis and Banks would be taking over his creative management.

It went a little further than the Twenty-First Artists release, which came via New York-based publicists Rogers & Cowan, by also mentioning that they would be replacing Mercuriadis in that role as he and the ubiquitous solo performer had split by “mutual agreement.”

It also said Mercuriadis would be continuing with Sanctuary as manager of acts including Axl Rose and Morrissey, although – appropriately as it turns out – it didn’t say for how long.

Given that “mutual agreement” will hardly be understood to mean that Mercuriadis and the flamboyant knight independently and simultaneously decided it was time they went their separate ways, then it’s likely to lead to speculation over who made the first move and who benefits most.

It also raises questions over the future of Sanctuary founder and Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood, who’s been the subject of rumors saying he’s quitting for just as long as Mercuriadis had.

Whether these top Sanctuary execs are quitting a sinking ship or new chief exec Frank Presland – who’s also head of Twenty-First – is clearing the decks, it would be no surprise if Smallwood followed Mercuriadis out of the door within a matter of days.

Relinquishing any contractual hold he had on Sir Elton could have eased the way for Mercuriadis to walk away from Sanctuary to reportedly align himself with Irving Azoff’s and Howard Kaufman’s Front Line Management, although it’s also possible that Presland and Twenty-First may have cut him out of the picture to give him less reason to stay.

Presland, who stepped up to be chief exec of Sanctuary when company co-founder Andy Taylor was dumped at the end of May because of accounting irregularities, isn’t responding to Pollstar’s invitation to comment on the grounds that “no comment is necessary.”

He’s currently running a company that made £36.83 million in the three years between 2001 and 2003 and then lost over three times that amount (£121.42 million) in the next two years. Mercuriadis alone cost £1.2 million in 2005.

At the moment, and in view of the fact the board shows little interest in selling the AIM-listed company, restoring it to profitability is the obvious priority – a policy that may have made Mercuriadis seem a very expensive asset.

During the last 18 months there appears to have been a cooling in the relationship between Mercuriadis and Sanctuary as the company’s fortunes have plummeted. He stepped down as chief exec in January 2005, although the company hardly shouted it from the rooftops and many trade and business papers continued to refer to him by that title.

Twenty-First, which will continue handling Sir Elton’s business and personal management from its London office, was acquired by Sanctuary for £16 million (then US$30.1 million) in 2005.

John Gammon