Every Columbia Records employee knows about the "five Bs": Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand. Keeping this mega-selling group happy has long been a top priority at the venerable Sony Music label, and a departure by any of them (Dylan strayed for two albums on David Geffen's Elektra-Asylum during the 1970s but returned) would no doubt be seen as a major blow to the company's collective ego.
But what about its bottom line?
Such is the dilemma Columbia now faces with Streisand, 69. Originally signed in 1962 to Columbia predecessor CBS Records, the undisputed queen of show tunes and epic orchestral ballads is about to mark her 50th year at the same label, an extraordinary feat matched only by Bennett. But after Streisand renegotiated her contract with the company several times during the past four decades, her current agreement -- signed in 1992 and estimated at the time to be worth $60 million -- is set to expire with the release of her next album, "What Matters Most" (out Aug. 23), a collection of songs written by her longtime friends and collaborators Alan and Marilyn Bergman.
To get Streisand to stay could cost Columbia a small fortune -- in the vicinity of $20 million for a deal that might include one new album and three reissues, estimates one industry source. But the marketing opportunities for anniversary products and catalog sales are significant, even in the shrinking music business -- or so her longtime manager Marty Ehrlichman contends. And that could be reason enough to drive a hard bargain. "I'm not peddling Barbra," he insists. "I will stay with Columbia unless I can't make a deal, then I'll go elsewhere."
Some insiders, however, point to another view: the difference between perceived and actual value in today's marketplace. It's the reason negotiations for Streisand to remain at the label have been described as "heated," with a source claiming Streisand was pulling a "diva" act. Says Ehrlichman: "It's a process. [New Sony Music Entertainment CEO] Doug Morris just came in, and we've just started negotiating. We've been with Columbia since the very beginning. I have no reason to believe we won't continue to stay there."
One place they could go: to Morris' former home, Universal Music Group, where Jay Landers, Streisand's longtime producer, is currently a senior vice president of A&R. Says a source: "[Jay] would love to get her away from Sony."
To her credit, Streisand has consistently been good for sales of 500,000 units on each album (her most recent, 2009's "Love Is the Answer," has sold 511,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan) and never has depended on radio airplay. She also juggles a successful movie career, next appearing opposite Seth Rogen in Paramount's comedy My Mother's Curse. But her recording sessions typically cost close to $1 million per album, and without the cross promotion of a large-scale tour that offers a sort of "Barbra Streisand Experience,"she's simply "not worth it," says an executive familiar with her deal. (A rep for Streisand and Columbia would not comment.)
"The biggest sellers of all time -- your Celine Dions and Mariah Careys -- aren't worth that kind of money," the exec says. "Downloads and physical sales are minute, plus there's no remnant of anything she knew or cared about left at Columbia."
But as one of the five Bs, she's as much a part of Columbia history as its "walking eye" logo. "When I was chairman, history and lineage were the things I looked at," says Tommy Mottola, who ran the label from 1989 to 2003. "You were always in awe of Billy, Bruce, Barbra. … They were the greatest talents of all time and the cornerstones of the company."
Complicating matters is the issue of "reversions," or when a copyright assignment reverts to the original holder after a specified period of time. Streisand -- described by one source as a "tough, shrewd and ruthless" businesswoman who plays the stock market like it's a competitive sport -- could own her catalog, license it and "make a fortune. … Who knows whether record companies will exist at all in a few years? Maybe they will become like movie companies, where everything gets delivered, and they market and distribute. Labels may not have any involvement in the creative process."
To that end, Streisand, who produced her new album, might have a huge advantage. "Barbra has total input," says Marilyn Bergman. "She's editing [vocals] in her head, she chose every picture [of the packaging], she picked the font and made sure the lyrics were right. She's not in the dark about anything."
Bergman and her husband see Streisand's tenure at Columbia quite simply: "She's seemed very happy with the home she's had there, and they're very fortunate to have her," says Marilyn. "I hope they know it."