Bertelsmann has declined to comment on reports which claim the media giant is sounding out buyers for its stake in the Sony BMG joint venture.

The German firm's chief financial officer Thomas Rabe has met with at least two private equity companies to discuss the possible sale of its share in the recorded music joint venture, according to a report published in the Financial Times Deutschland. However, a Bertelsmann spokesperson says "we do not comment on speculation."

The joint venture agreement binding Sony Corp and Bertelsmann on Sony BMG is due to expire in August 2009. Citing internal sources, the newspaper claims Bertelsmann is currently examining its options, including a sale of its 50% stake in Sony BMG plus its book club and retail unit Direct Group.

Speculation that Bertelsmann wants out of its recorded music partnership -- forged in August 2004 -- has rumbled on since the German media group's CEO Hartmut Ostrowski convened a summit of top executives last December.

"We have to evaluate our business areas and -- if necessary -- take tough decisions," he told attendees. "It goes without saying that we will keep an especially close eye on operations whose business is shrinking. We need to develop new ideas and explore paths that no one has ever gone down before."

Ostrowski and his predecessor Gunter Thielen have both previously pointed out that all Bertelsmann business units have to achieve a return on sales of 10%. Sony BMG managed 8.6% in 2006. The music major's results for 2007 will be released in Berlin on March 18.

Even after expiry of the joint venture, "neither of [the companies] will be able to manage without the other" because of contractual lock-up periods, a source close to Bertelsmann says.

Sony insiders say that the company is committed to extending the joint venture, and that board members are satisfied with the business policy of Sony BMG president Rolf Schmidt-Holtz, a former Bertelsmann board member.