The Inside Story of How Mariah Carey and L.A. Reid Reunited (at a Fraction of Her Former $80 Million Deal)

The Inside Story of How Mariah Carey and L.A. Reid Reunited (at a Fraction of Her Former $80 Million Deal)

Illustration by John Ueland

Just months shy of the 10-year anniversary of The Emancipation of Mimi, Mariah Carey and Antonio “L.A.” Reid are prepping another kind of comeback. According to multiple sources, the 45-year-old singer is returning to Sony Music through Epic Records, where Reid has served as chairman since 2011.

A nearly finalized multi-album deal would see Carey’s first new material through the label since 1999’s Rainbow, beginning with a greatest-hits set to coincide with her upcoming residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Dubbed “#1’s,” the concert series booked by Creative Artists Agency begins May 6 and will include all 18 of Carey’s Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers, from 1990’s “Vision of Love” to 2008’s “Touch My Body.” (An Epic representative declined to comment.)

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Although Carey left Sony on tumultuous terms — she signed a four-album, $80 million deal with EMI’s Virgin Records in 2000, eager to distance herself from ex-husband and former Sony Music head Tommy Mottola — there are plenty of reasons why rejoining makes sense now. Doug Morris, current chairman/CEO of Sony Music, brought Carey to Island Def Jam in 2003 when he was running Universal Music Group. Reid, then head of Island Def Jam, oversaw her Mimi-powered 2005 comeback. Joey Arbagey, a collaborator of Carey’s during the making of the six-times platinum Mimi, is now executive vp A&R at Epic. And of course there is her massive Sony catalog: Carey’s seven studio releases, a live EP and four hits packages have sold a combined 43.9 million albums, according to Nielsen Music, including the septuple-platinum Music Box and Daydream. Her output for UMG, which spanned six albums, has sold just 9.7 million by comparison.

But while Carey’s legacy is undisputed, her recent stumbles have not gone unnoticed. For starters, her thrice-delayed album Me…I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse through Def Jam failed to deliver a top 10 Hot 100 hit (Miguel duet “#Beautiful” peaked at No. 15 in 2013) and posted her lowest sales to date, with 117,000 sold. She went through a series of managers, too, including longtime collaborator Jermaine Dupri, producer Randy Jackson and former Def Jam executive Kevin Liles, whom she most recently retained as a consultant. 

According to an insider privy to terms of Carey’s new contract, her recent turmoil, which includes a pending divorce from husband of six years Nick Cannon, scared away most other suitors. “Sony’s was the only deal on the table, and it came in far lower than she expected.” How low? Carey “was asking for a $3 million advance; she didn’t get it.” (Carey is represented by attorney Donald Passman, who didn’t return Billboard’s request for comment.)

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Still, even critics concede that the best place for the diva to try again is with Reid, who’s not only of her generation, in that his star rose during the ’90s, but has of late been on a hot streak, notching hits by Meghan Trainor (eight weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100), Bobby Shmurda and Fifth Harmony. Carey also ended 2014 on a positive note, selling out a six-night residency at New York’s Beacon Theatre for a series of Christmas concerts that grossed a combined $1.5 million in Billboard Boxscore receipts. That turnout should help build buzz for her upcoming Vegas stint, where she’ll follow in the footsteps of Celine Dion, Elton John, Cher, Bette Midler and Shania Twain to become the latest draw to the 4,300-capacity theater.

Says Elvis Duran, morning host for New York radio station Z100: “There wasn’t tremendous support for her last album, but there is always a run for residencies with a buzz. Mariah and Vegas make tons of sense.”

This article first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of Billboard.