Earlier this week, American Idol 4 finalist Mario Vazquez stunned viewers of the nation's top-rated show by withdrawing for "personal reasons" before the competition in the finals began. However, when Mario's own family turned out to have no idea that he had quit, rumors began circulating that the real reason was either that Mario was unwilling to sign the show's restrictive management contracts or that he was in violation of a show rule. Now, it appears that both of those rumors may be true.

Yesterday, Fox News reported that Mario had hired Jess Rosen, an Atlanta entertainment lawyer famous for extricating American Idol 2 runner-up Clay Aiken from his Idol management contract last year, to represent him. In addition, Fox News reported that Mario is the lead singer on an album entitled Worlds of Change by the Argentine guitarist Cesar, which was released in the U.S. last week on the little-known Darque Records label.

Although semifinalists such as Mario are required to sign a contract prohibiting them from recording anything for release until three months after the show's conclusion, as reported by the New York Daily News, all competitors in the finals may be required to sign a complete package of management and marketing contracts with Simon Fuller's 19 Entertainment, the creator and co-producer of the show. The original contract for Idol 1 listed the contracts that would be required of the winner and any other finalists whom 19 Entertainment elected to sign, such as Clay Aiken, as follows:

"(a) an agreement with 19 Recordings Ltd. (or an affiliated company) for my exclusive services as a recording artist;
(b) an agreement with 19 Merchandising Ltd. for the use of my name, likeness biography in connection with advertising, endorsement, merchandising and sponsorship; and
(c) an agreement with 19 Management Ltd. for the management of my career as an artist."

These contracts provide for a very high commission rate to 19 for their life. Although the contracts may be seen as repayment for use of the star-making machinery of American Idol, some industry professionals see them as excessively greedy, even for the music business.

The Associated Press reports that neither Vazquez nor Rosen was available for comment yesterday. However, Vazquez'a current publicist stated that Vazquez had hired Rosen prior to his withdrawal from American Idol 4, which indicates that the contracts may well have been Mario's primary concern.

Last year, Rosen negotiated Clay's release from the 19 contracts, and Clay promptly signed with The Firm, the powerful music agency run by Jeff Kwatinetz. However, Clay continues to record for RCA Records, as per his Idol contract, and in January of this year he became the first former contestant to achieve two platinum solo albums, awarded for sales of over 1 million copies.

If the 19 Entertainment contracts were Mario's motive for leaving the show, the Worlds of Change album may have been the primary motivation for the producers to accept his departure. Mario is the "guest vocalist" on Cesar Maroll's pop-flavored tracks, which Fox News compares to "Santana with a younger, more sanctimonious Michael Jackson." With Mario's newfound fame, it seems likely that a re-release of Worlds of Change featuring Mario's name and likeness along with Cesar's is just around the corner -- perhaps in time to compete with the official Idol 4 releases.

The official American Idol web site FAQ states that "[i]n order to be eligible, the contestants are not permitted to have any CURRENT recording or talent management agreements." Although the exact language of the related contract provision has not been made public, it is possible that having a new CD featuring yourself as lead singer released during the competition might be a "current recording agreement," even if you were just a "guest vocalist."

Until Mario's recording non-compete clause with 19 Entertainment runs out in late August, Mario has been keeping himself busy with guest appearances on TV, including one doing the Top 10 List on CBS's The Late Show with David Letterman on the "Top 10 Reasons I Left American Idol."

Among the reasons read by Mario were number 7, "After seeing Michael Jackson, maybe I don't want to be a pop star," and number 4, "Screw it -- I'm quitting this, too" ... after which he walked off the set. But, quite obviously, he has not quit his plan to pursue a musical career ... and Worlds of Change may be a perfect way to keep himself visible until he can start his solo career in earnest in the fall.