Get rich or try dying – how musicians’ estates are the biggest earners in pop

Michael Jackson’s estate made $115m last year – proof that artists’ work can carry on making a fortune after their death. From Nick Drake to Elvis, it’s about selling an artist as if they are still alive – and learning how to say no

The real financial winner in music this year may not be Beyoncé, or Bruce Springsteen, or any of the artists who have been touring the stadiums and enormodomes of the world. It will probably be a group who have massively increased their worth without singing a note. Or their key member being alive. This year, Michael Jackson’s estate looks set to make close to $1bn (£769m).

The Jackson estate was already hugely lucrative – it generated $115m last year, according to Forbes. That made it far more profitable than the estates of other dead superstars with lasting musical legacies: the Elvis Presley estate made $55m in 2015, the Bob Marley estate recorded revenues of $21m. The reason for the Jackson estate’s spectacular success was one amazing deal: the sale of its remaining 50% stake in Sony/ATV music publishing to Sony Corporation for $750m – so expensive because ATV had been the publisher for the vast majority of the Beatles’ catalogue. And the profit was enormous: Jackson had paid $47.5m for ATV in 1984.

As the great superstars of rock and pop pass on, estate management has become a huge business. And the claimants to that business are manifold. David Bowie, a man ahead of the curve in looking after his financial interests, might well have prepared thoroughly, but you only need to look at the ongoing court battles over who should benefit from the estate of Prince – exacerbated by the fact that he left no will and had no known children – to see how a badly managed estate can cause chaos.

Michael Jackson.
Michael Jackson. Photograph: Cine Text/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

John Branca is, along with John McClain, co-executor of the Jackson estate. He was the singer’s lawyer, on and off, for 26 years from 1980, during which time Jackson was the biggest pop star on the planet. Branca was reappointed eight days before Jackson died, having negotiated his return during rehearsals for what would have been Jackson’s comeback shows. And Branca has steered the estate’s business interests over the past seven years to make it the most commercially successful celebrity estate in the world. He and McClain, rather than Jackson’s children, parents or siblings, make all the commercial decisions around the assets – which include Jackson’s recordings, his songwriting, his share of Sony/ATV, his image rights and his name rights.

Refusal is key. Immediately after Jackson’s death, the estate had to address the debts he had run up in his lifetime, so there was a flurry of activity: the This Is It documentary, Cirque du Soleil’s Immortal tour and two documentaries directed by Spike Lee – Bad 25 and Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall – all got the green light, and proved highly profitable. But, says Branca, “We say no to almost everything that is pitched to us. I just have a basic philosophy, as I am a huge Michael Jackson fan, where I only do things that I would want to watch or listen to. If we don’t believe it is going to be of the highest artistic quality, we don’t do it.”

Here, the estate acts as if for an artist who was still alive, but they need to be realistic about their role. “Let me be clear – John [McClain] and I are not Michael Jackson,” says Branca. “There is only one Michael Jackson, so we would never pretend that we could substitute our judgment for his.”

The key to making an artist posthumously successful lies in the preparations they made when they were alive. “It all starts with the will,” says Gregor Pryor, a partner at legal firm Reed Smith. “Some artists make very good wills and do a really good job of planning for their death. And others don’t.” A music business insider, speaking anonymously, says Freddie Mercury’s will has become the standard by which other artist legacies are judged. Aware he was dying, Mercury appointed Queen’s manager Jim Beach as executor of his will and his estate. “Other estates, once they have got through the chaos, will want to work towards the steady state that Queen had from the day Freddie died,” the insider says.

Vladimir Horowitz in 1988.
Vladimir Horowitz in 1988. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Estate management is not only an issue for rock stars – classical musicians, too, need special attention, because the fundamentals are the same. Jeff Liebenson, of the New York music law firm Liebenson Law, represents the estate of the classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz and explains what happened when his widow, Wanda Toscanini Horowitz, also passed away. “It’s not unusual that when the estate goes to family members, these are often people who are not that familiar with the music business,” he says. “They are understandably very emotional and have various issues among and between each other. That can make it very difficult for them to move forward together. In the Horowitz situation, there was no family to inherit it. There were designated beneficiaries, charities and academic institutes in the will.”

Allan Steckler has worked on the Horowitz estate for 12 years, as well as the Arturo Toscanini estate for 25 years, and previously worked in classical labels and Apple Records in the US. He has overseen the Horowitz estate in a way that would be familiar to those running the Johnny Cash estate, for example: finding previously unreleased recordings of artistic worth, and overseeing their release into a hungry market, the biggest project being the 42-disc collection of Horowitz’s performances at Carnegie Hall between 1951 and 1978. “The challenge with dealing with a deceased artist is keeping them in the public view,” says Steckler. “Once an artist passes, unless somebody does something to keep the name in front of the public, they will totally fade away.”

It is common to view record companies as ghoulishly exploiting the deaths of stars, as depicted in the Smiths’ Paint a Vulgar Picture, where Morrissey castigates greedy labels: “Reissue! Repackage! Repackage! Re-evaluate the need.” And it is true that sometimes, with artists who have not left behind a wealth of high-quality unreleased material, but scraps and odds and ends – and whose estate is bequeathed to people in need of money – the material that emerges sullies their legacy. But it rarely plays out the way Morrissey suggests, and sometimes the labels can even be helpful.

Steve Davis, who was director of catalogue at EMI from 2000 to 2009, gives the example of what they did for Kirsty MacColl’s family. The singer was killed in December 2000, when she was run over by a speedboat while diving with her sons in Mexico. Eventually, a man admitted to driving the speedboat – an employee of the multimillionaire who owned it and who was on board at the time – and was convicted of culpable homicide, but her family spent nine years running the Justice for Kirsty campaign, seeking a judicial review of the events surrounding her death.

Kirsty MacColl.
Kirsty MacColl. Photograph: Redferns

“We did a compilation of her work,” Davis says. “Her family were interested in the revenue stream to put towards their campaign. We even branded the artwork with the Justice for Kirsty campaign.”

Dealing with a deceased artist’s music is a question of taste, he says: he also worked on Syd Barrett’s catalogue after his death in 2006, and EMI waited until 2010 before putting out the compilation An Introduction to Syd Barrett. “That ambulance-chasing is unseemly,” he says. “If you are dealing with a family, you don’t want to be seen as [crassly] making money out of their tragedy.”

Family members can act as guiding spirits with estates but leave the day-to-day running to others. Cally Callomon is a former creative director at Island Records who has been running the Nick Drake estate since the late 1990s. Both Drake’s parents are dead, leaving only his sister, Gabrielle, involved. She approached Callomon to manage the estate because she was unable to dedicate the time that it needed.

Callomon’s approach was to manage the Drake estate as if he were a living artist. The licensing of Drake’s song Pink Moon for a Volkswagen ad in 1999, and a Radio 2 documentary narrated by Brad Pitt in 2004, helped to make the singer considerably more successful posthumously than in his lifetime. “Gabrielle got it immediately. This idea of not celebrating or commemorating the death of an artist, but really starting from a complete rebirth of an artist.”

Like the Jackson estate, they understand that saying no is more important than saying yes. “Gabrielle is a very rare creature and she understands the power of saying no,” Callomon says. “It’s about waiting for that thing that, when you say yes to it, it makes sense.” They regularly turn down biopic ideas. “To make a film, however lucrative that would be, I think it would kill something and that would be unforgivable in my book.” Instead, Gabrielle will occasionally approve use of her brother’s music in films or the theatre for free if she likes the script or director, as she is keen to encourage new talent.

They have also restricted how much unreleased material has been put out beyond Drake’s original three studio albums – limiting them to one compilation (Way to Blue), two compilations with unreleased tracks (Made to Love Magic and A Treasury) and his pre-Island home recordings (Family Tree). They have also repeatedly turned down offers to put all his material in a box set as they are concerned this will devalue his music.

Nick Drake.
Nick Drake. Photograph: PR handout free

Callomon holds up the example of another beloved, guitar-playing singer who died young as the way not to manage a slender body of acclaimed work. “I have [been] openly critical of the way Jeff Buckley’s legacy has been handled,” says Callomon. “The guy only made one album but there have been multiple variations of that one album, demos and live material released by Sony. I think Jeff Buckley’s music deserves better than that.”

Music fans will now be waiting to see what happens with the cases of Bowie and Prince. Bowie’s back catalogue was already subject to a carefully planned reissue programme before his death, beginning with the Five Years box last September, and followed by the Who Can I Be Now? set last week. At the rate of one box a year, his catalogue could be repromoted over several years. As for Prince, while those close to him try to resolve the disputes over who gets what, the burning question for fans will be what happens to arguably pop’s greatest treasure trove of unreleased material, his legendary vault.

It seems as if Colonel Tom Parker’s words, on the death of Elvis, his sole client, in 1977, ring true for all dead superstars: “Elvis didn’t die – the body did,” he said. “This changes nothing.”


Eamonn Forde

The GuardianTramp

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