In Michael Jackson's estate, more at stake than dollars
The pop star left $500 million in debt and plenty of assets, but his posthumous branding could ultimately determine his legacy.
The reign of the King of Pop is far from over. In coming months and years, a number of unheard Michael Jackson recordings are likely to be released. Additionally, the singer's songs could be licensed to movies, commercials, theme-park rides, and video games. And his iconic image may be used to sell merchandise ranging from sneakers to, well, gloves.Skip to next paragraph
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The managers of Mr. Jackson's estate will largely control the singer's posthumous output. But there's more at stake than millions of dollars. The custodians have also inherited an artistic legacy dogged by lifestyle eccentricities, allegations of child molestation, and, most recently, rumors of prescription drug abuse. As co-executors of the estate, lawyer John Branca and Interscope records executive John McClain now have an opportunity to reshape the Michael Jackson brand.
"You can't look at a recording or a piece of merchandise and go, 'Gee, how much can we make from that?' " says Jeff Jampol, who manages the estates of The Doors, Janis Joplin, and Peter Tosh. "We look at, what did this artist stand for? What did this artist mean? How can this artist's ethos or zeitgeist best be expressed?"
In Jackson's case, such lofty considerations may have to wait. Mr. Branca and Mr. McClain have been granted temporary custodianship of the Michael Jackson Family Trust only until Aug. 3, when the Los Angeles Superior Court will reexamine the matter. The two men were made co-executors of the estate in Jackson's 2002 will. But a subsequent dispute with Branca was resolved only eight days before the singer's death.
In the meantime, the executors will have to address Jackson's debts, estimated at $500 million. The pop star's assets are reportedly worth $567.6 million – though his net worth is listed at $236 million – and include a 50 percent stake in Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which owns 251 songs by The Beatles as well as publishing rights to artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Lady Gaga.