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.

Michael A. Mariant/AP
Vendors prepared a booth of Michael Jackson t-shirts outside the gates of the late pop star's former residence, Neverland Ranch, in Los Olivos, Calif., July 5.

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.

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.

The debts and disputes could be an unfortunate distraction at a time when record buyers are suddenly nostalgic for the singer. But can Jackson's posthumous comeback be sustained? Bob Lefsetz, author of an influential music industry newsletter, believes that for that to happen the Jackson estate will have to create an ongoing, event-based attraction, just as Priscilla Presley cannily turned Graceland into a tourist magnet. Given that Jackson's Neverland ranch is run down and off the beaten path, his custodians may have better success emulating The Beatles' Cirque de Soleil venture, which spawned a tie-in album and other merchandise.

"In terms of selling Michael Jackson T-shirts and tchotchkes, there is a business," says Mr. Lefsetz. "But within a very short window, that business will be reduced unless it's attached to something else."

Though the Jackson estate won't have direct control over the release of posthumous albums, Sony may wish to consult both the estate and family. "You don't want the family bad-mouthing some record," says David Browne, a contributing editor of Rolling Stone.

Also, the music industry has a tendency to plunder an artist's archives without regard to how that reflects on an overall body of work. The market has been inundated with scratchy demos, half-hearted outtakes, and uneven concert recordings by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Tupac Shakur, Jeff Buckley, and Kurt Cobain.

"It's really important to keep the quality high, it's important not to flood the market, and it's important to let time lapse," says Gregg Geller, a music producer who, in the 1980s, restored the Elvis Presley catalog following years of shoddy reissues. "It requires a great deal of restraint. Sometimes, that's hard for people at record companies to understand."


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