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More than two years after his death, Michael Jackson is still moonwalking to the bank. Already one of the best-selling artists of all time, the singer was the top-selling act of 2009, thanks to a post-mortem surge in interest in his albums. That raised his career total to more than 750 million records worldwide. This Is It, the backstage look at Jackson’s unrealized final tour, was released four months after his death and became the highest-grossing concert film ever. In the 18 months after his passing, his estate reported that it collected $310 million from music, merchandise sales, and its share of publication rights on a music catalog that includes songs by the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Jackson himself.
Now the hard part begins. As unseemly as it may sound, the first year of a celebrity’s death can be a bonanza. “When a star first dies, fans are desperate for just one more performance,” says Mark Young, a University of Southern California professor who specializes in sports and entertainment. Maintaining that buzz could be a challenge for even the King of Pop as fans move on to the next Lady Gaga-du-jour. Jackson wouldn’t be the first king to fade. The Elvis Presley estate, long the gold standard of money-making by dead stars, now has all the earmarks of an aging brand. In 2010 the estate generated $57 million for CKX (CKX), which owns the rights to the Elvis name.
Not bad for someone who’s been dead for more than 30 years. Still, tourist visits fell in five of the last six years at Graceland, Presley’s Memphis home, which provides more than half the estate’s revenue. Occupancy at the Heartbreak Hotel next door slid from 80 percent in 2006 to 67 percent in 2010. That’s a reason the estate scrapped plans to develop a hotel and convention center adjoining Graceland, taking a $900,000 write-off. “We learned a lot from the Elvis estate, and we see opportunities,” says John Branca, Jackson’s former lawyer who is co-executor for the estate with music executive John McClain.
Branca has tackled some urgent financial issues. He refinanced $300 million in debt that was pledged against the singer’s 50 percent stake in Sony/ATV (SNE), the music catalog behind much of his wealth. The estate paid off Jackson’s $4 million mortgage on the family home in Encino, Calif., and paid $35 million to concert promoter AEG to satisfy debts from the singer’s aborted tour. In all, Jackson’s debt was cut to around $300 million from $500 million. In November the estate was part of a group that agreed to pay $2.2 billion for EMI’s music publishing business, bolstering the revenue stream for its beneficiaries—Jackson’s mother Katherine, his three children, and some unnamed charities.
Now, the estate is focusing on projects to keep the Jackson flame alive for long-time fans while introducing younger audiences to his work. Jackson left behind enough music for one more album, according to a person with knowledge of the singer’s business. (A 2010 album of new songs that the estate released sold a half-million U.S. copies.) Plans for a biopic film have been shelved, however, until the right script and director come along. The executors can wait: The estate has rights to Jackson’s music, so an unauthorized film is unrealistic.
The estate signed with Ubisoft for a video game Branca hopes will help introduce a new generation to moonwalking like the master. It also paid half the $60 million production cost for Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, a show by Cirque du Soleil that opened in October. Rather than backing a show anchored on Broadway or in Las Vegas, Branca opted for a touring show in hopes that fans will bring their kids—who later may become fans themselves. The estate gets half of ticket and merchandise sales plus royalties.
Once The Immortal’s U.S. tour is over, foreign versions will continue. A permanent Cirque show will open in Las Vegas in 2013, along with an interactive museum where fans can dance with the mummies from the Thriller music video. A Broadway show and a tribute concert tour could be next. “There’s a whole generation out there who doesn’t know about Michael and his music,” says Branca. “We’re going to change that.”
The bottom line: Thanks in part to a wave of fan interest, Michael Jackson’s estate was able to trim about $200 million from his debts after his death.