The Big Business of Rock Estates
When big music stars die, renewed interest in their careers can instantly be worth tons of money. And beyond a short-term enterprise, the business of departed artists can – if managed well – be lucrative for years, feeding off the artists' legacies, work and marketable images. But who gets the money? And who gets to decide what to sell?
Those are complex questions, usually involving months of legal proceedings and business negotiations. In some cases, as with Johnny Cash's estate, for which the singer and his wife, June Carter, spelled out everything beforehand, the process can be relatively painless. In others, such as Ray Charles' estate, which is still being hashed out in court, family fights seem endless. And as reported this week, Amy Winehouse's parents will inherit her wealth by default, as the singer did not leave a will – how the estate will operate moving forward is to be determined. But after the legal issues end, most estates come to a sort of day-to-day equilibrium, handling as many as dozens of requests per week to use music or images, then rejecting the most absurd ones (Jimi Hendrix toilet paper!).
"We practice the Hippocratic Oath of rock, which is, 'First, do no harm,'" says Jeff Jampol, president of Jam Inc., which manages Janis Joplin's estate and consults with Michael Jackson's estate. "In my eyes, these artists lived and died for their legacies, and their legacies belong to them – not movie directors, not record labels, not book publishers." Here's a run-down of some of the most active, sought-after or evolving rocker estates.
Artist: Elvis Presley
Estate manager: It's complicated. Robert F.X. Sillerman – the businessman who founded SFX Entertainment and sold it to Clear Channel, which morphed into Live Nation, the world's biggest concert promoter – bought 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises for $53 million in 2004. Sillerman's company, CFx, was sold to Apollo Global Management last year. Lisa Marie, Elvis' sole heir, retains a 15 percent stake in the estate and continues to own Graceland.
Major projects: "Elvis Presley In Concert," starring a video-projected Giant Elvis along with the King's former concert bandmates, is touring Europe through the end of March.
Recent or upcoming milestones: The official Elvis website, elvis.com, is already marketing Lisa Marie Presley's album Storm & Grace, due May 15th.
Philosophy: For now, it's simply to boost yearly Graceland visitors, which dropped since the recession from roughly 600,000 to 500,000 in 2011, according to reports. But in general, Lisa Marie Presley told Rolling Stone in 2005: "I don't know if people have this misconception that we're going to build a giant casino on the lawn of Graceland, or that Elvis condoms are going to be mass-distributed throughout the world, but that's not going to happen."
Artist: John Lennon
Estate manager: Yoko Ono
Major projects: After Lennon died in 1980, his family found more than 1,500 drawings, which Ono began putting out in 1986. Ono regularly sends touring exhibits around the world to display some of these, as well as his written work.
Recent or upcoming milestones: There was a flurry of activity around John Lennon's 70th birthday on October 9th, 2010, including fan and tribute events, and a long list of remastered and repackaged Lennon recordings.
Philosophy: Ono keeps tight control over her late husband's image, songs and works, mostly choosing projects that support his famously peacenik beliefs. "Now I feel like the whole big thing of John is like an umbrella around me, protecting me. I still have emotions and an emotional life," she told The Observer in 2008. "I have decided to love all the people who miss John. A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is a reality."
Artist: Ray Charles
Estate manager: The Ray Charles Foundation, run by a board of directors including Joe Adams, 87, Charles' longtime manager, who has had "virtually unchallenged power" over the estate, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, several of Charles' 12 children have filed suit since the R&B legend's death in 2004, claiming Adams and other foundation officials have not properly protected his legacy. The dispute became especially ugly in late 2010, when the foundation sued Ray Charles Robinson Jr. and his publisher for including the singer's likeness and song lyrics in a reflective book about his father.