Category Archives: The Estate

Michael Jackson’s Halloween: Scary Enough?

“Are You Scared Yet?”

On July 11, after much fanfare and teasing, a new project from the Michael Jackson estate was officially announced.

 

by Denise Petski

Michael Jackson’s Halloween, a new, hourlong animated special, featuring the King of Pop’s music as its soundtrack, will premiere this fall on CBS.

Created and produced by Optimum Productions, the Michael Jackson company now owned by his estate, the special will feature the voices of actors Christine Baranski, Kiersey Clemons, Alan Cumming, George Eads, Brad Garrett, Lucy Liu, Jim Parsons and Lucas Till.

The special follows millennials Vincent (Till) and Victoria (Clemons), who meet “accidentally” on Halloween night and find themselves, along with Ichabod the dog, at a mysterious hotel located at 777 Jackson Street called This Place Hotel. Once inside, Vincent and Victoria are sent on an unexpected, magical adventure of personal discovery, culminating in a spectacular dance finale featuring an animated Michael Jackson.

John Branca and John McClain, co-executors of the Estate of Michael Jackson, serve as executive producers. Daniel Chuba is the producer and Mark A.Z. Dippé is the director.

Many, including myself, presumed we were finally building up for the official announcement of the long promised Thriller 3D film project. Alas, although that was not to be for this go-round, we still have a project that is centered around a Halloween theme. (Update: Thriller 3D has been scheduled to premiere at the Vienna Film Festival August 30-September 9).  However, the announcement had no sooner been made than a barrage of negative reactions swiftly engulfed social media. That’s really no surprise. These days, the announcement of any major MJ-related project is usually a polarizing affair, but this project, in particular, seems to have elicited a lot of strongly negative reactions-somewhat inexplicable, I think, given the overall benign nature of this project. Sure, it’s not Thriller 3D or Dangerous25 (a project that many were hoping to see come to light) but what could possibly be so wrong with an hour long animated special on a major network, featuring Michael Jackson’s best known dark themed works?

Well, the answer to that question is quite complex, and to fully understand it, one must take into account how deeply divided the fan base has become over the estate executors and how deeply that issue of trust vs. mistrust has become, especially when it comes to A: Projects that profit off of his legacy, and B: How that legacy is being handled.  As I have emphasized many times, I have always been and remain neutral when it comes to the politics surrounding the fandom and estate. Overall, I believe the estate has made some smart moves when it comes to preserving Michael Jackson’s legacy (This Is It,  the Cirque du Soleil Immortal show and One) but also some major missteps. The controversy over the Michael album has forever tainted any posthumous music releases, and the insistence on “contemporizing” Michael’s music (rather than simply allowing the tracks to stand on their own merit) has not helped matters. True, they did manage to wrangle a Top Ten hit with the updated “Love Never Felt So Good” but, for the most part, there have been far more misses than hits with the estate’s attempts to ignite interest in a posthumous musical career for Michael Jackson. In a recent article, in fact, it was stated that there were no future plans to release anymore music from the vaults. That is a downright shame, as they are still sitting on a ton of unreleased gems that many fans want to hear. There is certainly still a market for unreleased MJ tracks; it’s just that fans want these tracks, for the most part, in their raw but pristine state, not over produced by a Timbaland or L.A. Reid to try to mimic everything else on the radio these days.

I think it may be safe to assume, then, that the estate has not had a very good track record for its management of Michael Jackson’s posthumous musical output. I’ve said many times, if they had simply combined the best of the unreleased tracks on Michael (minus the controversial Cascio tracks) and the best of the demos that made it onto Xscape, they could have had a great posthumous MJ album. The tragedy is that, between the insistence on including debatable tracks (which weren’t exactly great tracks to begin with) and the insistence that every MJ track must somehow be “updated” to compete in today’s market, the estate has pretty much blown any confidence that fans may have once had in their ability to successfully market a musical career for Michael Jackson beyond the grave. And here we can certainly add that this shaky confidence has not been helped by the loss of the Sony/ATV catalog, nor the little matter of that 750 million dollar debt with Uncle Sam (which I will still be addressing in due time).

However, when it comes to the musical legacy that Michael created in his lifetime-those seven adult solo albums and the many classic tracks they yielded-the outlook has been much brighter. Clearly, public demand for those songs isn’t apt to disappear any time soon, and it is in the continued public demand for those songs-as well as the continued popularity of Michael’s brand and image-that largely keeps the estate’s bread buttered. The estate’s marketing of Michael Jackson’s known works has been for the most part successful, though still occasionally marred by some questionable choices (for example, licensing the use of “Bad” for Angry Birds, a move that many felt reduced the track’s powerful political message to a silly rumble between cartoon birds). Indeed, these are the kinds of arguments and debates that continue to drive the polarization of the fandom over most estate decisions. Inevitably, some are going to argue that these decisions cheapen the message of his songs and will ultimately water down the impact of his legacy, while others argue-just as vehemently-that this is exactly the kind of exposure that will keep his music, image, and memory alive for future generations.  Both arguments have their validity, and this brings me to today’s topic. Michael Jackson himself was an artist who constantly balanced the often polarizing extremes of artistic purity on the one hand, and commercialism on the other (Michael did love sales, and anyone who would wish to argue that sales did not matter to him is sadly deluded). This fact is partly what makes the posthumous marketing of Michael Jackson product a particularly challenging affair. The balance between “what Michael would have wanted,” “how Michael would have done it” and what is going to keep fans and consumers happy is a constant challenge. Even this aspect raises another interesting question: With the wealth of material and projects left behind by Michael Jackson that were completed-but have yet to receive their due-do we really need new projects that have nothing to do with him other than the lending of his name?  Here in particular (especially since we are talking a Halloween special) I am referring to the short film Ghosts,  a film whose re-release fans, including myself, have spent years clamoring for. As far as the general public is concerned, many are still unaware of this 1997 closet classic, which given the right promotional push and a little updated HD magic, could certainly still captivate a modern audience. Personally, I would love, love love to see Ghosts re-released as a major broadcast special.

However, I do think that in all fairness, we have to consider the uphill battle that the estate is against. There are some factions simply waiting to tear down and rip to shreds anything the estate does, regardless of rhyme or reason. As soon as the announcement hit, many of the reactions across social media were viscerally over the top. Granted, I think much of the negative reaction has stemmed from a long series of gradually building disappointments over estate projects, but I’m just not sure that there is anything in the idea of a Halloween cartoon special to warrant so many hostile reactions, even if, granted, the announcement of the project may not have warranted such a major buildup. This post is not intended as an outright defense of the project-which, granted, could still turn out to be a disaster-but I would like to directly address some of the criticisms that the project has raised, and why I don’t necessarily agree with all of them. For starters, a point to consider is that this is going to be a major network broadcast, which in itself speaks volumes about the renewed faith in the Michael Jackson brand. Obviously, its target audience is going to be kids, and the plan seems to be that this might develop into one of those perennial seasonal projects that returns year after year. That will depend, of course, on ratings and the overall quality of the program, all things that have yet to be proven, but the fact that CBS is willing to take its chances and broadcast a Michael Jackson themed special geared towards children speaks volumes about how far the healing process has come in the re-branding of Michael Jackson.

A recent Inquisitir article by journalist Jonathan Brown summed it up perfectly:

WHY I’M ‘THRILLED’ THAT A MICHAEL JACKSON ANIMATED SPECIAL IS HAPPENING THIS YEAR [OPINION]

Michael Jackson was pretty special to a lot of people.

Special enough, in fact, that a little more than eight years after the sudden, saddening loss of the Grammy-winning music genius, a Halloween-themed animated special centered on the beats, pops, and vocal effects that the 50-year-old left to the planet in the wake of his death, will air later this year, just in time for the annual boo-fest.

And for the record, I couldn’t be prouder, happier, and just about moved to tears to learn of this news. And also, no, I am not ashamed to own or publicize my tears. In fact, the world probably could do better with owning their feelings, kind of like Michael tried to teach all of us through his music.

But, I digress.

The reason why the news of CBS’ plan to air the one-hour long cartoon special, Michael Jackson’s Halloween, themed around the only album that could go with it, Jackson’s seminal Thriller; an album that still charts at least once a year on the Billboard Top 200 (along with a mix of MJ compilations that always include some, if not all, of the seven singles released from the nine-song long 1982 recording), is wonderful to yours truly is for one reason and one reason only.

It means that despite everything that most of us have heard about him, the thing that made Michael Jackson special; his gift of music, has finally found a way to outwit, outrun, and outlast the gossip.

And you know of the gossip, I’m sure. The many whispers. The ones that, just this week, began to hit the headlines again for the umpteenth time since the special Michael Jackson departed this Earth. Whether you believe those rumors or not is up to you, but what I believe at this moment is that for the first time since they’ve been uttered, they’re not the only focus of Michael Jackson being in the headlines.

michael jackson special
A new animated special themed around Michael Jackson’s legendary ‘Thriller’ album will air on CBS this fall. [Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

Right now, it’s also about his music. Right now, there’s also talk about whether the album is too dated for present times for a television show in 2017, or whether anyone wants to actually see a Michael Jackson Halloweenanimated special in 2017, some fans included — and no, there’s not actually wrong with having a third, for the record (following the short films for Thriller and Ghosts, of course).

But with that said, with the storm finally starting to lift on the life of someone who was far too special than anyone ever could’ve imagined, perhaps now, we can finally begin to get back to Michael Jackson’s ultimate dream of making the world a better place through his forever-amazing music.

michael jackson special
[Image by Getty Images]

Perhaps now, the young kids who this Michael Jackson animated special in geared toward, won’t grow up only knowing of him as the “joke” their parents made him out to be.

Perhaps they can be the ones to carry his music and magic over to the next generation without the shame and/or judgment that came along for us with standing by the belief that the King of Pop, Michael Joseph Jackson, the blessed son of Katherine and Joe Jackson, brother of Janet, Tito, Marlon, Randy, Rebbie, Jackie, Jermaine, LaToya, and the late Brandon, father of “Prince” Michael Jr., Paris-Katherine and Prince Michael Jackson II, whom he affectionately relayed to as Blanket for the “blanket” of love that he felt for his children, was actually a good guy.

Maybe now, in 2017, we can start reminding the world just how loving, wonderful, magical, powerful, inspirational, and special Michael Jackson truly was.

And it can all begin, ironically and finally, with a Michael Jackson animated special in 2017.

[Featured Image by Junko Kimura/Getty Images]

To add my own after thoughts to this, being “moved to tears” over this project may be a bit hyperbolic but Brown does bring up an interesting point that cannot be emphasized enough. The news of this special hit the same week that the Jimmy Safechuck case was officially dismissed, resulting in yet another round of media attacks by a desperate Vince Finaldi in order to salvage whatever chance the Robson case may have.  In the wake of Finaldi’s revenge, the fact that CBS would be broadcasting a Michael Jackson Halloween special was still considered by mainstream media as the bigger story. This is a positive no matter how you slice it, but I would still like to move beyond this (to some extent it is a given that Michael’s art will always trump the tabloid trash) to, rather, addressing some of the direct concerns about the artistic merits–or lack thereof–of this project.

By far one of the biggest criticisms the project has raised is the fact that it is a cartoon. Many of the harshest criticisms I saw could basically be summarized as the estate reducing Michael Jackson’s legacy to an animated cartoon, and how insulting this is for a serious artist. Considering Michael’s own love for animation (heck, we are talking the guy whose dream was to purchase Marvel comics!) I find these kinds of criticisms particularly baffling. Certainly Michael had always loved incorporating these kinds of fantastical, often animated, elements into his work. We know he was a huge fan of Walt Disney, that he loved comics, that he loved the idea of casting himself as these kind of comic, “Superhero” characters. In fact, a very good discussion on a recent MJ Cast episode addressed this very issue, as various points were raised both pro and con regarding the upcoming special and the entire Thriller 35 promotional campaign (of which, supposedly, this project is just one of several planned–we hope, anyway). We also know that a plan for a television Halloween special, to be broadcast on CBS,  was already being proposed as part of Michael’s planned “comeback” following the This Is It residency. However, this would have shaped up (according to Michael’s plan, at least) as something very different from the current project (though that isn’t to say that the current project bears at least some similarity in spirit). The plan that Michael drafted with Randy Phillips would have been a reworking of his “Thriller”/”Ghosts”/”Threatened” segment from the This Is It shows. Michael very much wanted to reintroduce the world to Ghosts, and the plan had been to include footage from the classic 1997 film.

The Halloween Special Jackson Was Planning For CBS Would Have Recreated Elements From His This Is It “Thriller/Ghosts/Threatened” Sequence

So the argument that this was something Michael had already planned before his death does have validity, but then becomes one of those pesky “yes, but…” kind of questions that will drive you bonkers if you find yourself drawn into a debate over it. Yes, a Halloween special was in the cards and on the drawing room table, but the actual product that Michael envisioned making would have been very different from the project that it now looks as though will actually materialize.

But in all fairness, we still have to come down to the obvious. Michael Jackson didn’t live to do his planned spectacular “Thriller”/”Ghosts”/”Threatened” segment on tour, let alone to oversee the production of this proposed Halloween special, which I’m sure would have been something quite wondrous to behold. And it goes without saying that he is not here to actually host the program as he had intended. So what to do? Well, either the idea could die with him and wither away in the vault, or the estate could try to find a way to at least partially realize this vision. Again, some will call it exploitation and others will see it as keeping his brand alive, and these days there isn’t much room for middle ground in these debates. The real challenge-and ultimate test-will be in how well the project is actually pulled off.

To that end, I have no crystal ball and certainly can’t predict how this project will play out. As it gets closer to the broadcast date, I’m sure we may start to see some trailers and other teasers that may give us a better idea of what to expect. But in the meantime, here are some points of concern that have been raised and some possible points of refutation to consider (as Michael would say, all for love, of course).

Point #1: The estate is treating Michael like a joke by reducing him to a “cartoon”:

I saw a deluge of social media outrage over the idea of portraying Michael as a cartoon. I think for many, the idea conjures up recent associations such as the hologram fiasco. However, I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with giving us either an animated Michael Jackson special, or for that matter, an animated Michael. We already know that Michael was a huge fan of animation. What’s more, a lot of younger fans (particularly those only born in the 80’s and 90’s) seem to have forgotten that many of us who grew up with The Jackson 5 also grew up with seeing Michael as a weekly, Saturday morning cartoon. The Jackson 5 cartoon was a huge favorite of fans in the early 70’s.

True, we might argue that Michael himself didn’t exactly  have much say or control over his career and image at that time (he was only a kid) but in one of his taped conversations with Rabbi Schmuley Boteach (which made it into Boteach’s 2009 The Michael Jackson Tapes) the adult Michael gave us some interesting insight on how he felt about being a Saturday morning cartoon figure:

It is very interesting here that Michael states being a part of that cartoon series was something he felt “more special about” than all of the “hit records and concerts.” He stressed the importance of the connection to children around the world, who were still watching The Jackson 5 cartoon a generation later (and no doubt are still watching it today).  Michael’s own words certainly leave little doubt how he felt about being a “cartoon figure.” He certainly didn’t view it as something demeaning or as something that belittled his image, but said, in fact, he thought it was one of the coolest experiences of his life.

Point #2: They would not do this to someone considered a “serious” musician or artist. This is proof of the estate’s ongoing refusal to take Michael Jackson seriously:

But really? I could point to at least half a dozen examples that outright refute this argument.  The most obvious, of course, would be The Beatles, who not only got the cartoon treatment in their 1968 classic Yellow Submarine but also, like The Jackson 5, as a Saturday morning cartoon. (The Osmonds, likewise, had a stint as a Saturday morning cartoon, though I suppose there could be room for debate as to whether The Osmonds count as “serious” musicians!).

But certainly being made into cartoon figures didn’t reduce the artistic status of John Lennon or Paul McCartney, so again, there is no reason to jump to the knee jerk assumption that such a project is somehow cheapening his legacy. (However, with that being said, we can still argue, Yes, but…The Beatles did maintain some degree of creative control over projects like Yellow Submarine and therein lies all the difference in the world. To that, I would say it is definitely a valid point, but The Beatles’ actual input into the finished project was actually quite minimal, as they considered the vehicle more as a convenient and quick way to wrap up their three picture commitment to United Artists).

Point #3 This project doesn’t even feature Michael Jackson until the very end. His image is nowhere to be seen in the promo. Is the estate trying to “erase” Michael Jackson from his own brand?

Where IS Michael Here? That’s The Question Some Are Asking.

Again, this was an interesting question raised on the MJ Cast webisode I linked to earlier. We are being promised that an “animated Michael Jackson” will make his appearance at the end of the special, but it seems that until then, we will simply be making do with Vincent, Victoria and “Ichabod the dog” having various spooky adventures in a haunted house (albeit, presumably, to a Michael Jackson soundtrack) for nearly an hour. This could go either way, I suppose. On the one hand, it could be a very satisfying and climactic buildup to the big moment when “MJ” actually makes his grand appearance. OR it could have the opposite effect of simply reducing his grande finale performance to a footnote at the end. Again, much is going to depend on how well the project is ultimately put together, and will the big payoff at the end be worth it? If it becomes just an hour of two animated teens having silly, lame adventures and the finale falls flat, the project will be sunk. So obviously a lot is riding on how well that finale comes off.

The premise can work IF (But Only IF) the grande finale pays off.

On the other hand, it does appear that Michael’s “presence” as such will certainly be a factor throughout the program, not only the music, of course, but in all of the various allusions to his song titles and films. It seems that at least part of the idea is that these two “millenials” will not immediately make the connections, but of course they will be very obvious winks and nods to those of us old enough to remember.

As to whether the promotional ad is a deliberate attempt to erase Michael’s image from the project, or simply to preserve the element of surprise at the end, I can’t say. I would certainly hope that it is the latter. A mystery still remaining, however, is which “era” Michael we will get when he finally does appear at the end. Is it going to be “Thriller” era Michael? Or the “Ghost” era Maestro? Or something else altogether? The one argument I would buy is that it seems the estate has continued to push “Thriller” era Michael as its brand of choice, while ignoring or downplaying much of his later, more controversial work. And it may explain in part why Dangerous 25 has been all but trumped by Thriller 35. Clearly, we know there is a very large percentage of Michael Jackson fans who remain nostalgic for 80’s era Michael, pre-vitiligo, pre-political, and pre-controversial. Is the estate catering to that faction? It would not surprise me, although we also have to remember that Bad25 was largely a commercial flop because it did not receive sufficient fan support (again, we had about roughly half the fan base actively boycotting it as an estate project) so there is that argument to be considered, and again, may have a lot to do with why no Dangerous 25 project has materialized.

For now, I am willing to give Michael Jackson’s Halloween the benefit of the doubt. My initial gut reaction to the announcement was, “It seems like a cute idea, but I’m not blown away.” As I have continued to emphasize, everything is going to depend on how well the idea is actually executed. But I would say that certainly at this point, the estate cannot afford another disappointing output. The likelihood that this is going to be something brilliant is pretty slim, but at the very least, if done right, it may turn out decently enjoyable. The sad irony here, of course, is that Michael Jackson, as we all know, was the master of perfection who never settled for mediocrity.

On the positive side, I do have much higher hopes for Thriller 3D which may possibly see a theatrical release in conjunction with the TV special. In any event, Halloween 2017 is shaping up as the season of Michael. It will be interesting to see how these projects play out. Duds or classics, the proof will be in the pudding-the pumpkin pudding, that is.

Neverland’s Sacred Spot: Recent Tour Provides An Interesting Glimpse Into How Neverland Is Being Marketed

Recently, a new video surfaced on Youtube that features a rare, inside look at what a person visiting Neverland Ranch (i.e, prospective buyers) might expect to see in 2017. The video was filmed by Coldwell Banker realtor Brad Pearson. As fans are all too aware, we got the devastating news in 2014 that Colony Capital had decided to put Neverland Ranch (re-renamed Sycamore Valley Ranch) on the market.  Compounded with the sale of the Sony/ATV catalog, the action stands as a sad reminder that much of the empire that Michael built has been slowly siphoned off. But despite the fact that Neverland has sat dormant for over a decade, ever since Michael himself abandoned the property in 2005, it is encouraging to see that the magical imprint he left there is still very much intact.

While there have been many fan videos posted from the gates of Neverland, we have had precious few glimpses-that is, recent glimpses-of what has transpired with the property since going on the market in 2014. These days, only prospective buyers and realtors are offered access to the house and grounds. It is not open for public or private tours. But for prospective buyers who just happen to be fans, it is an added bonus. At any rate, the video does offer an interesting glimpse into the manner in which Neverland is being marketed to potential buyers, and it is an encouraging sign.

The worst fear of most fans is the idea of some millionaire buyer scrubbing the property of all reminders of Michael Jackson’s residency, and turning Michael’s magical creation into just another sterile, faceless California ranch. Indeed, that could well still happen (I had shudders reading here about the proposal of Golf Digest to turn it into a golf course). But it does seem obvious that Coldwell Banker, the company currently listing the Neverland property, has made no concentrated effort to scrub the property clean of Michael Jackson’s memory, and in fact, seems to be using it as a selling point.

Neverland currently is being touted to prospective buyers pretty much exactly as Michael left it. From the first few seconds of the video to the final frame, every square inch of the property is instantly familiar, evoking the same magical feeling as it always has. True, as the articles are always quick to point out, the rides and animals are long gone, but there was always so much more to Neverland than just its mini amusement park and zoo. The main house has not been refurbished or remodeled in any way. Although the echoes of the hardwood floors are a stark reminder of the home’s emptiness, its exterior and interior are still instantly recognizable from countless photographs and TV interviews. It still reflects the tastes of the man who called it home for nearly seventeen years.

A tour of the property reveals that not much has changed since 2008. The petting zoo looks to be in very good repair, as is the train station and other amenities added by Michael during his time spent at the ranch. Visitors can still experience the tranquility of The Giving Tree; they can still observe the same diving board where Macaulay Culkin  pushed Michael into the pool in “Private Home Movies.”

But easily the most emotional-and perhaps biggest selling point of the home-is a small, square spot in the center of the studio dance floor, eternally lit by a single spotlight. It marks the scuff spots left by endless hours of diligent practice. On the wall, a video of Michael practicing to “Stranger in Moscow” in that very spot is kept on a loop. This is a spot that all potential buyers are brought to, as a reminder of what they would be purchasing; a reminder that the house does carry with it a legacy, and that the inheritance of that legacy will come along with its purchase. Of course, once the property is sold, all remnants of that legacy may remain or may be eradicated completely, depending on the whims of the new owners, but at the very least, I think it is an encouraging sign that Michael’s ownership and presence is being built up as a selling point for the property, rather than downplayed or dismissed. I think it increases the likelihood that the property could end up being purchased by a fan who respects the property as Michael Jackson’s former home. I can’t expect that a new owner would not wish to put their own stamp on the place, but I would be happy so long as I knew that Michael’s original vision for the property was still respected and maintained in some way, however great or small. That would indeed be the “best case” scenario (rumors of Prince, Paris and Blanket perhaps purchasing the property notwithstanding).

Of course, it stands to reason that it could well be more than just sentimentality that is prompting Coldwell Banker to retain as much of Michael Jackson’s presence as possible. There is also a very practical reason, as well. The additional amenities that Michael added to the property-including the  50 seat movie theater, dance studio, train station, stables, and guest cottages-have added substantially to the property’s total value.  This is confirmed by the description given on Joyce Rey’s website, the Coldwell Banker realtor who is currently handling the property. The following paragraphs all allude directly to amenities only added to the property after Michael Jackson became owner:

Adjacent to the main home is a separate staff annex above the five-bay garage, with a ground-level estate manager’s office, which has a gas fireplace and bathroom. The property also includes separate staff facilities, a movie theater and dance studio, barns, and corrals.

The primary guest house, about 150 feet from the main house, consists of four units, each with a separate entrance, HVAC, and full bath. The hill house, with sweeping views, was used by William Bone during the construction and could now be used as guest or staff quarters.

In a separate building of approximately 5,500 square feet, there is a movie theater and dance studio. The spacious, 50-seat inclined cinema has theatre-grade projection and sound system, private viewing balcony, and a stage with trap doors.

A Disney-style train station has a kitchenette, loft, and two fireplaces. There is also an approximately 1,900 square foot private fire station and administration building with three restrooms and a shower.-Joyce Rey

Click here for full article.

I also find it interesting that the tag “formerly known as Neverland Ranch” is being used prominently in the property’s promotion. What this says is that they are still very much aware that the property’s former history remains its greatest selling asset.

As encouraging as these signs are, however, it still remains the greatest hope of most fans that the property could be converted into a Michael Jackson museum. I highly encourage everyone to read this excellent new piece from Annemarie Latour, “7 Reasons Why Michael Jackson’s Neverland Should Be A Museum.”   This is not just another fan fantasy piece or sentimental fluff; it is a very enlightening piece that delves into the very realistic pros and cons of such a venture. But it is also a very poignant reminder of why such a place is so sorely needed. The absence of any true mecca is a void that Michael Jackson fans have felt keenly for the past eight years. True, we still have Hayvenhurst and we still have Michael’s childhood home in Gary, Indiana, and both have their respective place in Michael’s history. But neither of these homes were ever exclusively his (rather, they were the domain of the entire Jackson clan) and they do not represent the vision that was exclusively his. Only Neverland can provide that experience.

Latour’s article makes a good point (actually, several but this one stood out to me): After three years on the market, the property still remains unsold. That doesn’t mean it won’t sell eventually, of course. But it does say there must be something that is holding potential buyers back. Aside from the obvious fact that most people don’t just have 67 million dollars lying around to burn on real estate, perhaps there is a deeper reason. Stepping onto the grounds of Neverland now, even after twelve years, still feels like trespassing. Any potential owner has to know that, regardless of any changes or renovations made, they will be living with the ghost of Michael Jackson (and what’s more, all superstition aside, will inherit the legacy of the property as a fan gathering spot, something that won’t be easy to eradicate). I can almost imagine the ghost of Michael, mischievously interfering with every potential deal that “almost” goes through. Clearly, no matter who eventually buys Sycamore Valley Ranch, they will have only two options: Embrace its legacy as Neverland, or have a miserable life trying in vain to eradicate that legacy.  I think by now, even its sellers have had to come to terms with the fact that what they are selling isn’t just another California ranch property. What they are selling is the home and soul of Michael Jackson, and any buyer-fan or not-will have to have some measure of peace with that idea.

The sad reality is that, ultimately, once the property is sold, its new owners can do with it whatever they want. They can tear down the train station; chop down The Giving Tree; demolish the dance studio to make room for an extra golf course, and there won’t be anything that fans can do other than to accept it and move on. However, that is only the most extreme end of the scale and it seems far more encouragingly likely that Neverland’s chances of being sold to a buyer who will at least respect its heritage is extremely good, given that its former owner and his contributions to the property’s value remains its biggest selling feature. The best case scenario is that it might be purchased by a very rich fan who will not only respect what the home meant to Michael Jackson and his original vision for the property, but would even be willing to open it up for occasional private or public tours-or, better yet, someone who would find a way to finally give us that museum! But, really, I have to say from a personal standpoint that it does not matter to me as long as whoever buys it is respectful to the property, takes care of it and cherishes it as did Michael. The ideal future owner of Neverland, as I see it, is a steward who will continue to respect the unique stamp that Michael Jackson left on this property, even as they convert it into a home that will invariably reflect their own lifestyle and values.

Most importantly, they must recognize the futility of competing against a ghost. Obviously, some things due to their sacred nature should remain untouched at Neverland. The Giving Tree should be left undisturbed, and only a complete and utter fool would wish to erase those scuff marks from the dance studio floor. But true stewardship of the property must extend beyond just Michael Jackson’s memory. We must also remember that hundreds of years before Michael Jackson called Neverland home, this was also the sacred ceremonial grounds of the Chumash Indians. This was already sanctified land centuries before Jackson purchased it. Therefore, respect for the land itself and conservation of the property’s natural resources should remain the top priority of any true steward.

It is probably the wisest approach that the realtors have chosen to embrace Michael Jackson’s seventeen year residency. After all, any attempt to downplay it would only be doomed to failure. Realtor tours of the property are conducted almost as guided tours inside a superstar’s home (indeed, that seems to be the reaction of many even if that is not the actual intent of the tours; I would imagine-unless there is a stringent vetting process- they get their fair share of the simply curious who just want to see the inside of Michael Jackson’s home). Prospective buyers know what they are getting, as well as all of the history-both famous and infamous-that comes with ownership of the property. I think it is, at the very least, an encouraging sign that if Michael Jackson’s stamp on the property is used as a selling point, it is a selling point that will likely continue to hold value for its future buyer.

Three years and counting, we are still waiting anxiously to see what this next chapter reveals.

The Loss of Sony/ATV: What Does It Mean For Michael’s Legacy? And For Us?

“I’m leaving Sony a free agent…owning HALF of Sony!”-Michael Jackson, 2002.

sony

With those bravely defiant words, many wondered if Michael had, indeed, signed his own death warrant back in 2002.  An asset worth billions, the Sony/ATV catalog became both his greatest asset and biggest liability. It was undeniably the greatest coup of his business career and the crowning achievement of his business acumen. It also became the source of his biggest torment, as the rest of his life became an obsessive struggle to hold onto and to maintain this asset at all costs-even, perhaps, that of his own life.

Michael’s Famous Anti-Sony Speech From 2002:

“They want my catalog and they will kill me for it”-Michael Jackson.

sony2The news that came down from the estate last week hit like a thunderclap, and has shaken to the core the faith and goodwill of even many estate supporters.  Here is the official statement released by the Michael Jackson estate on March 14, 2016:

STATEMENT FROM THE ESTATE OF MICHAEL JACKSON TO THE FANS:

“As you may recall, last October Sony triggered the “buy-sell” clause in the partnership agreement which provides for one partner to buy out the share of the other at the highest possible price. As has now been announced, the Estate and Sony have signed a memorandum of understanding for Sony to purchase the Estate’s interest in Sony/ATV. A copy of the official press release is also being sent to you. In the intervening months, we explored several options that would have positioned the Estate as the buyer, rather than Sony, and we had substantial interest from potential partners to work with us in doing so. Ultimately, however, Sony’s offer was in the best interest of Michael’s children and we made the difficult decision to accept that offer. The arrangements will further secure the financial future of Michael’s heirs. The amount that Sony is paying, $750 million, is a substantial premium on the Estate’s interest in the company after taking into account the debt of the company, the Purchase Option and other adjustments required under the partnership agreement. It is also a huge testament to Michael’s business acumen that his original investment appreciated so substantially over the last 30 years.

There are several reasons that led to our decision. We will use a portion of the proceeds to repay the loan balance on monies borrowed by Michael and secured by his interest in Sony/ATV which means that after starting with more than $500 million in debt seven years ago, the Estate is now completely debt free with substantial assets in cash and other property. The balance of the proceeds from this sale, after taxes, fees and expenses, will be held by the Estate and ultimately will be transferred to a trust for the benefit of Michael’s beneficiaries. Furthermore, the transaction allows the Estate to diversify assets which, to date, have been highly concentrated in music intellectual property.

We would like to underline that the sale has no effect whatsoever on the 100% ownership of the publishing on all of the songs that Michael wrote, which all remain part of Mijac Music, as well as those songs written by many of Michael’s favorite songwriters, that he acquired outside of Sony/ATV. These songs include “After Midnight”, “Love Train”, “I Got A Woman”, “When A Man Loves A Woman”, “People Get Ready”, “Great Balls of Fire”, “Runaround Sue”, the entire Sly and the Family Stone catalog and other songs. The Estate also continues to own its 100% interest in all of Michael’s solo master recordings and short films. There is no intention of selling any of these wholly-owned assets.

While the sale of Michael’s interest in Sony/ATV is bittersweet for all of us – especially for those of us involved in helping Michael create this company back in 1995, the fact that we are even in this position in the first place further validates Michael’s foresight and genius in investing in music publishing. As we noted in the official press release, Michael’s ATV catalogue, purchased in 1985 for a net acquisition cost of $41.5 million was the cornerstone in the 1995 formation of Sony/ATV and, as evidenced by the value of this transaction, is still considered one of the smartest investments in music history.

We are aware that some fans were hoping that the Estate would be the buyer of Sony’s share in Sony/ATV, rather than the reverse. That was our goal as well when we started on this path last year, but ultimately, Sony’s offer made more sense for the reasons outlined above. We are dedicated to protecting and growing Michael’s legacy, and maximizing the value of his Estate for the benefit of his children. This sale allows us to protect the assets most dear to Michael (his own songs and those he acquired and retained outside of Sony/ATV), close out his debts, and continue to grow his legacy for future generations.”

For the past nearly seven years, we have witnessed some incredible triumphs on the part of the estate, but there have also been a number of disturbing lows, as little by little we have seen many of Michael’s most valuable assets being siphoned off. Sure, the estate has generated millions in profit since Michael’s death, and Branca and McClain have done a mostly admirable-if albeit occasionally controversial-job of keeping the Michael Jackson brand alive and well as a contemporary commercial commodity. And they have had to do an admirable job of maintaining this ship despite a slew of continuous lawsuits. That’s the good part. But then have also been the low points-the loss of Neverland (an asset that Michael had maintained despite no plans to ever live there again), the gradual siphoning off of many of his personal belongings (when fans have clamored for years to have a permanent museum for these items) and an IRS debt of over $750 million which remains for many a  troubling and suspicious question mark, especially for an estate that is easily worth that much and which has supposedly been debt free for over four years. How did such a discrepancy occur, and why is it that the amount for which the catalog was sold back to Sony-750,000,000-almost exactly matches the amount that is allegedly owed to the IRS? (Granted, it is still to be determined in court if the estate will actually have to pay this amount).

THE JACKSON STAKE IN SONY/ATV ” IS NOT FOR SALE ” JOHN BRANCA, 2010

2013 60 Minute Interview In Which Branca Declares, “We Are Not Sellers!”

Throughout the last week I have read all of the arguments from both sides of the pro and anti estate camp.  I am still honestly not sure exactly what to make of it all, as I am certainly not in any position to know what it’s like to juggle multi-billion dollar assets, or to unravel all of the finagled intricacies of running a music corporation or a multi-million dollar estate. However, I do know what I feel in my heart and in my gut, and I have not been able to settle either with this decision. I will just suffice it to say that it feels like a very sad day, and I can take little consolation in all of the media attempts to somehow spin this into a positive, or as some sort of grand coup for the Michael Jackson estate. However, even with that being said, I would like to wade through, for a moment, all of the raging anti and pro estate sentiments to get to the actual truth of the matter-what this sale actually means (and doesn’t mean) for the sake of Michael Jackson’s artistic legacy, the future of his estate, and the benefit of his heirs.

If you look at all of the headlines that have been spun over the past week, it would sound as if the Michael Jackson estate just gained over 750 million dollars to add to its already estimated 700 million value. Most of these articles are focusing on the obvious-that a 47,000,000 investment in 1985 has now netted over sixteen times that original investment. On paper, this certainly looks impressive-and it is.

However, that “profit” has come about due to the sale of an asset that was worth billions. I am no genius at math, but even my bonehead mathematical skills have a hard time wrapping themselves around exactly how the loss of a multi-billion dollar asset (one that contained the publishing rights of over 2,000,000 songs including many of today’s top selling artists) can in any way be construed as a profit. Although $750 million is certainly a staggering sum that most of us, even in our wildest fantasies, could hardly fathom, it is a mere drop in the bucket compared to a money making monster like the Sony/ATV catalog that, ideally, would continue generating a profit for as long as all of the music of its nearly 600+roster of music artists are selling. And which, considering that this roster includes many of music’s most legendary performers as well as many of today’s hottest selling artists, that would be for a very  long, long time to come. Seriously, has anyone ever bothered to actually look and see just how many music artists whose music publishing Michael Jackson owned a stake in? The list I linked to above is far too long to paste here, but even a casual glance at it is enough to blow any music lover’s brain! If one went by most of the media reports, one would conclude that the biggest names Michael “owned” in the industry were The Beatles, Eminem, Taylor Swift and a few token others who occasionally get mentioned in media articles about the Sony/ATV catalog. That is a gross under estimation. Michael’s music publishing empire meant that he not only had a stake in The Beatles’ publishing (arguably the biggest commercial selling act of all time) but also their arch rivals The Rolling Stones (arguably the richest white musicians on the planet!) and “The King” himself, Elvis Presley! This would mean that Michael Jackson-the only black American entertainer whose name is routinely grouped with these white legends as a serious contender for “Top Artist”  essentially “owned” a piece of all of them, as well as having complete control of his own songs and music publishing. The list goes on to include country legends like Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline (perennial sellers) to jazz legends Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, from James Brown to Little Richard (to whom Michael famously returned his own stolen song rights) and, finally, all the way up to today’s biggest selling contemporary acts such as Coldplay, Pharrell Williams, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. This meant that Michael Jackson was essentially earning a profit every time a piece of music from any of these artists’ songs  was bought, played, or licensed out, and in death, that was money that continued to be generated for his estate and its beneficiaries.

Which is why it is even more mind boggling to think that a cash sellout of 750 million-no matter how impressive that sum sounds-could begin to compare to the gross worth of the Sony/ATV catalog!

However, as a working American, I can also vouch that in the end it doesn’t matter how much your gross income may be. What ultimately matters is the net pay you are able to pocket. The money generated from such a massive asset can only be of value provided it is money that is in the clear-in other words, if it is actually generating profit. It’s no secret that Michael used the Sony/ATV catalog as constant leverage in most of his business dealings throughout the last fourteen years of his life.  But supposedly all of those debts had been cleared long ago. At least, that was the spin being given. Consider this Forbes article published in 2012, which assured us then that the last of Michael’s personal debts had been paid off and that his estate was in the financial clear.

Yesterday a representative of the singer’s estate confirmed to FORBES that, on Monday, the estate paid off the last dollars on a loan connected to Mijac Music, the catalog that’s home to many songs composed by the King of Pop, including hits like “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.”

The payment means that the estate has eliminated the last of Jackson’s outstanding personal debts (FORBES reported last month that Jackson’s personal debts would be paid off by the end of the year). That’s no small feat, considering the pile obligations–roughly half a billion dollars–left behind by the singer when he passed away in 2009.

Jackson’s estate has been able to pay off that debt earlier than expected thanks to the enduring popularity of the King of Pop and his work, which spurred earnings of $145 million over the past year alone-Excerpted from “Michael Jackson’s Personal Debts Paid Off, Just in Time For Bad 25” by Zack O’Malley Greenburg. 

So…were they just blowing smoke at us back then, or was the estate truly debt free? If the estate was  debt free in 2012, then why the excuse of selling the catalog now as a means of putting the estate in the financial clear? Certainly any additional debts accrued since 2012 can’t be blamed on Michael Jackson. So if the estate has gone into debt since allegedly being in the clear in 2012, just whose debts are they?

As for the media spin about what a smart coup and financial windfall this $750 million purchase represents for the estate, consider what Tim Ingam says in his piece “Sony’s Historic Buyout of Sony/ATV: Five Things You Need to Know”:

3) THE MICHAEL JACKSON ESTATE DID A GREAT BIT OF BUSINESS…

When announcing the sale of the Sony/ATV stake, John Branca and John McClain, Co-Executors of the Jackson Estate, made sure to note how smart a deal this was for all concerned.

In a joint statement, they said: “[Michael’s] ATV catalogue, purchased in 1985 for a net acquisition cost of $41.5 million, was the cornerstone of the joint venture and, as evidenced by the value of this transaction, is considered one of the smartest investments in music history.”

Simple maths shows they have a very solid point.

Buy for $41.5m. Sell for $750m.

That’s an 18-times return on investment.

Shamone.


4) … BUT NOT AS GREAT AS SONY

So why did Sony pay such a seemingly inflated figure for the ATV catalogue?

Because it’s considerably grown in value since 1985 – that much is obvious.

But what’s also missed out in Branca and McClain’s statement is the fact that the value of this catalogue is still growing – and fast – thanks to the changing shape of the music market… particularly streaming.

Just look at the annual revenues of Sony’s music publishing business over the past three years alone.

SonyMusicrev

Yes, publishing is dwarfed by recorded music income… but out of the two sectors, publishing is actually growing faster.

Consider that Michael himself could have easily alleviated much of his own financial debt in his lifetime by simply selling out his share of Sony/ATV, and certainly by doing so he could have also alleviated much of the burden of stress that had come with its ownership. That he chose not to do so in his lifetime certainly wasn’t for lack of interested buyers! This is from a 2004 USA today article by Gary Strauss, quoting Charles Koppelman. And keep in mind that all figures quoted here are reflective of the catalog’s worth over twelve years ago!

Jackson borrowed nearly $200 million from the Bank of America in 2001, using his stake in Sony/ATV as collateral. Industry experts value the catalog at $600 million to $1 billion, based on sales of rival catalogs in recent years. Koppelman, a veteran music industry executive, says $1 billion is more reflective of Sony/ATV’s worth.

“Buyers would be lining up around the block if it were ever put up for sale,” Koppelman says. “And I’d be in the front of the line.” 

Song publishing rights are lucrative because of their increasing use in film, commercials, video games, TV shows and other venues. Like homes in hot markets, music catalogs with prime holdings continue to rise in value.

It should be noted here that Koppelman was one of the original bidders for the catalog in 1984. He was well aware of its value then, and certainly more than well aware of its value twenty years later in 2004.

As for Michael using the catalog as collateral on his loan, it was perhaps this transaction in 2001 which gave rise to a media rumor that Michael was planning then to sell the catalog. But he made his own intentions clear in a well documented 2001 press statement:

 “I want to clarify a silly rumor: the Beatles Catalogue is not for sale; has not been for sale and will never be for sale,” Jackson said in a statement released today (May 9).

The Historic Day of Signing. Michael Merges His ATV Catalog With Sony To Become One Of The Richest Performers In The Business-And Perhaps Its Most Powerful.
The Historic Day of Signing. Michael Merges His ATV Catalog With Sony To Become One Of The Richest Performers In The Business-And Perhaps Its Most Powerful.

And, true to his word, Michael fought a heroic battle throughout his remaining decade of life to maintain his stake in Sony/ATV. It was an asset he had fought to keep as fiercely as Scarlett O’ Hara in Gone With the Wind  fought to keep Tara, and perhaps, not surprisingly, for much the same reason-it wasn’t just its net worth that mattered to him. For Michael, that 50 percent stake in Sony’s publishing represented everything he had fought and bled for, a tangible symbol of his accomplishments in an industry in which every odd had been stacked against him as a black performer who had come up from literally nothing. For him, it represented both who he was, and everything he had fought to achieve. And it is exactly for this reason that the selling out of his stake in Sony/ATV is such a bitter pill for fans to swallow.

The story is well known, but deserves repeating. Michael originally bought the ATV catalog in 1985 for what was then a mere $47.5 million, after being advised by Sir Paul McCartney that investing in music publishing would be the wisest move for the newly massively rich young entertainer to make with the millions he was generating from his massive selling Thriller album. At twenty-seven, an age when most newly rich young pop stars are blowing their money on cars, houses, drugs and women (and that is provided they live to see their twenty-eighth birthday) Michael was investing in music publishing. John Branca was instrumental then in negotiating that deal, albeit reluctantly (reportedly advising Michael at the time that it was too much money and the competition he would be facing too tough). However, Michael was adamant that this was something he wanted. It was Branca who reportedly went to McCartney’s attorney to make sure that the ex-Beatle himself had no plans to purchase the catalog. MJ fans often claim that Paul was “too cheap” to buy the catalog, but apparently there may have been a more altruistic reason as well: In a 1990 press conference, McCartney stated that he could have purchased the catalog in 1981 but refused to do so because he thought it would make him appear “too grubby” to own both his and John Lennon’s share of the songs.

Michael Didn't "Steal" Those Songs From His Friend McCartney. As He Would Say Years Later, "I Just Did Good Business."
Michael Didn’t “Steal” Those Songs From His Friend McCartney. As He Would Say Years Later, “I Just Did Good Business.”

At any rate, contrary to the popular media spin, Michael Jackson certainly didn’t “steal” the catalog from the Beatles. Both McCartney and Yoko One were given advance opportunities to purchase the catalog, and both parties declined. This meant that when Michael made the purchase in 1985, the ATV catalog was clearly available to the highest bidder-and that bidder was Michael Jackson. Media reports that snidely comment on Michael having “outbid” Paul McCartney are blatantly false. The truth was that Sir Paul never even entered a bid for the catalog.

In 1995, long before his relations with Sony soured, Michael made a monumental business decision by agreeing to merge his ATV catalog with Sony’s publishing in exchange for a 50% share of Sony’s publishing, thus forming Sony/ATV. The deal was further sweetened by the additional purchase of Famous Music in 2007, which essentially (to cut a long story very short) ensured Michael and his heirs a stake in music for films from all of Viacom’s holdings, including Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks (so, yes, it appears that in the end, Michael even had the last laugh on Spielberg and Geffen who screwed him over with DreamWorks years before!). This was also the acquisition that provided him rights to Eminem’s back catalog, as well as Beck, Bjork, Boyz To Men, Shakira, and even alternative rock acts like Modest Mouse and P.O.D. Reports on exactly how much money Michael received as a result of the Sony merger vary, but are usually quoted as somewhere between 90 to 100 million dollars. That meant that his original 47,000,000 investment  had, within ten years, already yielded an approximate 50,000,000 profit!

How much did the acquisition actually enable Michael to pocket off of the commercial use of these songs? A Los Angeles Times report , quoted in Taraborelli’s book, broke it down thus:  If “Yesterday” earned 100,000 in royalties, the Lennon and McCartney estates would receive fifty percent, which of course would be divided into 25,000 apiece. Michael would receive the remaining fifty thousand.

Although it was only a media rumor that Michael had somehow done this huge smarmy thing by “outbidding” Paul McCartney on the catalog-the media, as usual, would take their potshots at him in any way they could, as a means of deflecting his accomplishments-there is no doubt that some of Michael’s business decisions with the songs, such as licensing “Revolution” out to Nike, caused some bitter feelings on Paul’s end.

When Michael Began Licensing Beatles Music Out For Commercials, It Was A Controversial Move-But Certainly Not A Decision Out Of Step With The Times.

However, Michael looked at it from a very justifiable end-that Paul had his chance to purchase his songs, and chose to not take advantage of that opportunity. Also, we have to remember that by the late 1980’s, the licensing of classic rock songs-and even current hits-to commercials had become a booming business. From Eric Clapton to Phil Collins, to Whitney Houston and even Neil Young, the commercialization of familiar rock and pop jingles had become a staple of TV advertising (a trend that continues to this day). Despite reservations of his own, Michael had licensed his own music for use in Pepsi commercials. This was essentially the clash of the 60’s generation and their values vs. the 80’s generation, in which the 60’s had already become a romanticized era ripe for commercialization (especially as the baby boomers aged into the target demographic for many advertisers). Michael may have been born on the cusp of the baby boomer generation, but he was essentially a product of Generation X and, as such, very much a child of the 80’s. The sixteen year difference between his and McCartney’s respective ages was probably never better pronounced than in the rift that occurred over those Nike commercials. Michael believed that keeping the songs fresh and relevant for current youth by tying them to visible commodities was, in the end, a mutually beneficial arrangement, and in this regard, Michael was essentially no different from most of his 80’s contemporaries as evidenced by the proliferation of musicians turning to ad pitchmen during this era.

Just Like His Videos, Michael's Pepsi Commercials Were Some Of The Most Memorable TV Commercials Of The Era
Just Like His Videos, Michael’s Pepsi Commercials Were Some Of The Most Memorable TV Commercials Of The Era

To this argument, I suppose there is really no “right” or “wrong” way to view these matters-it is simply a difference of generational ideology, as the chasm that divided the political 60’s from the 80’s MTV generation grew wider. (It may, then, be somewhat ironic that thirty years later fans would protest the similar licensing out of Michael’s songs by his estate to companies like Jeep for TV and radio ads).

Determining how to make the best and most profitable use of these songs was, of course, part of the inherent risks and responsibilities that came with owning the catalog. But it may be worth remembering that Michael only invested in song publishing when the songs and artists in question had great personal meaning for him. From The Pop History Dig, it is quoted:

Jackson continued his search for more music catalogs to buy, but only those with songs that meant something to him.  He was shown dozens more catalogs, approaching 40 or so, but he only bid on a handful of these.

Little Richard. One Of Many Artists Whom Michael Returned Their Publishing Rights.
Little Richard. One Of Many Artists Whom Michael Returned  Publishing Rights That Had Been Stolen From Them Years Before.

When Michael did choose to bid on a catalog, it was always either because they were songs and artists he personally admired, or out of an altruistic desire (as he did in many cases with artists like Little Richard and Sly Stone) to return the songwriters their rightful profits which unscrupulous record companies had stolen years before.  This was an additional goal of Michael’s music publishing acquisitions that often goes under reported in the media, yet Michael was responsible for rescuing many black artists from dire poverty and returning them their rightful profits.

I don’t think we can even begin to under estimate what this accomplishment meant for Michael as a black entertainer and business entrepreneur. It represented a symbolic “taking back” of all that had been stolen from black artists-not just financially, but culturally and musically as well. And even if he did love The Beatles’ compositions, the sheer fact that none of these artists would have acquired their level of fame had they not ridden off the backs of under appreciated black artists could never have been too far from his consciousness.

It Was About More Than Just Money. Ownership Of The Catalog Represented A Symbolic "Taking Back" Of All That Black Artists Had Lost.
It Was About More Than Just Money. Ownership Of The Catalog Represented A Symbolic “Taking Back” Of All That Black Artists Had Lost.

The real question that has to be asked here is a very simple one, although unfortunately it isn’t a simple question that bears a simple answer: Did the estate have a real choice in this matter? In October, it was reported that Sony had triggered the clause in the contract which enabled one party to buy out the other’s share of the Sony/ATV catalog, and in the official statement from the estate, they also mention this action as one that forced their hand in this matter. Since I admittedly know little about the intricacies of legal documents, I did some research on exactly what the terminology means to “trigger” such a clause. In a nutshell, without going into a lot of legal jargon, it simply means when an agreement has been entered into between two or more parties that is contingent upon certain conditions being met, usually within a specified period of time. If those conditions are not met, then one party has the legal right to “trigger” their option to close, buy out, or take over as the case may be. From the Lexology website, a “trigger clause” is explained partly in this excerpt:

MANY contracts include a clause which provides a trigger for the activation of that contract.A common example is the clause stating that an agreement for the sale of land or property is conditional upon the approval of bond financing.Another example would be a clause rendering a contract conditional upon the passing of a shareholders’ resolution on the part of one of the contracting parties. Such a clause is referred to as a condition precedent or a suspensive condition.  

The effect of fulfilment of that condition precedent is that the whole contract becomes enforceable.This enforceability operates retrospectively as if the contract had been unconditional from the outset.Non-fulfilment of a condition precedent normally renders the contract void.  

During the period after signature of the agreement and until the fulfilment of the suspensive condition, the rights (and concomitant obligations) of the parties are held in abeyance, but there is a binding agreement between them, which neither party may renounce, pending fulfilment of the condition.  

The suspensive condition may apply to all of the rights and obligations of the parties or only to some of them.Those that are not suspended must be met, regardless.  

Where the parties have not expressly fixed a time period for the fulfilment of a suspensive condition, it is implied that it must be fulfilled within a reasonable time.What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances of that particular case. If the condition is not met within a reasonable time the contract will be void, subject to the principles which are discussed below.

In this instance, the “trigger clause” existing in the contract between Sony and Michael Jackson (and hence Michael Jackson’s estate) dates back to 2006 and a move that Michael himself initiated at that time. Despite Michael’s own defiant words against Sony in 2002, the truth is that he did do business with Sony again, although I personally believe it was more an act borne out of desperation than one of good will or, as they say, having “buried the hatchet.” The agreement that led to the clause enabling Sony the option of buying out his share of the Sony/ATV catalog was reached in 2006 when the company reportedly bailed him out of bankruptcy.

The deal, negotiated in Mr. Jackson’s suite at the Burj Al Arab hotel, saved the singer from bankruptcy. In return, Sony took greater operational control of Sony/ATV and received an option to buy half of Mr. Jackson’s share.-excerpted from “Jackson Assets Draw the Gaze of Wall Street” by Andrew Ross Sorkin and Michael J. de la Merced. 

And, quoting again from Pop History Dig:

  By April 2006, Jackson was living temporarily in Bahrain after his child molestation trial.  Needing money, Jackson again turned to the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog to help with creditors.  It appeared he would have to sell some portion of his share in the catalog to raise funds.  Instead, Sony came to the rescue and sent two executives to Bahrain.  The Sony executives negotiated a deal for Jackson that resulted in Jackson getting a lower interest rate on his $300 million debt through a refinancing arrangement.  In return, Sony gained more authority to operate Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog, and also retained an option to buy a further half of Jackson’s share.  This meant, if the option was exercised, Jackson would then only retain a 25 percent share of the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog.

We Know How He Felt THEN. But Did Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures? And If So, Could This Help Explain What Has Happened Now?
We Know How He Felt THEN. But Did Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures? And If So, Could This Help Explain What Has Happened Now?

While I certainly do not buy the media spin of Sony as knights in shining white armor sweeping in to “rescue” Michael from his financial straits, the fact remains that Michael agreed to these terms in 2006. If he had indeed filed for bankruptcy in 2006 (although to my knowledge it has never been confirmed that this was ever his intent; media reports, as always, must be taken with a heaping grain of salt) he would have certainly lost his share of the catalog, anyway. By agreeing to this deal, it enabled him to maintain this asset, but under much more precarious conditions. Not only did it mean a potentially lowered share (25% as opposed to 50%) but it also means that Sony could have opted to buy out his share at any time in the last ten years. However, despite a flurry of interest from many prospective buyers in 2009 who had their hungry eye on this golden prize, Branca remained adamant that Sony/ATV was “not for sale” -a sentiment he has expressed many times throughout the last six years. However, many fans-especially those among the anti-estate faction, are quick to point out one of Branca’s most glaring conflicts of interest-while serving as co-executor of the Michael Jackson estate, he is also a senior advisor of Sony. Certainly this would play a major hand in determining how it is that Sony-the corporation Michael hated so much that he was willing to put his life on the line to go on a major campaign against it-somehow always seems to have its hooks in him one way or another. One can only imagine how much it must have galled him to sign to those terms in 2006. But if the only viable alternative was to lose the catalog, then his decision makes perfect business sense in hindsight. Even if it came from a point of desperation, it was a decision that enabled him to keep his stake in the catalog, ensuring that himself and his children would continue to benefit from it. As usual, he was probably thinking far ahead, imagining that at some future date, he would be “back in the saddle” and in a position to dictate better terms. The agreement to this clause, while he had to have known the risks, served the purpose that was needed at the moment-it bought him valuable time. Ever optimistic, I am sure he was thinking of this as a temporary measure that would get him through the present emergency, as Michael was always certain that his next big project would put him back in the financial clear. But in so doing, it also gave him further just grounds to mistrust Sony’s motives, and contributed much to the loss of peace of mind that characterized his remaining years.

Michael's Greatest Asset...And Biggest Curse. It Brought Him Enormous Wealth and Leverage, While Systematically Destroying His Peace Of Mind.
Michael’s Greatest Asset…And Biggest Curse. It Brought Him Enormous Wealth and Leverage, While Systematically Destroying His Peace Of Mind.

 

 

 

 

accept-five

 

 

 

 

The Sony/ATV catalog became, in short, his greatest blessing and biggest curse, a metaphoric cross he carried on his back until his dying day. And many still maintain that he gave his life for it-a belief that certainly hasn’t been alleviated by this latest turn of events. For sure, the Michael Jackson estate as it currently exists has lost much of the goodwill and faith of the fan community as a result of this action. and it is going to be a long and difficult road for them now to gain it back-if they ever do. For fans who know how passionately Michael felt in his drive against Sony, and who lived with him through his fight to maintain this asset at all costs, there is no reconciliation. I understand because I have been feeling exactly those same emotions ever since the story broke. It is galling indeed to think that all of Michael’s struggles-the sheer physical, emotional and mental anguish he put himself through in order to hang onto this asset-were in vain; that in the end, it all went back to Sony, anyway.

It Was Truly David vs. Goliath...
It Was Truly David vs. Goliath…

Perhaps it was inevitable that the Goliath would eventually win out over David in the end. Michael always knew, deep down, what he was pitted against. And even though many of us like to think we can second guess what his exact future plans and moves would have been, the truth is that none of us are really in a position to make that call. Michael had known since 2006 that Sony could trigger their option to buy him out, or vice versa, at any time. Given that choice in 2016, would he have opted to hang onto the catalog-even if it meant dipping into his own cash revenue and perhaps even incurring an additional debt-or would he have opted to cash in at a 700,000,000 profit over his original investment in 1985?

...And David Won, For A Little While.
…And David Won, For A Little While.

The answer seems logical until we consider, again, the potential long term earning revenue of the catalog as opposed to a lump sum which, no matter how impressive sounding on paper, can be run through pretty quickly in the music business-all it takes is one bad business decision-one bad investment or one massive debt, to wipe it out. The truth is that we don’t know how Michael would have handled this situation, or what his future actions might have been in regard to the catalog, but if consistency is any indication, we know that he was always looking ahead to the bigger outcome. And if life circumstances had cornered him into a situation where he was forced to take the short term solution, we know it was only due to those circumstances-not because it was what he wanted, or what he knew was ultimately in his best interests. If it had been left up to Michael, he most likely would have moved proverbial heaven and earth to keep from giving up his share of Sony/ATV. I think I can speak for many of his fans when I say what hurts the most, perhaps, is simply how these matters reinforce the fact that Michael is not here to make these decisions for himself, and that it is left to others whom we can only hope are acting in the best interests of his wishes and of his children-and that, of course, is always going to be a fragile faith with few guarantees.

Ironically, in an uncharacteristic statement of support, even Joe Jackson put in a good word on the estate’s behalf:

On behalf of my wife Katherine and myself, I would like to personally thank the Executors of my Son’s Estate for a Job well done. Selling the Music catalog at the high end of today’s Market value of over 750 Million US Dollars, has secured many times over the financial future of Michael’s children: Prince, Paris and Blanket.

It is every fathers dream to secure the financial well being of his children. That is what drove me to work 2 jobs in my youth while struggling to make it through the Entertainment world.

Today, although my son Michael Joseph Jackson is no longer with us, I know he is looking down on his children from heaven as a proud father would, knowing he has secured a lifetime financial foundation for each of them.

This is certainly a very different tune from the one he was singing in this 2013 interview with Piers Morgan!

 But again, if we look at the long term prospects, the children’s future just got a whole lot shakier. On a brighter note, Prince and Paris are both entering adulthood, and will soon be able to take control of executive decisions on their behalf. An infinite source of revenue has been replaced by a finite sum that can and will run dry eventually-unless the children have inherited an ounce of their father’s business savvy, and let’s hope for their sake that they have.

Over it all, I think what most of us are truly feeling is an overwhelming sense of helplessness. I know it is what am feeling-a sense that, no matter how badly we wished for a different outcome, that we are fighting a futile battle against something much more powerful than ourselves-corporate entities and their billions of dollars. The pride that Michael took as the proverbial David who had essentially taken on and “owned” a piece of that  Goliath was a vicarious pride that reflected in all of us who admire and love him. The acquisition of Sony/ATV was more than just the greatest business coup of Michael’s career-it was, as I stated previously (but it bears repeating) the symbolic representation of what can happen when the underdog truly achieves the American Dream. One can point to any number of other such symbolic milestones in Michael’s career, from album sales to awards won. But many artists have accomplished these milestones. What Michael Jackson achieved with the acquisition of this catalog was something much greater-it promoted him from merely a phenomenally successful music entertainer to that of a powerful business icon. From that point forward, the press could belittle and mock him if they chose-but they could not ignore what he had accomplished, try to play the fact down as much as they might. The fact was, he “owned” a goodly percentage of the music industry-they all knew it, and feared it. As one fan stated on Twitter, presumably in response to a question about why it meant so much to fans for Michael to have this ownership, “because we can tell all the stans of other artists that Michael owned their asses.”

One fact that I can offer, even though I know it is of little consolation right now, is to say this-that the loss of Michael’s share in Sony/ATV in no way changes the fact that he did  own it, and that it is an accomplishment of his life and great career that is forever etched in stone. All we have to do is look at the slew of articles that have come out since the news dropped to reach one unarguable fact-one which no media outlet has been able to deny-and that is the fact that no matter how one feels personally about Michael Jackson’s move in purchasing that catalog in 1985, it was one helluva business move.

What He Accomplished Is Now Part Of Posterity. No One Can Take That Away!
What He Accomplished Is Now Part Of Posterity. No One Can Take That Away!

How his legacy will ultimately be impacted by its sale remains to be seen. Like I said, it doesn’t change “HIStory”-the world knows what he did, and what he accomplished. That is the good part. Also, we have to keep in perspective that even had Michael lived, the maintaining of this asset and its profits was never an absolute guarantee. Michael would have been well aware of the 2006 terms he signed that enabled Sony to buy out his share at any time (although in all likelihood he signed it convinced that either this condition would never be triggered or that he would be in a position to buy out Sony’s share if/when it happened). Also, there is is the issue of the Copyright Act of 1976 which would enable The Beatles and many other classic acts in the catalog to begin reclaiming their full song publishing rights as of  2013. So far, I don’t think there has been a mass exodus of artists from the catalog, but no doubt the impact of this copyright act will begin to take its toll on the catalog’s profitability, unless there is a never ending supply of fresh talent signed to Sony who are equally as profitable as these classic acts have been (however, let’s not forget that this includes streaming rights, which as of right now is the wave of the future).

 I know it is not a reassurance that will sweeten the bitter gall of feeling that Sony has somehow had the last word and last laugh, after all. To that end, I can offer nothing except to say I share the frustration, anger, and indignant helplessness that many fans are feeling right now. I don’t think that is going to alleviate any time soon. Michael wasn’t just another super rich celebrity. He was a celebrity who had worked hard and, through dent of his own determination and drive, had built a business empire. It was an empire that had remained, even though burdened with much debt at the end, an assets-rich empire, mostly because Michael had fought and struggled to maintain many of those assets even when a cash payout on any of them could have been the easy route to take. One could argue that even his signing of that 2006 agreement with Sony-bartering with the devil, so to speak-was a last ditch effort to hang onto control of this asset, by whatever means he had to undertake to do it. This is exactly why it is so frustrating now to witness what many fans can only perceive as the gradual dismantling of that empire. If we go strictly by the legal terms of the agreement Michael signed in 2006, then his estate cannot really be faulted for Sony’s decision to trigger its buy out clause. But that still leaves three very troubling questions that fans are rightfully asking, namely how does Branca’s conflict of interest as a Sony board member figure into it; is this cash payout simply intended to settle the estate’s IRS debt, and could the estate have afforded to exercise their right to buy out Sony’s share if they had really wanted to? For the latter question, we would have to consider if the millions it would have taken for the purchase-which would have come directly out of the pockets of Michael’s beneficiaries-would have been worth the investment. Michael might have said yes, but we can’t really know and, tragically, he isn’t here to make those decisions. As for whether this is money that will go towards settling Branca’s tax debt-rather than directly benefitting Michael’s heirs-only time will tell. For that matter, just how an estate worth 700 million which was supposedly debt clear only four years ago has ended up with such a hefty IRS audit remains a troubling question as well.

It is easy to feel frustrated and helpless in times like this because we all have taken pride in Michael’s accomplishments, and these losses hit us in a very personal way that I honestly do not think is shared by many celebrity fan bases. When a little piece of Michael is lost-or, as in this case, a very big piece-it somehow feels as if we have lost a tiny bit of ourselves along with it. I get that. I am feeling it, too. But looking at the overall bigger picture, fans also have to understand that when it comes to the power of corporate entities and their interests (and, yes, their greed) there is very little we can do to control that process. So (big sigh here) I have reconciled myself to taking the philosophical approach to it all. We can either expend a lot of energy ranting and raving,  feeling angry and bitter over things we can’t control, or we can focus our energy on those positive things we can control. I will stress as I always have, that the best way we can move Michael’s legacy forward is twofold-to continue to celebrate his music (which will last forever) and to carry forth his work for the planet. Those are the only real certainties we have left, and in the grander scheme of things, perhaps all that truly matter. Michael’s assets, like all material possessions of any kingdom, were bound to go the way of Ozymandias sooner or later. Just as Graceland and Strawberry Fields will one day be dust, so, too, will Neverland. What will endure will be his art; the magic he gave us, and the music we will still be discussing for at least a few hundred years to come. No amount of corporate greed can ever take that away. I know these are words that sound like poor consolation right now, and they won’t drive the bitterness away over what’s been done. Nor are they intended to appease the troubling questions of whether Michael did, indeed, die for his assets. As much as there is a part of me that still likes to believe in the basic goodness and intent of human nature, I have to keep it real. We are talking the music and entertainment business, after all-and, no, contrary to the popular media spin, I do not think for a minute that Michael’s fears of being murdered for his catalog were mere paranoia. Those fears were borne out of a reality he knew, and experienced, all too well.

I guess what I am really trying to say is that as fans, there is really only so much we can control, and it is pointless to waste fruitful energy crying over those things that are beyond our control. Many fans are now saying that the loss of Michael’s share of Sony/ATV was an inevitable conclusion. We were never going to be able to fight the interests of Sony; even Michael couldn’t, not completely,  for all that he gave it a valiant and courageous attempt. On this, there are essentially two schools of thought, both of which have been discussed quite a bit in the last week-one being that the catalog, as a representation of everything Michael had fought for, should have been retained at all costs; the other being that, as the very thing that had caused him so much torment, is perhaps better off gone.

It’s hard to know what to feel, exactly, as I can see the wisdom in both sides of this argument. And it is impossible to second guess what Michael’s own decision might have been. Some say without blinking that Michael would have never sold out; however, he did put the catalog up as collateral time and again, knowing full well the risks that would entail. Time and again, he was bailed out of those situations, but often at a cost that only meant more incurred debts-and, in the end, still no ironclad guarantee that the catalog couldn’t be taken at any time. If Michael had never signed that agreement with Sony in 2006, Sony wouldn’t have had its current option to trigger its option to buy out his share-but then, if he hadn’t signed, he stood to lose his share in 2006, anyway. It was a no-win situation that, in the end, simply appears to have bought him more time. This, of course, in no way alleviates those questions we must still ask about why the estate claimed to need this money in order to help get the estate out of the red, when they had claimed that the estate was totally in the clear four years ago. And it still doesn’t answer the troubling question of why the amount agreed upon matches, almost to the dollar, the amount that is claimed to be owed to the IRS. We might argue, of course, that none of Michael’s assets or cash would be of value to anyone, least of all his heirs, if seized by the IRS. But that only leads to even more troubling questions regarding the management of the estate, and I do think we owe it to Michael to not turn a completely blind eye to these matters. With that being said, however, I also know that it is impossible to move forward with a heart weighed down by bitterness over what’s been done, over those things we can’t control, and with vision that has been narrowed to a tunnel focus. As stated before, the only guaranteed permanent thing we ever had was Michael’s art, and this is what will be carried forth for future generations long after all the rest has been forgotten. And it is to this end that we must continue to focus the bulwark of our energy and effort.

Although my heart is heavy over this decision, there is still so much to celebrate. In Brussels, after the latest round of terrorist attacks, people gathered to sing “Heal The World.”

This bright spot in an otherwise troubled week reminded me of Michael’s unconquerable spirit, as well as the  beautiful resiliency of musical legacy which continues to bring hope to a troubled world.  In a week in which I learned of this crushing development from the MJ estate on top of personal tragedy (I lost a dear friend in a car accident) and in addition to the tragic news coming out of Brussels, it was a sight and sound that helped ground me, once again, in my faith and its unshakable belief that ” this, too, shall pass.”

His Triumphs Were Our Triumphs, Too!
His Triumphs Were Our Triumphs, Too!

Still, it is with bittersweet feelings that I write this. Michael made his stamp on the world. What he achieved, he achieved. What he accomplished, he accomplished. I think what many fear is that this latest development will somehow diminish his accomplishments and the power he once held in the music industry to a mere footnote. That is not apt to happen. Nor is this likely to have any immediate impact upon the wealth of his estate any time soon, as per Zach O’ Malley Greenburg’s most recent Forbes article:

It’s that acumen that helped Jackson earn more than $1 billion during his life and more than $1 billion after death, even before the Sony/ATV sale. His haul this year is already the highest annual total for any entertainer measured by FORBES. When the dust settles, Jackson’s total earnings could soon surpass $3 billion on both sides of the grave.

While I agree with everything Greenburg says about Michael’s business acumen, however, I’m still not so convinced of all the glowing accolades of this sale as a win-win.  For sure, these assurances still do not take away the bitter sting of knowing that the stake Michael once held in a multi-billion dollar asset will now go back to a company he deemed long ago as “the enemy.”

Inevitable, perhaps. Justifiable? That’s where it gets a whole lot murkier.

 

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