Death could prove to be the solution to the financial woes that Michael Jackson refused to confront while he was alive.
The entertainer, who died last week, is believed to have been debt-laden but asset-rich. According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Jackson was almost $500-million (U.S.) in debt - the result of bad business decisions, associated lawsuits and a desire to keep living the lavish, often whimsical lifestyle he enjoyed in the mid-1980s without the vibrant musical career that had sustained it.
However, the creator of Billie Jean and Beat It had one big asset that, had he been willing to divest it, likely would have gotten him off the treadmill of the many collateralized loans he kept taking on in his final 15 years.
This was his stake in the Sony Corp./ATV Music Publishing partnership created in 1995. Ten years earlier, Mr. Jackson, flush with the astonishing worldwide success of his 1982 album Thriller, paid $47.5-million for ATV, a British licensor that held copyright to the words and music of tens of thousands of songs, including those by the Beatles, Roy Orbison, the Moody Blues, Hank Williams and Jimi Hendrix, among many others. In 1995, Mr. Jackson sold half of ATV to Sony for $150-million. Today, that company generates up to $350-million annual revenue while its value is conservatively estimated at $1-billion.
According to The New York Times, in mid-2006 Mr. Jackson was forced to sell half of his remaining 50-per-cent stake in the music catalogue to Sony for a reported $270-million to avoid defaulting on a loan. But he always resisted advice from advisers to sell his stake. According to one report, he had "an emotional tie" to the business, having bought it in large part out of a love for the Beatles.
At the time of his death, Mr. Jackson was on the verge of attempting a revival of his musical career, via a series of live performances he'd agreed to begin next month at London's 15,000-seat O2 arena. These dates, running until early March next year, were expected to gross Mr. Jackson an estimated $50-million, plus an additional $400-million if he followed them with a three-year world tour organized by his promoters, the Anschutz Entertainment Group.
However, there was general agreement this gambit alone wouldn't solve his financial troubles. What was perplexing is why Mr. Jackson even agreed to do it.
Two years earlier, he declined an epic series of concerts in Las Vegas similar to the 88-date stand that had grossed Barry Manilow almost $24-million in 2007. Perhaps, as some have speculated, time was forcing Mr. Jackson's strenuous commitment to AEG. His joint venture with Sony was set to expire in 2011, at which point the contract stipulated that one party could buy out the other.
Last spring, The Wall Street Journal reported that Sony was presuming it would exercise that right, expecting that Mr. Jackson, with his frail health as well as the millions he owed in legal fees, wouldn't be able to find a partner with sufficiently deep pockets.
While the contents of Mr. Jackson's will have not yet been disclosed, nor has there been a comprehensive accounting of the assets and liabilities faced by his estate, it seems clear that on paper at least the singer-songwriter died with sufficient assets to liquidate his more onerous debts. This, of course, leaves aside the squabbles that likely will occur over his estate in the months and years ahead.
It's also clear - and sad - that Mr. Jackson is now worth a lot more dead than alive. Sony Music, which signed him as a solo artist in the late 1970s, reportedly paid him close to $400-million in recording royalties. But most of these were generated in the artist's heyday of the 1980s.
His last album of original material, 2001's Invincible, barely sold 10 million copies worldwide. Monday, however, Amazon.com was reporting that 12 of their top 15 online music sales were of Michael Jackson titles - 700 times the usual rate .
Each fall Forbes magazine presents its list of top-earning dead celebrities. Last year, without a swivel of his hips, Elvis Presley, dead since 1977, was ranked number one for the second consecutive year, with earnings of $52-million. If the King of Rock can do that more than 30 years after being interred at Graceland, expectations are high the King of Pop can do that and a whole lot more, especially if, as The Times in London suggested yesterday, there may be an album's worth of unreleased Jackson tunes in the vaults. Momentous grief and career momentum - they seem to fit together the way Michael Jackson's hand fit his famous diamond-studded glove.